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Overture to the Tragedy, Coriolanus, Op. 62
Ludwig van Beethoven (Born December 15, 1770, in Bonn; died March 26, 1837, in Vienna)

Although Coriolanus is often identified with Shakespeare, Plutarch first told the story of the legendary Roman general, Gaius Marcus Coriolanus, who, in around 500 B.C., vanquished the Volscian tribe, captured their capital city of Corioli and took its name as his. When Coriolanus came home from battle to find that the privileges of his patrician class had been diminished, he was enraged, defected to the enemy, and led the Volscian troops against his own people. Nothing could persuade him not to destroy Rome, until his wife and mother pleaded with him. His mother succeeded where no one else could, wearing down his pride and determination. He then yielded and withdrew, abandoning his conquest and, in the end, he committed suicide.

It was Beethoven’s contemporary, the popular Austrian dramatist Heinrich Joseph von Collin (1772-1811), who inspired Beethoven to write his Overture to Coriolan, although Beethoven did know the traditional versions by Plutarch and Shakespeare. The story of Coriolanus appealed to Beethoven because of its themes of freedom for the individual, as well as daring, pride, and the power of female persuasion. The predominant themes of love and patriotism were qualities for which Beethoven had much respect. The play, Coriolan (in German) was first performed in 1802 and was very popular for several seasons, but when Beethoven wrote the Overture in 1807, it was no longer frequently performed; nevertheless, the composition quickly became a popular concert piece. It was first performed at a subscription concert in Vienna during the month of March 1807, at the palace of Beethoven’s patron, Prince Lobkowitz. 

Beethoven intended this dark, dramatic overture to present a musical portrait of the play’s hero. The first theme outlines the impulsive mood of Coriolan’s complex emotions; the more lyrical second theme may depict the pleading of the general’s wife and mother. The quiet ending of the work mirrors Coriolanus’s despair and resignation to death.

The score calls for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings.

Program notes by Susan Halpern.