I remember a teacher on a mission impossible: He tried to fascinate us for the saga of Prometheus, the bad boy of the Titans in Greek mythology: First Prometheus deceived Zeus, the top Titan, by stealing the meat meant to be a sacrificial offering and gave it to mankind of whom Prometheus saw himself as the protector. Zeus deprived mankind then of the use of fire, but Prometheus stole the divine fire and again gave it to man. As a punishment Zeus had Prometheus chained to a rock in the Caucasus and every now and then eagle shows up and gnaws at his liver. As terrific as Prometheus fate is, I wasn’t interested AT ALL at the age of 15 or 16.
As a matter of fact, today I am still not a great friend of Greek mythology. The trouble is many a composer was fascinated by Greek mythology, and Roman, Nordic, Arab, Russian mythology for that matter. Ludwig van Beethoven for instance was fascinated by Prometheus, and more specifically by the part where Prometheus forms two human shapes, male and female, out of clay and gives them life through the divine fire he had previously robbed.
In 1801 Beethoven wrote the ballet “The Creatures of Prometheus”, Op. 43, the only ballet he ever composed. The libretto was written by the dancer Salvatore Vigano, and the premiere took place on 28 March 1801 at the Burgtheater in Vienna. The ballet was given 28 performances and I guess this qualifies it as a success for the barely 30-year-old composer. The ballet has been commonly interpreted as having a hidden political message: the glorification of Napoleon Bonaparte who in 1801 could be considered by Beethoven and millions of his contemporary as representing a new kind of freedom, the freedom from absolutist monarchs. However there is no material proof that Beethoven actually had such an intention.
Unfortunately Vigano’s libretto is lost and the reconstruction of the action can only remain a rough sketch. From the program notes and reviews of the premiere and a few remarks from Beethoven himself one can deduce the following elements, says the researcher Annette Cramer in an introduction to the ballet. It has two acts and begins with the overture, that is better known as the rest of the ballet music and sometimes performed at the beginning of a concert. It has actually nothing to do with the action of the ballet.
Act 1 recounts how the two humans start to walk hesitantly and Prometheus’ joy over his feat. In the later part however Prometheus shows his disappointment that the beings he created are not able to think or to feel. In Act 2 Vigano shows how Prometheus has the brilliant idea to task the Muses on Mount Parnassus to educated his creatures, with an emphasis on lyrical works, music and dance! The muses also teach the creatures how to show gratitude.
However, Melpomene, the Muse of Tragedy, is unhappy as the creatures are not immortal and have to recognize know that their death is inevitable. She kills Prometheus to punish him, however Thalia, the Muse of Comedy, gives comfort to the lamenting crowd and Pan resurrects Prometheus. All is well, several dances of joy follow, an instrumental finale concludes the piece.
The journalist Hans-Jürgen Fink points out that the ballet gave Beethoven the opportunity to try out several instrumental combinations to provoke specific emotional effects: extended passages for strings, radical shifts in tempi*, unusual solo parts (for harps and horns) etc. Many of these elements would than later show up in his later compositions. Fascinating, isn’t it? And we haven’t even talked about the music.
The music is – simply put – splendid! Do and listen to it, for example on the recording of the Cleveland Orchestra under George Louis Lane. And, guess what? Beethoven finally got me to read the whole story of Prometheus!