In 1809, Beethoven received a commission to compose incidental music for the belated Vienna premiere of Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s Egmont. The tragic play, set in five acts, freely interpreted the heroic exploits of the sixteenth century Count Egmont, a Dutch politician and soldier who championed the liberation of the Netherlands from the autocratic rule of imperial Spain. As a consequence of his actions, Egmont was imprisoned and beheaded in 1568. Yet, his martyrdom sparked public protests which led to Dutch liberation.
Goethe’s Egmont has been described as “part historical spectacle, part love story, part character study.” (Phillip Huscher) The historical plot paralleled tumultuous events of the time. It was completed in 1788, a year before the French Revolution. The June 15, 1810 Vienna premiere coincided with the tumultuous occupation of the city by Napoleon’s army. Beethoven, who greatly admired Goethe, produced an overture and nine musical numbers, including two songs for soprano soloist.
Following the dramatic contours of the story, Beethoven’s Egmont Overture anticipates Romantic tone poems to come. It begins with a searing, multi-octave-deep F, followed by an ominous, heavy treading allusion to the Spanish triple-meter dance of the sarabande. Moments later, lonely voices cry out in the dark. The hushed, tense musical conversation is propelled forward by trembling strings. The introduction drifts away with a four-note descending motif which suddenly comes alive again with a ghostly whirlwind and launches the tempestuous Allegro section. We hear the persistent four-note rhythmic figure of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and there is a similar sense of compressed energy and heroic struggle. In his sketches, Beethoven noted that Egmont’s beheading “could be expressed by a silence.” We hear this near the end of the piece (7:20), followed by a solemn chorale in the winds. Yet it is heroic victory which has the last word in the Overture’s triumphant coda. F minor is transformed to blazing F major. The final cadential bars ring out with celebratory horn and trumpet calls, punctuated with “cheers” from the piccolo.
In the twentieth century and beyond, Beethoven’s Egmont Overture once again became a symbol of the struggle for liberty.
Kurt Masur and the Gewandhaus Orchestra have an eventful history: The conductor played a key role in the mass demonstrations of the “peaceful revolution” that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the GDR. On October 9, 1989, more than 70,000 GDR citizens protested for more democracy and freedom – on the same evening, the Gewandhaus Orchestra, conducted by Kurt Masur, played a concert in Leipzig’s St. Nicholas Church.
This concert performance, featuring Kurt Masur and Leipzig’s Gewandhaus Orchestra, commemorated the event, twenty years later:
Five Great Recordings
- Beethoven: Overture to Egmont, Op. 84, Kurt Masur, Gewandhaus Orchestra Amazon
- Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic
- George Szell and the Vienna Philharmonic
- Riccardo Chailly and the Gewandhaus Orchestra
- Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic
Featured Image: facade detail of Vienna’s Burgtheater where “Egmont” was premiered, photograph by Mihael Grmek