On July 14 last year, I wrote about Ludwig van Beethoven’s initial admiration for Napoleon Bonaparte and how he gradually became more and more disenchanted by the French emperor as Napoleon set up a repressive regime and conquered most of the European continent. Thus his third symphony was not dedicated to Napoleon, but to one of his patrons. Beethoven’s anger at Bonaparte went so far that he composed an anti-Napoleon pro-freedom piece: the incidental music for Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s play “Egmont”. Op. 84 saw the light in 1809/10 and consists of an overture, followed by a sequence of nine pieces for soprano and orchestra. A very special and most enthralling work.
Beethoven is late for the premiere
In his play, Goethe describes the life and work of the 16th century Dutch nobleman Count of Egmont. The heroic life of a man who fights oppression, his sacrifice for freedom and justice – those are the subjects of Goethe’s play and Beethoven’s composition. Beethoven wrote the piece upon a commission by the director of the Burgtheater in Vienna, Joseph Hartl. Goethe’s play was to be performed in 1810 at the Burgtheater, and Hartl needed a complete score of incidental music. Beethoven however was not ready for the premiere of the play in May, “Egmont” was only performed in its full length in July, at the third representation.
Two autonomous masterpieces
It is interesting that Goethe did not give any detailed instruction in the play when and what kind of music should be performed. He conceived the incidental music as an autonomous part and Beethoven succeeded masterfully. He went beyond what Goethe had in mind. Additionally to the two songs revolving around Clärchen, Egmont’s love, three other pieces (for Clärchen’s death, Egmont’s vision and the final curtain) and a symphonic triumph march at the end, Beethoven wrote four entractes and an overture.
The music is extraordinary in the sense that it forms a unity without the play. Goethe’s play again can be performed without music. Two geniuses, two masterworks, compatible with each other, despite the fact that Goethe finalized the play some twenty years before Beethoven composed the incidental music. The German Romantic novelist E. T. A. Hoffmann wrote in 1813 that “two great masters are linked in a wonderful work and fulfil any wish of the witty experts”.
“Die Trommel gerühret”
The heroic overture already foreshadows the tragic events to come: Egmont going to war, leaving Clärchen behind. Clärchen’s song, expressing her longing to stand by his side on the battlefield like a soldier, is impressive through the naive simplicity of the words and the way Beethoven conceived a march-like music for a female voice. If you care to listen to the recording by the Gürzenich-Orchester and the German soprano Anja Harteros, you will see what I mean.
The part for the male narrator “Süßer Schlaf” in Egmont’s visions reminds me of Schubert’s flirt with death: “Ungehindert fließt der Kreis innerer Harmonien, und eingehüllt in gefälligen Wahnsinn versinken wir und hören auf zu sein” Unfortunately, the English translation only captures part of Goethe’s mystic: The circle of inner harmonies flows without obstacles, and wrapped in charming madness, we sink and stop being. Wrapped in charming madness – that’s a quote worth being remembered.
© Charles Thibo
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