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Length: c. 8 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 3, 1922, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting
The theme of Goethe’s heroic tragedy Egmont is that of an honest man’s defiance of tyranny, a notion with which Beethoven would identify throughout his lifetime. More than one observer would regard it as a subtext of the Fifth Symphony as well. In Egmont there are words, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s, to guide us. In the Symphony, we extrapolate from the work’s general demeanor and musical symbols, and what we know of Beethoven’s character and beliefs.
Egmont and Beethoven were clearly destined for each other. Thus, when the Vienna Burgtheater asked the composer in 1809 to provide an overture and incidental music for its revival of the 1788 drama, he enthusiastically agreed.
The play, based on historical events, is set in the 16th century, in the Spanish-occupied Netherlands, where the Duke of Alba has had the Flemish champion of independence, Count Egmont, imprisoned and condemned to death. The night before his execution, Egmont’s beloved, Klärchen, appears to him in a dream as the personification of Freedom. She prophesies that his death will incite his countrymen to rebellion and the overthrow of their Spanish oppressors. And indeed his final, heroic words turn the trick.
To follow Egmont’s final exhortation to his followers, Goethe called for a “victory symphony,” something beyond words. And this Beethoven stunningly provided for both the end of the play and the end of the overture.
Ironically, Beethoven wrote the thunderous Overture as the last of his nine musical numbers, too late for the first performance of the revival on May 24, 1810. The complete score was not heard until the fourth performance, three weeks later.
- Herbert Glass