Ludwig van Beethoven ‘Egmont Overture’: A Tragic Triumph

Good afternoon readers – welcome to day ‘B’ of my August Alphabet Challenge! I did not realise just how many composer’s names begin with B until I consulted my ever-growing blog list. So after much thought I have decided to go with the classic choice of…Beethoven! I realised I hadn’t written about this composing giant and thought it was high time that changed. So this blog is going to be on Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, which I hope you’ll all enjoy!

Beethoven was born in Bonn in 1770, and from an early age he displayed a promising musical talent for both piano performance and composition. When Beethoven turned 21 he moved to Vienna (where he largely stayed until his death in 1827), where he was a student under Joseph Haydn. When he arrived in Vienna he heard the news that his father had passed away, which was also around the same time that Mozart had died. Due to the closeness of Haydn and Mozart, it has been noted that Beethoven acted as a successor to Mozart, and his music around this time has some distinct Mozartean traits. It has been extensively recorded that Beethoven started losing his hearing from about the age of 23, which gradually deteriorated until he was nearly completely deaf by the age of 46.

Beethoven is regarded as a ‘giant of classical music’ due to his extensive contribution in the crossover period between the classical and romantic eras. His life and works are frequently placed in a three-period scheme comprising of the early, middle and late periods. The late period, in particular, is very interesting as for the most part, the music composed in this time was when Beethoven was at his most vulnerable (in regards to his hearing disability). The early period was until roughly 1802, and the music composed in this period was influenced by the music of Mozart and Haydn. Famous works from this period include the First and Second symphonies and the absolutely wonderful Pathétique sonata (Op. 13). The middle period, often referred to as Beethoven’s ‘heroic period’ is packed full of dynamic works which vividly reflect the situation that Beethoven found himself in. Between the years of 1803 and 1814, Beethoven composed the main bulk of his compositions, including symphonies 3-6, a wealth of chamber music works and also his only opera, Fidelio. The music in this period is largely based on the themes of heroism and struggle, which represents the struggle Beethoven had with his deafness. Research has been extensive on the idea that Beethoven thought himself as the hero in a lot of his works, due to the very personal undertones of the other themes. From about 1815 until his death, Beethoven’s late period is well-renowned for its highly expressive, intellectual and intense works. The very famous Ninth symphony was composed within this period, and is regarded as one of his most famous works.

The Egmont Overture is the beginning of a set of incidental music that Beethoven was commissioned to write for a 1787 play of the same name by Johann Wolfgang van Goethe. The music was composed between 1809-1810, which is very much within Beethoven’s middle period of composition. The story centres around Dutch nobleman, Count Egmont, whose life and heroism is expressed boldly through the music of Beethoven. The story shows the Count’s 16-century struggle for Dutch liberty against the imperial rule of Spain. Egmont’s fight against oppression finds its climax at the end where he is sentenced to execution, but just before he delivers a speech which becomes a victorious matrydom. Whilst Beethoven was composed this work, the Napoleonic Wars were in full swing and the French Empire had dominated most of Europe. Due to this, Beethoven expressed his own political opinions within the music for this play, showing the sacrifice of a heroic man who made a stand against oppression.

The Egmont Overture is what opens the play and it is written in sonata form. The overture starts with a slow introduction (The Prison). The beginning is dark and the tonality of F minor enhances this twofold. The strings sound very dense and the tonic chord they play in unison represents the oppressive feelings of the play. The ominous undertones and the sarabande rhythms infer the role of Spain within this play. Complying to sonata form, Beethoven introduces the main themes that he will use within the overture. These can be heard in both the woodwind interjections and the strings unison motifs. This introduction is in the slightly interesting time of 3/2 which gives it a slightly unsteady feeling, which represents the political opinion of Beethoven and the hero of the play.

The exposition section (The Fight) is in 3/4 time and you can tell you’ve entered this section by the sheer fiery energy that is racing through the ensemble. As this section is the central part of the overture, it depicts the fight between Count Egmont and the oppressors. The whirling strings play an extension of a previous theme and these lead us into a collection of different phrases and melodic cells. There is a transitional modulation into the minor which is a slight break from the tension and then a previous theme from the introduction is repeated in the relative major key, and also at a much faster tempo. Beethoven cleverly creates a ‘fight’ between the orchestra within this section, which can be heard between the soft woodwinds and the harsh strings. A coda-like section leads us seamlessly into the development section. The main theme that is developed in this section seems to be repeating itself more than usual, which gives the unexpected feeling of the introduction. The change of key to that of the introduction (I believe) marks the coming of the recapitulation section.

The recapitulation section is interesting as Beethoven bends the rules of sonata form, which is that all the themes that are recapped must be in the same key as they were first heard in. However, Beethoven changes this and the themes are re-exposed in the dominant key. Beethoven also builds up much anticipation within this section, with the horns playing a large part in proclaiming the themes and the strings playing harrowing chords in a fast tempo. All of a sudden everything stops and the bassoon leads us into the coda section.

After the sudden silence from the orchestra, the coda (The Victory) starts with a new fast passage from the strings, while underneath a rumbling of the timpani is heard. The coda grows from a very quiet pp to a strong and bold ff. The triumphant fanfare heard from the brass here represents Count Egmont facing oppression and the people behind the torture. The piece ends with strong tonic chords for the final triumph of the hero.

Although the music depicts that of Goethe’s story, the music is very personal to Beethoven at the same time and the drama that unfolds in this overture alone is incredibly admirable. The overture goes through trials, tribulations, tragedy and triumph – all in about 8 minutes! This overture was a part of a new trend of programmatic overtures. The musical material and overall atmosphere of this work is often compared to that of Beethoven’s incredibly famous Fifth symphony.

Beethoven seamlessly paints with music and the atmosphere he creates is incredibly powerful. I personally really enjoy the fight section as it highlights Beethoven’s use of his orchestra and how music can powerfully sketch and idea or a moment in time. Beethoven is still today one of the most popular composers of classical music and I am sure his music will be timeless forever. I hope you’ve enjoyed this blog, and of course, the Egmont Overture. I for one have really enjoyed listening to a bit of Beethoven, as he is not my usual choice of composer (more of a 19th-20th gal myself!).

Happy listening as always and don’t forget to come back tomorrow to see what day C has in store!


Recommended recordings:

I very much like this version by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

I also love this version with the Berlin Philharmonic with Karajan conducting.