The Kennedy Center

The Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43—Overture

About the Work

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

Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus

Op. 43 (1801)

Ludwig van Beethoven

Born December 16, 1770 in Bonn.

Died March 26, 1827 in Vienna.

Salvatore Vigano was one of the great dancers of the early 19th century whose fame during his own time has been compared to that of Nijinsky a century later and Nureyev and Baryshnikov in more recent days. Though he was constantly in demand throughout Europe as performer, producer and choreographer, Vigano showed Vienna the special favor of two extended residencies, the second beginning in 1799. Late in 1800, Vigano devised the scenario for a new ballet based on the Prometheus legend, a work he intended as a compliment to Maria Theresa, second wife of the Emperor Francis. He inquired at court as to which composer might be the most suitable to engage and was informed that Beethoven, who had recently (and tactfully) dedicated the score of his Septet (Op. 20) to Maria Theresa, would be an appropriate choice. Beethoven was approached, and he agreed to undertake the project.

The following description of the ballet's plot appeared in the program for the premiere: "The foundation of this allegorical ballet is the fable of Prometheus. The philosophers of Greece allude to Prometheus as a lofty soul who drove the people of his time from 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 in this ballet; and these, through the power of harmony, are made sensitive to all the passions of human life. Prometheus leads them to Parnassus, in order that Apollo, the god of the fine arts, may enlighten them."

The ancient legend of Prometheus had taken on a certain topicality in turn-of-the-19th-century Europe because of the association of the (then) hero Napoleon with the god who stole fire from Mount Parnassus to enlighten mankind. Beethoven, in those pre-"Eroica" years, may have wanted to show his respect for the French general in this ballet, his only work in the genre. It is also likely that the composer saw something of himself in the character of Prometheus. "Music should strike fire in the heart of man," he once proclaimed. More specifically relating himself with the Prometheus legend was his statement to the Archduke Rudolph in 1823: "There is no loftier mission than to approach the Divinity nearer than other men, and to disseminate the divine rays among mankind."

The Overture to Prometheus is Beethoven's earliest work in that form, and one of his most compact. George Bernard Shaw once wrote, "When I was a boy, an overture beginning emphatically with an unprepared discord made me expect something tremendous." So begins this Overture. The characteristic tension - the expectation of "something tremendous" - generated by so many of Beethoven's works appears here in the very first measure. The electric opening chord initiates a lyrical introduction in slow tempo. The main body of the Overture follows without pause. The first theme is an energetic display of rushing scales propelled by a vibrant rhythmic energy. The second theme is a more delicate melody, entrusted to the piping flutes in duet.

The Creatures of Prometheus, standing on the threshold of Beethoven's second creative period, points forward to the substance of his later works. Of this prophetic quality, Marion M. Scott wrote, "In [Prometheus], Beethoven occupied himself with the theme of the beneficent saviour of mankind. It was a turning point in his career. His old style no longer contented him. Of conventional religion, Beethoven had none, but his mind was beginning to search into the deepest mysteries of the universe at the same time that he recognized the mission within himself that he must fulfill. The musician must be the liberator of mankind from sorrow."