Beethoven’s Overture was inspired by Heinrich von Collin’s play Coriolan, based on one of Shakespeare’s less frequently performed tragedies, Coriolanus. Collin’s play enjoyed some success on the Viennese stage for a time after its creation in 1802, subsequently fading from view. It resurfaced for a remarkable one-night stand in 1807 at the palace of Beethoven’s patron Prince Lobkowitz – a vehicle solely for Beethoven’s new Overture (he wrote no incidental music). Collin’s play then sank like a stone, while Beethoven’s tremendous Overture endures.
Beethoven no doubt identified with Shakespeare’s story of a lone man heroically bucking the system, rather than any putative improvement on the original by Collin. Thus, it is assumed that Beethoven’s Overture is “programmatic,” dealing with the Roman general Coriolanus and his contempt for the plebeians of Rome, whom he considers greedy and corrupt. He also curses the Roman Senate for bowing to the wishes of the plebeians, for which act of rebellion he and his family are exiled. Coriolanus joins the enemy side, the Volscians, whom he agrees to lead in battle against Rome. Volumnia, Coriolanus’ mother, begs her son to make his peace with Rome.
The stormy first subject of the Overture, in C minor, shows Coriolanus’ rebellious nature, the second subject (a tone higher) is associated with the gentle and humane Volumnia. Volumnia eventually seems to win her son over, but then the C-minor theme returns, with less conviction, and the music literally falls apart, as does Coriolanus, whose only possible fate is death: in Shakespeare he is killed by the Volscians, whose army he ultimately refuses to lead against Rome. In Collin, he falls on his own sword. In Beethoven he fades away, almost imperceptibly.
— Herbert Glass