Suite from The Creatures of Prometheus
Ludwig van Beethoven
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance (Overture and Air de Ballet): August 8, 1931, Pierre Monteux conducting
Beethoven the “Titan” and ballet? Surely an unlikely combination. Yet Beethoven is the one major composer who comes to mind who produced a large-scale dramatic ballet prior to the great Romantic era of ballet. And he, like Mozart and Haydn, then Schubert, was hardly unaccustomed to producing dance music for social occasions – minuets, contradances, ländler – at various time in his career. It was expected of him by the aristocracy and provided a bit of financial breathing room when times were tough. (And Beethoven did write his brief Ritterballet – Knights’ Ballet – in 1791, prior to settling in Vienna.)
The Italian-born and trained Salvatore Viganò (1769-1821) as well as being a dancer, was an acclaimed poet, musician, and actor. From surviving drawings of the Viganòs – Salvatore and his wife and stage partner, the Austrian ballerina Maria Medina – it can be seen that the French Revolution brought about a great simplification of ballet wear: no more the vast, movement-defying costumes for the women and heavy, buttoned shoes for both sexes. The post-Revolutionary era dictated light, flowing dresses for the women and soft, flexible footwear for both sexes – appropriate to the dance form that Viganò espoused, the coreodramma, with its elements of rhythmic intensity, pantomime serving a story line, and ensemble episodes.
Beethoven met Viganò – a nephew of composer Luigi Boccherini – in 1800, and the Italian asked the composer to join him in creating The Creatures of Prometheus..
Viganò caught Beethoven at the right time: the composer not only needed money, but was anxious to write a substantial stage work (the first draft for his only opera, Fidelio, was four years in the offing). Furthermore, the subject of the ballet, the Greek demigod Prometheus, who brought enlightenment – in the form of fire – to earth from Mount Olympus was associated in Beethoven’s mind with Napoleon, the composer’s idol until the famous episode regarding the “Eroica” Symphony in 1804 when the supposed egalitarian Napoleon had made himself emperor and Beethoven violently expunged the symphony’s dedication to him.
While the original Prometheus scenario has been lost, a publication of the time preserves what seems to be close to the “heroic and allegorical ballet” that was presented at Vienna Hofburg Theater in 1801:
“The Greek philosophers describe Prometheus as a lofty soul who found the people of his time in ignorance, refined them by means of science and the arts, and gave them manners, customs, and morals. As a result of that conception, two statues that have been brought to life are introduced into the ballet, and these through the power of harmony, are made receptive to all the passions of human existence. Prometheus leads them to Parnassus, in order that Apollo... may enlighten them. Apollo gives them as teachers Amphion, Orion, and Orpheus for music; Melpomene to teach them tragedy; Terpsichore and Pan the Shepherds’ dances; and Bacchus the heroic dance.”
Beethoven envisioned a scenario with a more prominent element of Prometheus’ rebellious nature and his punishment for disobeying the Gods, but this Viganò seemingly vetoed as being too raw for the aristocratic audience. He might as well have let Beethoven have his way, since the Viennese critics savaged The Creatures of Prometheus, condemning it as “too demanding of the intellect” (ballet was supposed to be a diversion), with the dancing overwhelmed by Beethoven’s music. One can imagine the latter being true, but lacking any visual elements the ear convinces us that Beethoven’s grand score constitutes a bridge from the Second Symphony of 1802 to the subsequent “Eroica.”
Prometheus consists of 18 numbers – some of considerable scope – including the popular overture, its only component performed out of context. Also included in one tableau is a refrain with a four-note bass that was a great favorite of the composer’s, who used it again in the finale of the “Eroica,” in a set of piano variations (the “Eroica” Variations, Op. 35), and as one of 12 Contredanses, WoO 14.
Herbert Glass, after serving on the administrative staffs of the New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Opera, was for 25 years a critic / columnist for the Los Angeles Times. He has also written for the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians and for periodicals in Europe and the United States. He recently completed his 15th season as English-language editor / annotator for the Salzburg Festival.