Overture to Coriolan Op. 62 in C minor (1807)
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Viennese playwright Heinrich von Collin’s play Coriolan shares a similar plot to that of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, and tells of an arrogant Roman general destroyed by his overbearing pride. Exiled from Rome due to his harsh treatment of the plebeians, he leads an uprising against his former masters, but retreats following the pleading of his mother and wife, ultimately dying by his own hand.
Five years after Collins’ play premiered, Beethoven composed the overture in order to curry favour with Collins and the management of the Royal Imperial Theatre in Vienna, where Beethoven hoped to gain a contract. It is a brilliant exposition of concise sonata form. Sharing the same key as the dramatic fifth symphony, the parallels with Beethoven’s own tragic life are starkly drawn.
Dramatic opening chords symbolising Coriolan’s overbearing arrogance lead to the agitated first subject, which evokes the conflicts in his mind. The woodwind then introduces the starkly contrasting tender second subject, suggesting the women pleading with Coriolan. These conflicting emotions are skilfully intertwined until ultimately the coda fades to nothingness as Coriolan falls on his sword.
Performed: 1992, 2002, June 2013