The Ruins of Athens Overture
Ludwig van Beethoven
Length: c. 5 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 horns, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances
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.)
The subjects of both plays were explicitly nationalistic and designed to flatter the Emperor. The Ruins of Athens, with many appeals to gods and muses, suggests that Pest is the heir to the cultural traditions of Athens, which was then under Turkish control. (The Turkish March is the most famous excerpt from the music.) The Overture begins with an ominous Andante con moto in G minor, which the oboe leads into a bright and energetic Allegro ma non troppo in G major, the glory of Pest contrasted with the dire fate of Athens.
— John Henken