The Kennedy Center

Egmont, Op. 84—Overture

About the Work

Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven when composing the Missa Solemnis Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

"The first casualty when war comes," observed Senator Hiram Johnson in 1917, "is truth." So when Napoleon invaded Vienna in May 1809, convinced that the Austrian Empire was the major stumbling-block to his domination of Europe, it is not surprising that censorship of literature, of the press, and of the theater were instituted immediately. The months until the French departed in October were bitter ones for the Viennese. The value of the national currency dwindled, food was in short supply, and freedoms were limited. Soon after the first of the year, with Napoleon's forces gone, the director of the Hoftheater, Josef Härtel, arranged for the production of a series of revivals of the dramas of Schiller and Goethe, the great figures of the German stage. Appropriately, two plays that he chose dealt with the oppression of a noble people by a foreign tyrant, and of the eventual freedom the patriots won for themselves — Schiller's William Tell and Goethe's Egmont.

Beethoven was commissioned to write the music for Goethe's play. (Adalbert Gyrowetz was assigned William Tell. Rossini's setting of the tale was still two decades in the future.) Egmont, based on an incident from 1567, depicts the subjugation of the Netherlands to the tyrannical Spanish rulers, the agony of the people, and their growing defiance and dreams of liberty, and ends with Count Egmont's call for revolution and his vision in the moments before his execution of eventual victory. Beethoven approached his task with zeal, out of both his unmitigated respect for the author and his humanist's belief in the freedom and dignity of man.

The theme of political oppression overthrown in the name of freedom was also treated by Beethoven in his only opera, Fidelio, and the musical process employed there also served well for Egmont. The triumph of good over evil, of light over darkness, is portrayed through the overall structure of the work: major tonalities replace minor at the moment of victory; bright orchestral sonorities succeed somber, threatening ones; fanfares displace sinuous melodies. Devoid of overtly dramatic trappings, it is the same emotional road he traveled in the Fifth and Ninth Symphonies. The incidental music to Egmont mirrors the plight of the Dutch people and their determination to be free, finishing with a Siegessymphonie, a "Symphony of Victory." The Overture compresses the action of the play into a single musical span. A stark unison begins the introduction. Twice, stern chords from the strings are answered by the lyrical plaints of the woodwinds. An uneasy hush comes over the last measures of this solemn opening. The main body of the Overture commences with an ominous melody in the cellos. A storm quickly gathers (note the timpani strokes), but clears to allow the appearance of the contrasting second theme, a quicker version of the material from the introduction. The threatening mood returns to carry the music through its developmental central section and into the recapitulation. The second theme is extended to include passages cloaked in the burnished sound of horns and winds. A falling, unison interval followed by a silence marks the moment of Egmont's death. Organ-like chords from the winds sustain the moment of suspense. Then, beginning almost imperceptibly but growing with an exhilarating rapidity, the stirring song of victory is proclaimed by the full orchestra. Tyranny is conquered. Right prevails.