The Theater of the Listener’s Imagination

Program Notes for Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, Op. 62

As Scott Burnham writes in his book Beethoven Hero, what makes Beethoven’s music so exciting and engaging is that the listeners identify with the emotions and can project their own experiences onto it. In other words, the music does not describe just one story, but is flexible enough to support multiple readings. This observation also applies to Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, which on the surface is about a Roman general, Coriolan, who turns against his own country to fight for the enemy Volscians. Does the music convey Coriolan’s inner turmoil, or does it depict his dialogue with his mother and wife—who plead with him not to attack his fatherland? The flexibility of the music permits either reading, as well as the listener’s own feeling of identification with the emotions expressed in the music.

Nicolas Poussin, Coriolanus, 1652-3, Musée Nicolas Poussin, Les Andelys.

Beethoven composed this work in 1807 for his friend Heinrich von Collin’s play Coriolan. Collin’s play is based on Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, which also served as the source of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. In contrast to Shakespeare, Collin shifts the drama inward—the play is about Coriolan’s inner moral dilemma, and the protagonist takes his own life at the end.

Beethoven’s overture is in sonata form, and begins with an introductory section featuring a series of fortissimo chords separated by rests. The first theme is in minor and sounds unstable. The contrasting second theme, now in the relative major, is lyrical and stabler. While the first theme suggests Coriolan’s dark, brooding thoughts, the second theme conjures up images of his pleading mother and his wife. The development section consists of smaller motifs taken from the exposition. The music shifts downward and features several conversation-like exchanges between the strings and woodwinds. The return of the introductory material marks the beginning of the recapitulation. While the first theme is shortened, the second one is expanded. The introductory material then returns one last time, followed by a coda in which the first theme dissolves into silence.

At the time that Beethoven composed his Coriolan Overture, he was living in Vienna and was eager to secure a more permanent position as the house composer of the Theater an der Wien. Beethoven hoped that he would eventually be able to compose an opera based on a libretto by Collin. In the meantime, Beethoven thought that the overture would demonstrate his theatrical style to his prospective employers. Though Beethoven was not offered the job at the Theater an der Wien, the directors were nevertheless very impressed by the dramatic intensity of his music. And while Collin’s play quickly disappeared after its revival in 1807, Beethoven’s overture took on a life of its own as a concert piece. The Coriolan Overture became a model for many subsequent generations of composers, and remains a staple of the symphonic repertoire to this day.

Recording Recommendations

Harnoncourt, Nikolaus. Beethoven: Overtures. Recorded with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, November 1993. Teldec 13140, 1996. CD.

Further Reading

Burnham, Scott. Beethoven Hero. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.

Kregor, Jonathan. “Expression, Musical Painting, and the Concert Overture.” In Program Music, 39-68. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Swafford, Jan. Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014.

Note: I wrote these program notes for a concert by the Gustavus Symphony Orchestra on June 25, 2016. I am very grateful to Dr. Ruth Lin for hosting my visit to Gustavus Adolphus College in March 2016.