Beethoven and the traitors: new boy band in town

When it comes to Musical History, it is undeniable that Ludwig van Beethoven is one of its greatest icons. Ill-tempered, rough, deaf (it all could be linked, of course) we know just that side of his personality which was, surely, richer. Yet we all (maybe not all: while writing this, I have VH1 running on my tv; it seems quite clear there are a lot more people than I imagined who never heard about him) know his music: epic, dramatic, sensual, full of life…But we also know that he was, almost as an exception, not particularly fond of opera. He composed just one. So, now we are producing our usual Music and History November, where are we going to find a historical piece which shows Beethoven links with History?

Not in Fidelio, his only opera, which is more political than historical. Not in his better known works, which are non-programmatic and, to some extent, quite abstract and avant-garde for his time. Maybe we could have got hold of the over-repeated anecdote of Ludwig furiously erasing the dedication to Napoleon he had written in the master copy of his third symphony (somehow fittingly called Eroica) after his hero had become the villainous conqueror of the best part of Europe…

We will have to find another source for our work. One that, nowadays, is not as fashionable as it was in the XIX, at least at theatres: incidental music. That is the kind of music one expects today in video games and the like. A couple of hundred years ago it was usual to find it when a play was played, going with the scenes or, just as in the opera, introducing the action through an overture. And that is precisely what we were looking for, a couple of overtures signed by the genius and based on historical figures. Not coincidentally, one could guess, the main characters would be tragic figures, military heroes dubbed traitors, beloved men executed as bitter enemies. In one case, we can’t be even sure about his actual existence…So, here we go. Today we are introducing Count Lamoral Egmont and General Coriolanus. A big applause for them, please!


First things first so, as Coriolanus was senior to Egmont by…well, some centuries, we will discuss him, and the piece on him, sooner. The Coriolan Overture was written by Beethoven in 1807 for a tragedy by Austrian dramatist Heinrich Joseph von Collin which depicted the life and famous death of Gaius Marcius Coriolanus, a Roman general from the 5th century BC. You may be more familiar with the play by Shakespeare, Coriolanus, which, curiously enough, has a different ending. Well, not so different in the end, as he is going to die the same. But let’s not hurry.

We don’t even know if Gaius Marcius did exist at all. First accounts come from no sooner than the third century BC and  they are not really authoritative. Modern scholars tend to believe that he is a legendary figure, representing the early struggles of Rome for its survival against local enemies and the inner fight between plebeians and patricians, or at least that his life was not exactly as recorded. In any case, the story is so powerful as to move both William Shakespeare and Ludwig van Beethoven, possibly the best in their disciplines, to work on it.


The story is sad, yet it has a familiar ring: Gaius Marcius is an officer of the Roman army during the siege of Coriolis; while on watch duty he discovers a weak point in the Volscian defenses and takes advantage of a sally from the defenders to charge through the doors with a small unit and set fire to the town, hence forcing the Volscian army to withdraw and surrender the town. Here, Gaius Marcius gains the name of “Coriolanus”.

We meet him again some years later amidst political upheaval in Rome. There’s famine, grain has to be imported, but Coriolanus advocates for putting an end on pro-plebeian political reform if they want the grain distributed. As a member of a patrician family, it seems the now general wants to reinforce his party at the price of plebeians deaths, if needed. He is trialed and convinced, then exiled. Obviously (old followers will remember our paper on Alcibiades some years ago), he goes to the enemy.

Commanding a victorious Volscian army, Coriolanus wins battle after battle, takes town after town and finally lays siege to Rome itself. Allegedly, Coriolanus would pursue his political whims even now, directing the looting and plundering to plebeian properties instead of the patrician ones.

In the end, the desperate Senate sends a final embassy, a forlorn hope, to parley with the invaders. The all women team is led by Coriolanus own mother, and his wife. Looks like a cheap trick, right? Well, it is going to succeed where politicians and priests couldn’t, adding weight to the mythical character, if not of the man, at least of the story. Coriolanus heed the pleading and puts an end to the siege (See? That is Alcibiades all over again), thus betraying the Volscians.

They are not pleased, obviously, so the fate of merciful Coriolanus is quite clear: death, either by his own hand, as Collin puts it, dishonored and ruined; or murdered by the vindictive Volscians, as Shakespeare likes it, it is all the same. Here lies Coriolanus, son, soldier, hero, traitor…


Beethoven could possibly relate, to some extent, to the story. As a Vienna inhabitant, he suffered the invasion of the French army, commanded by his once admired, later despised Napoleon, in the run to Austerlitz in 1805, a couple of years before the Overture premiered. Later on, in 1809, Vienna was sieged and bombarded to the point that Ludwig had to seek refuge in his brother Caspar’s house. After the battles of Aspern and Wagram, Napoleon ruled his ever-increasing territories from Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, and the need to accommodate the occupant French army put an overwhelming burden on the people of Vienna, including Beethoven: food was scarce, bread was made of barley. In 1811, the government declared bankruptcy, reducing the value of the florin to one-fifth. Beethoven, always worried with financial security, took a big blow as his main income, an annuity ingenuously agreed with important patrons such as the Archbishop Rudolph and Princes Lobkowitz and Kinsky, fell from 4000 to 800 florins. So he was suffering from the actions of the once a hero, now a traitor (if not to his country, evidently to some of the ideals Beethoven had thought they shared).

He could had also felt Coriolanus as someone similar to himself: harsh, with a tendency to speak out his mind maybe a tad to freely, passionate yet sometimes aloof. Ludwig had success in exile, too, albeit in very different circumstances as he went to Vienna from Bonn searching for a successful career in music and of his own accord, not pushed off by angry mobs. To some degree, he too was waging war: on critics, on deafness, on solitude. They were two of a kind.


Yet he was not probably thinking on that while composing the Overture. The piece was written to pair with the play which had been quite popular from its premiere, back in 1802, for a special performance in Beethoven’s own patron Prince Lobkowitz’s palace. Remember: Lobkowitz was paying a beautiful amount of money to Beethoven for his music. Ludwig himself conducted the orchestra. The Overture, today little known (and even less performed), was somehow detached and strangely disconnected from the play. The usual thing with overtures is that they should summarize and introduce what it is going to happen along the play. But in Coriolanus, Beethoven just took two main themes who fight each other: one is believed to represent Coriolanus himself, with the other giving voice to the supplicant women. The C (for Coriolanus?) minor tonality, quite usual in Beethoven works, sounds powerful and turbulent. The opposing tune, in E flat major, is grieving yet tender. Both interwoven up and down without necessarily follow the development of the play. The final pizzicato is open to interpretation: I like to think those are the strings that hold the life of our hero being clipped as he dies, but we don’t really know. It could well be a minor form of the well-known theme that opens the fifth symphony, which was being composed around the same time: fate knocks on the door.


Fate was also knocking on Ludwig’s life. Some of his better-known works such as the Emperor Concert, the sixth and ninth symphonies, and some of his more avant-garde piano sonatas were still to come, but his health, never very good, was deteriorating ever faster. His last years were a long painful ordeal. His dreamed of financial security was now left aside in order to procure for his nephew Karl, son to Ludwig’s brother Kaspar, whose ward he had been bitterly disputing from his sister-in-law; however, uncle and nephew were frequently at loggerheads,  yet he always treated Karl as his son and spent time and, as we said before, money in him.  As Coriolanus, he couldn’t help it: blood is thicker than water.


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