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Beethoven: Gods, Heroes, and Men / + FREE ALBUM WITH NARRATION
They spoke about it
A word from Kent Nagano
The myth of Prometheus symbolizes the European “Enlightenment” of the 18th century and was very popular in France and Germany during this period. It served, on one hand, to legitimize the rise of the bourgeoisie, and, on the other hand, to justify the self-determined individualism associated with 18th century aesthetics and the cult of “genius.” In the “Promethean spirit,” a new human being was revealed in his rebellion, a human being capable of putting the world in order by his own standards. Around 1800, the age gave birth to this type of natural ruler in the figure of Napoleon, a leader who ends the old rules and gives new laws to humankind.
It is curious, however, in view of this historic background, that the Prometheus myth never gained any real entry into the musical and theatrical productions of the time, even though heroic episodes from classical mythology were central to the operatic repertory. Not even the operas of the French Revolution attempted this theme.
All the more striking, then, is the creation-themed ballet The Creatures of Prometheus, written in 1800-1801 by Beethoven and the Italian choreographer Salvatore Vignanò (1769–1821). It stands outside of any tradition, and as a result gains even more in importance, as it must be viewed in the context of being an actual political statement. Beethoven’s music is an expression of admiration for “the Prometheus of the Age” – as Goethe and many contemporaries saw Bonaparte. We cannot fail to recognize the evidence for this in the E-flat Contredanse derived from a French operetta melody, which Beethoven made not only the basis of the ballet’s Finale, but also of the Variations for Piano in E-flat major, Op. 35, and for the Finale of the Eroica Symphony.
We may thus understand Beethoven’s music as homage to Napoleon, the contemporary perfector of a mythical humanity’s growing up. At the same time, however, we may consider its manifold idyllic character as an expression of hope for liberation from the chains of the past and for better times to come.
But the Prometheus figure is one of dazzling contradictions. Prometheus embodies a change in the world order and therefore a sign of progress in technology, science, civilization and culture.
But this leads, in consequence, to a threat to natural conditions and the foundation of life. And for that the mythical Prometheus is punished by being chained to the crags of the Taurus Mountains with the eagle devouring his liver.
Scientific and technological progress has brought humanity many advantages and relief from the harsh conditions of life. But along with it so many problems have arisen that coping with them today actually represents a challenge to our existence. “Progress” is in a very real sense a matter of life and death.
In Napoleon, many contemporaries saw the incarnation of this ambivalence. He was a liberator, but also a dealer in death. This perception is recognizable in Beethoven’s Eroica and also in the history of this symphony.
Today we know that without progress the life we are accustomed to is unsustainable. But for all that, the strain on resources and the scientific penetration of “Nature’s Secrets” are pushing humankind to the brink of the abyss.
The “Promethean Spirit” – for Beethoven and his time, a hope.
And for us today – a warning, or perhaps even worse, – a curse…
Ludwig Van Beethoven:The Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43 (excerpts)
Beethoven is not a composer who springs to mind when ballet is mentioned. His single extended score of this type, Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus (The Creatures of Prometheus), remains one of his least-known orchestral works, though the overture alone is often performed. But even before Prometheus, Beethoven had written something called Musik zu einem Ritterballet in 1791 while still living in Bonn. The music for this ten-minute equestrian ballet was at the time attributed to the producer of the show, Count Ferdinand Waldstein, who had ordered up a private performance, so when Beethoven received the commission to write the ballet music for Prometheus, he was in effect making his debut as a composer of theater music. That it was designed specifically for the pleasure of Empress Maria Theresa made the offer doubly attractive. The first performance took place on March 28, 1801 in Vienna’s Burgtheater.
Ballet was popular in turn-of-the-century Vienna, and Beethoven eagerly seized the opportunity to work with the highly regarded, immensely popular choreographer Salvatore Vignanò as a means to further his career as a composer of symphonic music. (Hitherto his principal orchestral works had been only two piano concertos and a symphony.)
Vignanò’s choreography may well have been a cut above the playful delicacies to which the Viennese were accustomed, but Beethoven’s music, strangely enough, is stylistically more attuned to the niceties of eighteenth-century Viennese classicism than to the heaven-storming pronouncements of the nineteenth-century. One needs only compare the way Beethoven treated the tune he used in both works, the popular little Contredanse to which Kent Nagano refers. Nor is the subject matter truly “Promethean.” The action centers on the title character – that much is true – but the ballet concerns neither rebellious behaviour, punishment nor heroism; instead, it focuses on the ennobling influence of the arts and on human emotions.
Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 55 “Eroica”
Critics are wont to pronounce judgments that are subsequently overturned by history, none more so than the assertion by a British writer in 1829 that Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony was “infinitely lengthy […] If this symphony is not by some means abridged, it will soon fall into disuse.” This opinion was not rashly offered in the heat of emotion following the first performance; it came nearly a quarter-century later. Yet few symphonies have acquired as secure a place in the repertory as the Eroica. Beethoven himself proclaimed it to be the favourite of his symphonies (though this was before he had written the Ninth). As for its length (50-55 minutes), it was by far the longest symphony written to date, yet it is inconceivable that a conductor today would make even the slightest cut in performance, so integral to the structure is every note of this score. Beethoven wrote most of the symphony in late 1803 (sketches had been made the previous year), and completed it in early 1804. Following several private performances, the first public performance was given in the Theater an der Wien on April 7, 1805 with the composer conducting.
In size and breadth, the Eroica far surpassed anything of its kind previously written. Its harmonic language was highly advanced for its age. The intensely strong rhythms and the plethora of jarring dissonances disturbed more than one listener at early performances. In the first movement, the dimensions of sonata-allegro form were greatly expanded. Rather than clear-cut first and second themes, Beethoven employed no fewer than eight motivic building blocks. The cornerstone of these is the triadic theme in the cellos first heard after the two shouts that open the work. Other formal features of the movement include an unusually long development section which includes a completely new theme for oboes in the remote key of E minor, a trigger-happy horn entry in the “wrong” key just before the recapitulation, and a long coda which functions as a second development section.
The second movement, entitled “Funeral March,” is one of the blackest, most intense expressions of grief ever written, grief on a heroic scale. The central fugato section suggests the grandeur of a classic Greek tragedy.
After this long, profoundly weighty movement, Beethoven recognized the need for something more than the standard graceful minuet to lift the spirits. Instead, we find a scherzo of driving rhythmic energy and inexorable momentum. Its central trio section is remarkable too, not only in its virtuosic use of horns spanning three octaves, but for the way in which it moves seamlessly back to the scherzo.
The finale – a theme with ten variations – uses for its theme the same one Beethoven had used earlier in his Prometheus ballet music. The theme makes its first appearance in the oboe and is repeated immediately by the violins. This happens not at the very outset of the movement, but several minutes later, when what originally seemed like the theme becomes merely the accompaniment for the true theme.
In contrast to the nameless critic who forecast dire failure for this symphony, let us conclude with the words of a far more astute writer, composer and former program annotator for the Cincinnati Symphony Jonathan Kramer: “Beethoven’s ambivalence toward [Napoleon] became transformed into a subjective statement on heroic birth, death, and rebirth. What Beethoven really buries (with his Funeral March) is not Bonaparte, nor even his own conflicting attitudes toward Napoleon, but the classical style in music. What is born is an overtly emotional music of unprecedented power and immediacy. The real hero of the Eroica is music itself.”
CD BONUS :
The Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43 (Text by Yan Martel, narrated in french and english)
1. Ouverture /C’est assez! / No. VIII 15:11
2. Membres du jury / No. V / Dieux et déesses / Introduction 12:07
3. Majestés de l’univers / Finale / Quoi? 11:16
4. Overture / That’s enjough! / No. VIII 15:05
5. Members of the Jury / No. V / Gods and Goddesses / Introduction 11:48
6. Your majesties of the Universe / Finale / What? 10:56