Beethoven’s “The Ruins of Athens”: Politics and the Triumph of the Muses

In 1811, Beethoven received a commission to compose incidental music for two Hungarian-themed plays by August von Kotzebue, King Stephen and The Ruins of Athens. The plays were written to commemorate the opening of a magnificent new theater in the Hungarian city of Pest on the banks of the Danube (now the eastern part of unified Budapest). The theater’s construction was funded by Franz I, the last Holy Roman Emperor and the first emperor of Austria, as a way of politically unifying Hungary with the interests of the Austrian Habsburg monarchy.

The Ruins of Athens was a masterful piece of political and cultural propaganda. In the play, the goddess Athena wakes up from a thousand year sleep and laments the state of her ruined city, which is occupied by the Ottoman Empire. With the assistance of Hermes, Athena joins Franz I at the opening of Pest’s new theater in celebration of the triumph of the muses of comedy and tragedy, Thalia and Melpomene. Athena crowns a bust of Franz I, erected by Zeus, and Hungary takes its place as the new Athens.

Beethoven’s incidental music transformed the play into a virtual operetta or Singspiel. We think of Beethoven as a composer who sculpted motivic cells into cosmic symphonies through a process of painstaking sketches. In contrast, this music was written quickly while the composer rested at the Bohemian spa of Teplitz. It is enduring popular music of the highest quality.

The opening of the Overture to The Ruins of Athens reveals a desolate and foreboding landscape. A hushed, ominous G minor is punctuated by wrenching dissonances. With the entrance of the solo oboe, sunshine breaks through the clouds. Celebration erupts amid a jubilant G major. In a fun-loving musical tribute to the muses, the mask of tragedy is replaced by comedy.

The most famous music from Beethoven’s incidental music for The Ruins of Athens is the spirited Turkish March. With cymbals blazing, it seems to begin in the distance, pass by, and then fade into the distance. In this excerpt, the Turkish March follows the exotic Chorus of Dervishes:

Beethoven: Six Variations in D, Op. 76

For the Turkish March, Beethoven returned to a melody he had written two years earlier. This charming original melody inspired six variations. Light years from the Op. 59 String Quartet we heard on Wednesday, this is the ultimate carefree party music of the early nineteenth century:

Liszt: Capriccio alla turca sur des motifs de Beethoven, S388

Franz Liszt created a Fantasy on Themes from the Ruins of Athens for piano and orchestra. Liszt’s earlier 1846 solo piano Capriccio transforms Beethoven’s Turkish March and Dervishes Chorus into a dazzling virtuoso tour de force. Beginning with an Andante fantastico filled with “diabolical trills,” the piece concludes with a thrilling eruption of keyboard fireworks. This performance features Ian Yungwook Yoo:

Recordings

  • Beethoven: The Ruins of Athens, Op. 113: Overture, Daniel Harding, Die Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen Amazon
  • Beethoven: The Ruins of Athens, Incidental Music op. 113, Bernard Klee, Berlin Philharmonic Amazon
  • Beethoven: Six Variations in D, Op. 76, Sviatoslav Richter Amazon
  • Liszt: Capriccio alla turca sur des motifs de Beethoven, S388, Ian Yungwook Yoo Naxos.com

Featured Image: The Parthenon (1871) by Frederic Edwin Church

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

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