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.
For King Stephen, Op. 117, a virtual singspiel, in which music alternates with spoken dialogue, Beethoven supplied an Overture and nine choral movements. The work paid homage to Stephen I, who founded the Kingdom of Hungary in the year 1000, and who was later sainted for converting the country to Christianity. By the end, it became as much a political celebration of the current monarch, Franz I and his wife.
Today, it is Beethoven’s festive Overture which endures. It begins with a musical “call to order” which, through a succession of falling fourths, gives us the sense of instruments warming up. A bold E-flat in the trumpets is answered by the horns, and then the strings. Amid these thundering dramatic “announcements,” cheerful strains of the score’s later women’s bridal chorus, Wo die Unschuld Blumen streute (“Where innocence strewed flowers”), emerge in the flutes and clarinets. The Overture’s Presto second theme introduces music from the finale, Heil! Heil unsern Enkeln! (“Hail, hail our grandchildren”).
Throughout the Overture, Beethoven sprinkles jubilant Hungarian folk inflections, or “Magyarisms.” Fascinatingly, in this music, which Beethoven dashed off quickly during a summer respite at the Bohemian spa, Teplitz, we hear seeds of the Ninth Symphony, which would be written more than a decade later. Mighty orchestral unisons, heard throughout the King Stephen Overture, return in the Symphony. There is also a foreshadowing of the Ode to Joy, which combines with a downward stepping bass line reminiscent of the triumphant “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel’s Messiah.
- Beethoven: King Stephen Overture, Op. 117, Riccardo Chailly, Gewandhausorchester Amazon