Beethoven: Egmont

During 1810 and 1811, Beethoven wrote the incidental music for three plays: The Ruins of Athens and King Stephen by Kotzebue, and Egmont by Goethe. The Kotzebue plays were scored for the opening of the imperial theatre in the city of Pest. The Burgtheater of Vienna was the source of the Goethe commission. This was a job that Beethoven could not turn down because of his admiration for Goethe and because of the play’s subject matter whose undertones lay close to the heart of the composer.

The Vienna production was a revival of Goethe’s play which was written in 1787. The historical play relates the fight of the 16th Century Count Egmont and his struggle against the despotic Duke of Alba. Egmont is a famous Flemish warrior and the duke of Alba represents the Spanish invader. His arrest is imminent, but Egmont refuses to run away and give up his ideal of liberty. He is imprisoned and abandoned because of the cowardliness of his people. Despite the desperate efforts of his mistress Klärchen he is sentenced to death. Faced with her failure and despair, Klärchen takes her life. The play ends on the hero's last call to fight for independence. His death as a martyr appears as a victory against oppression. This theme was quite significant because in 1809, Vienna was being occupied by the French, and the directors of the Court Theater obviously had this in mind. Beethoven composed ten pieces for the play including several songs for soprano and orchestra. The overture which you will hear momentarily is one of the finest examples of Beethoven’s heroic and dramatic style.

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