Ludwig van Beethoven: Egmont Overture
The Egmont Overture is the opening 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. 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 sixteen-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 martyrdom.
Whilst Beethoven was composing 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 opens the play, and is written in sonata form. The overture starts with a slow introduction (‘The Prison’). The beginning is dark, and the F minor tonality enhances this twofold. The strings sound dense, and the tonic chord they play in unison represents the oppressive feelings within 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 3/2 time, which gives it a slightly unsteady feeling that perhaps 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. The music 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. 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 marks the coming of the recapitulation section.
The recapitulation section is interesting as Beethoven bends the rules of sonata form: that all themes that appear in the recapitulation must be in their original key. Beethoven changes this and the themes are re-exposed in the dominant key. He 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. The overture goes through trials, tribulations, tragedy and triumph – all in eight short minutes. This overture was a part of a new trend of programmatic overtures.
Ⓒ Alex Burns
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