In 1811 Beethoven was commissioned to compose the music for the opening of a lavish new theater in Pest. August von Kotzebue wrote a trilogy of short plays on Hungarian subjects (the middle one was censored for political reasons and replaced) and Beethoven received the texts for King Stephen and The Ruins of Athens in July. Working with rare expediency, Beethoven completed overtures and incidental music - arias, choruses, marches, and melodramas - for both works quickly while taking the cure at the Bohemian spa Teplitz, even though the opening of the theater was postponed until February 1812. The music is extensive enough that these works become almost Singspiels, sort of proto-operettas mixing spoken dialog and music. Everything about the opening seems to have come off splendidly, and Beethoven's music was enthusiastically received by both public and press. (Numbers from both works, including the overtures, were published ten years later in arrangements for piano four-hands, a sure sign of a hot domestic market.)
King Stephen I was the national hero of Hungary, sainted for his efforts to Christianize the country in the 11th century. Kotzebue's little dramalet begins as a tribute to this historical figure, but diverges into the politically sound celebration of the current Emperor, Franz I, and his wife.
Beethoven's Overture to King Stephen begins with a stirring call to attention, then develops and recapitulates two different themes, both with a folksy Hungarian character. The first theme, a lilting Andante con moto featuring solo flute, is also the basis for the women's bridal chorus, "Wo die Unschuld Blumen streute" (Where innocence strewed flowers). In similar fashion, the boisterous Presto second theme provides the material for the extroverted finale, "Heil! Heil unsern Enkeln!" (Hail, hail our grandchildren).
- John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.