Wednesday, October 19, 2011

NBC Symphony: Beethoven 'Coriolanus Overture'

NBC Symphony Orchestra performs Ludwig van Beethoven's Coriolanus Overture, op. 62, Arturo Toscanini, conducting, on  December 24, 1946. It is called Coriolan in the original German, and that is how many refer to this piece.

There exist a number of extant stories on the life of the Roman leader, Gaius Marcius Coriolanus, including works by William Shakespeare and Bertolt Brecht. Beethoven composed his work in 1807, and it premiered in March of that year. It was a nod to Heinrich Joseph von Collin's 1802 tragedy of the same name. This work differs from Shakespeare's early 17th century tragedy in a number of respects, not the least of which is how General Coriolanus meets his end, choosing to die by his own hand than face a vengeful mob.

In the program notes of the San Francisco Symphony, it says:

Coriolan came early in this succession of works. The Coriolan in question is not Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, but rather a tragedy by the Court Secretary Heinrich Joseph von Collin that was premiered in Vienna on November 24, 1802. Beethoven is known to have attended that performance, where he heard the accompanying score that had been arranged from bits and pieces of Mozart’s opera Idomeneo. It’s easy to see why Beethoven liked the play, which considered the dilemma of a heroic political leader torn among the conflicting forces of patriotic impulse, family devotion, and personal pride.
In this case, Coriolan, a Roman general banished from Rome despite long and valiant service to his people, seeks vengeance by leading an opposing army against his native city; when the Romans send his own mother and wife to persuade him to withdraw, he consents to place his fate in the hands of the Roman mob, effectively choosing suicide as the only acceptable solution to his situation. Richard Wagner, in an essay about this overture, characterized the Coriolan to which Beethoven was drawn as “the man of force untamable, unfitted for a hypocrite’s humility.
In the German romantic ideas common at the time of Beethoven, Coriolanus reflects the tragic hero. E.T.A. Hoffmann wrote of the musical work: "[A]part from those expectations that will be aroused only in a few connoisseurs who truly comprehend Beethoven’s music, the composition is completely suited to awaken the specific idea that a great, tragic event will be the content of the play that follows."

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