Beethoven was the founding father of the new symphonic genre of the programme overture. The Coriolan overture (1807) was written for the eponymous tragedy by Heinrich Joseph von Collin, Beethoven’s contemporary and friend.
Heinrich Joseph von Collin (1771–1811) was a poet and playwright, all but forgotten today, though who during his lifetime was hailed and acclaimed as the “Austrian Shakespeare”. Like Shakespeare, and apparently influenced by his tragedy Coriolanus, von Collin borrows the story of the Roman general Coriolanus from Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. It was for a theatre production of the tragedy in 1807 that Beethoven wrote what was subsequently to become this famous overture.
The composer was taken by the tragic figure of Coriolanus, who turned his gift as a military leader and general against his native Rome. Banished from the city and filled with a seething desire for revenge, he led a vast army to the walls of Rome. Coriolanus is utterly unbending regarding his former compatriots, but ceding to the prayers of his mother and his wife, he lowers the sword he has raised over his native city; the proud and uncompromising warrior turns this very sword upon himself.
Beethoven’s instrumental drama with its unusual expressiveness conveys all the psychological collisions of the tragedy. The contradictions that harrow Coriolanus’ soul are reflected in the main theme, which consists of a passionate impulse and a barrier standing in his path – the sharp accords of the tutti. The tortuous contradictions, full of the drama of suffering, are shaded by the secondary theme – melodious and feminine; here we can hear intonations of prayer. The emotional tenseness of the music reaches its culmination in the reprise, when once again we can hear the powerful opening accords of the overture. They slowly fade away, the impetuous leitmotif of Coriolanus measures its own pace and, powerless, it dissolves in the barely audible pizzicato of the strings.
In the series of heroic overtures by Beethoven that sing the victorious praises of the human spirit (Egmont and Leonora), the Coriolan overture occupies a special position. It depicts the tragedy of a broken conscience. Broken, but not recalcitrant – within it there burns the eternal flame of the Promethean Beethoven.
has long ceased to be simply the number of a symphony. It can be numbered among the greatest works of art of all time, such as the poems of Homer, Dante's La Divina Commedia
, Raphael's Madonna, Cervantes' Don Quixote
, Goethe's Faust
, Bach's Mass in B Minor... It expressed the aspirations of its time like no other work, at the same time proclaiming ideals that are common to all mankind, and which still hold true today. It completed Beethoven's career as a symphony composer, and also paved the way for the future. Beethoven had taken a profoundly innovative step in introducing poetry into a symphony, and this initially stunned his contemporaries. For the composer himself the Ninth Symphony meant a release from the burden of his attempts over many years to set the words of Schiller's ode An die Freude
. It was in this guise –
not as a song or a separate chorus, but as the finale of a Choral Symphony –
as the Ninth soon came to be called –
that Beethoven finally saw the light, hearing over the mists of time one of the principal means of development of the symphony as a genre. Beethoven was the first to use words to "reveal the idea", the philosophical concept of a symphony. The most important aspect, however, was that, beginning with Beethoven, the symphony, according to the well-chosen definition of the German music critic Paul Becker, began to play the role of a "secular mass", uniting concert audiences in a common experience, similar to the way in which Sunday mass united worshippers in church. And it is no coincidence that Beethoven's peerless setting of Schiller's Ode to Joy has become the official anthem of the European Community –
the united Europe. It is no coincidence that it is regarded everywhere as the apotheosis of Freedom and the Brotherhood of all mankind. Beethoven himself conducted the first performance of his Ninth Symphony in Vienna on 7 May 1824.Iosif Raiskin