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Egmont Overture, Op 84

composer
1809/1810

 
Beethoven was asked in 1809 for music to accompany a Viennese production of Goethe’s eponymous play. He complied, fired with enthusiasm for its themes of national liberation and personal heroism, though not so much so that he could meet the deadline: the overture was only ready for the play’s fourth night in June 1810. The story is set in sixteenth-century Flanders. Egmont, a Flemish nobleman, is in love with Clärchen. His attempts to moderate tyrannical rule of the Duke of Alba meet only with arrest and excution; grief-stricken, Clärchen poisons herself. Egmont’s death becomes both tragedy and triumph because his spirit lives on to inspire the successful uprising of his people against their oppressors.

Beethoven’s response is inspired both by his love for Goethe and his enthusiasm for the post-Revolutionary wave of French composers, which lent to his works around this time (notably the Emperor Piano Concerto and Fifth Symphony) their temperament and sometimes even their ideas. Beethoven owned a copy of Cherubini’s opera Medée, for example, and his overture owes more than its key to the Frenchman’s.

But really the differences are much more striking than the similarities. Where Cherubini is all bustle, a domestic scale for a domestic tragedy, the huge, slashing chords of Beethoven’s opening, the painful chromaticism of its introduction, groping for resolution, and the sledgehammer chords that punctuate its harried Allegro theme: these are universal in ambition. The sledgehammers don’t even let up from the second theme in the woodwinds, shapely but never without the sense of fate pressing close on its heels. It is those chords that finally overwhelm all lyrical impulse: the execution is graphically achieved. And at the moment of lowest despair is the highest suspense, where a new tonic is found, C after the F minor darkness, and the Victory Symphony rings out with unstoppable ebullience. This is music of the barricades.

from notes by Peter Quantrill © 2010

Recordings

Beethoven & Mendelssohn: LCO Live
SIGCD200Download only

Track-specific metadata for SIGCD200 track 1

Artists
ISRC
GB-LLH-10-20001
Duration
8'08
Recording date
19 September 2007
Recording venue
St John's, Smith Square, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Raphaël Mouterde
Recording engineer
Mike Hatch & Mike Cox
Hyperion usage
  1. Beethoven & Mendelssohn: LCO Live (SIGCD200)
    Disc 1 Track 1
    Release date: January 2010
    Download only
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