Overture Magazine - 2015-2016 Season March-April 2016 - Page 24

{ program notes that also figures in Friedrich Schiller’s classic play Don Carlos and Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Don Carlo — was very much in the air in Vienna at this time. In 1786, the great German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 –1832) had completed a play on the subject, and in turn, Schiller touched up Goethe’s play for its Viennese premiere in May 1810. It was customary then for composers to create overtures and incidental music to enhance spoken dramas. When Beethoven was asked to participate in the production of Egmont, he readily assented. He even waived any fee for his work and wrote that he took on the assignment “only out of devotion to [Goethe].” The composer revered Goethe as the greatest man of their era and had already written a number of songs set to his poetry. Beyond his generalized admiration for men like Egmont who lived and died for their ideals, Beethoven found contemporary relevance in this story from the already distant past. In 1809, Napoleon had invaded Austria and even bombarded and occupied Vienna. By 1810, this foreign conqueror— and Beethoven’s fallen idol—had been driven from Austrian soil, but the bitter memories of that occupation were still fresh for the composer. We usually only hear the superb Egmont Overture, but at these concerts we will also have the privilege of experiencing the other nine numbers Beethoven created for this production, including several orchestral sequences, two songs and a powerful melodrama for speaker and orchestra. A virile, martial portrait of the play’s protagonist, the famous Overture in F Minor, a key Beethoven associated with deepest tragedy, foretells Egmont’s fate with the ominous chords of its slow introduction. Egmont’s heroic struggle against oppression is sketched in the Allegro main section. Then, after a quiet linking passage, comes the exhilarating coda, now in F Major. This is the music of the “Victory Symphony” (Siegessymphonie), the play’s finale, with Egmont’s triumph-in-death shouted out by the entire orchestra, dominated by the brass and those famous exuberant flourishes of the piccolo. 22 O v ertur e | www. bsomusic .org Beethoven A drum roll awakens Egmont to face his death with fearless exultation, knowing his fight has not been in vain. Balancing Egmont himself, Goethe’s play also emphasizes a female character Clärchen, Egmont’s fiancée, who —like Leonore in Fidelio — struggles bravely to save her lover, but in this case is unsuccessful. Beethoven created two contrasting songs for her, carefully crafted not to overtax the modest abilities of the actress playing the role. In her spirited song from Act I, “Die Trommel gerühret” (“The Drum Rolls”), Clärchen longs to be a man so she can join her lover in battle. From Act III, “Freudvoll und leidvoll” (“Joyful and Sorrowful”) is a touching portrait of her sensitive nature and her complete devotion to Egmont as she awaits his visit. Beethoven composed four musical entr’actes to bridge the play’s five acts. In keeping with the traditional practices of his time, they are divided between a first section echoing the emotions of the previous act and a second section looking ahead to the events of the act to come. Thus, the First Entr’acte begins as a gentle Andante for strings and woodwinds reflecting the domestic scene in Clärchen’s home that closes Act I, then shifts to energetic Allegro con brio music with fiercely rushing strings to foretell Egmont’s plotting to free his people from Spanish oppression. The Second Entr’acte, linking Acts II and III, is more unified: mostly quiet, expectant music in Beethoven’s heroic key of E-flat Major anticipating the fatal events ahead with distant fanfares and drum rolls. Again in a contrasting two-section shape, the Third Entr’acte immediately follows the scene between Egmont and Clärchen in Act III, and so its first section, featuring wonderful solos for the oboe (the instrument Beethoven chose to represent Clärchen), elaborates on her lovely song “Freudvoll und leidvoll.” Its second section forecasts Act IV in a crescendoing march announcing the arrival of the Spanish Duke of Alba’s army to quell Egmont’s rebellion and the frightened response of the Flemish people. As Act IV closes, Egmont is arrested and condemned. The Fourth Entr’acte mourns his downfall with beautiful, sorrowing music in the heroic key of E-flat. The more animated second section describes Clärchen’s frantic, futile efforts to save her lover, with her signature oboe portraying her love and courage. The drama’s two great emotional crises are also heightened by musical numbers. In Act V, in despair over Egmont’s impending execution, Clärchen takes poison and dies. Beethoven’s subtle music in D Minor for this scene, “Clärchen’s Tod,” is among the score’s finest, again with its prominent, poignant writing for oboe. In the same act, Egmont in his prison cell awaits his summons to the scaffold. In his sleep, he sees a vision of Clärchen looking joyfully down from Heaven; she holds out a laurel crown to him signifying his ultimate victory as the Flemish will indeed be freed from Spanish rule (an event that would not come for another century). Using a popular device of his era, Beethoven sets this scene as a Melodrama, a spoken text over music describing Egmont’s vision. A drum roll awakens Egmont to face his death with fearless exultation, knowing his fight has not been in vain.