The Kennedy Center

Coriolan, Op. 62—Overture

About the Work

Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven when composing the Missa Solemnis Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven
© Richard Freed

Untitled Document

Beethoven's Overture for Heinrich Joachim von Collin's drama Coriolan, composed early in 1807, was given its first performance in March of that year at Prince Lobkowitz's residence in Vienna. Hans Kindler conducted the National Symphony Orchestra's first performance of the Overture, on February 11, 1934; Bruno Weil conducted the most recent ones, on September 9 and 10, 2004.

The score, dedicated to Collin, calls for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns and trumpets, with timpani and strings. Duration, 8 minutes.

Gaius Marcius, the hero of Corioli in the fifth century B.C., took the name Coriolanus from his victory there, just as the young Russian Prince Alexander Yaroslavich of Vladimir was given the name Nevsky after his victory over the Teutonic knights on the River Neva some 1,700 years later. More of us know Coriolanus from Shakespeare's play than from history books, and Shakespeare still has the last word on this subject, even—and in fact particularly—in discussions of this overture in C minor which Beethoven composed for a German play (hence the title Coriolan rather than Coriolanus) by his friend Heinrich Joachim von Collin, who served as Court secretary in Vienna.

"How nobly the character of Coriolanus is mirrored in Beethoven's music is well enough known," Alexander Wheelock Thayer wrote in his biography of the composer; "but the admirable adaptation of the overture to the play is duly appreciated only by those who have read Collin's almost forgotten play." By the time Thayer wrote those words, in 1866, the "almost" was only a gracious gesture toward Collin, and there have been numerous others who have felt the music was really Beethoven's response to the more familiar Shakespeare play after all. One of these among Thayer's contemporaries was Richard Wagner. A later commentator, Sir Donald Francis Tovey (1875-1940), remembered now for his eminently quotable Essays in Musical Analysis, took the view that writing an overture for Collin's play simply served as a pretext for Beethoven's concerning himself with Shakespeare. He observed that, while both the plot and the dénouement of Collin's version "are eminently un-Shakespearean," both Collin and Beethoven had read Shakespeare, "who breaks through like Nature in Beethoven's music."

The same writer commended Wagner, "who did well to ignore everything but Shakespeare and Beethoven" in his own analysis of the overture, and "was right in describing Beethoven's overture as a musical turning-point in Shakespeare's Coriolanus, the scene in the Volscian camp before the gates of Rome." Tovey's essay ends with the quotation of a substantial passage from that scene (Act V, Scene 3), which he describes as "Shakespeare's analysis of Beethoven's Coriolanus."

It might be said that the Overture goes beyond Collin and Shakespeare, either or both of whom might simply have triggered the "heroic" stimulus to which Beethoven responded so abundantly and so powerfully during the years in which he composed all the music in the present concerts. The music conveys the spirit of high tragedy and heroic resolve in its stark outline, its stabbing thrusts, and the poignantly lyric theme that provides an underlayer of humanity and compassion.