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
As the musicologist Paul Mies has remarked, heroism was close to Beethoven’s own personality and it was a major concern of his times. It is not surprising then, that in his comparatively rare forays into music for the theater Beethoven proved most attracted to protagonists who dared much against repressive forces.
Egmont would certainly be a case in point. In 1809 Beethoven was commissioned to compose incidental for the belated Vienna premiere of the play by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1754-1832). This was Goethe’s free interpretation of the titular Count Egmont’s 16th-century struggle for Dutch liberty against the autocratic imperial rule of Spain. Egmont is imprisoned and sentenced to death, and when Klärchen, his mistress, fails to free him, she commits suicide. Before his own death, Egmont delivers a rousing speech and his execution becomes a victorious martyrdom in a fight against oppression.
Beethoven’s incidental music begins with a powerful, strikingly original overture that summarizes the course of the drama, from its ominous slow introduction (suggesting the oppressive tread of Spain with the rhythm of the sarabande) to the manic transformation of tragedy into triumph in a brilliant coda, which Beethoven echoed at the end of the play as a Victory Symphony. (Beethoven conducted the Overture in another charity concert in Vienna in March 1814, coupled with Wellington’s Victory.)