Overture to Egmont, op. 84

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          Beethoven wrote almost a dozen overtures, the most famous, of course, being the four that are connected with his only opera, Fidelio. Some are awful, like Wellington’s Victory, and others are of the stellar quality that the composer’s name evokes. Without doubt, in the forefront of the latter group is the Egmont overture from 1809-10. It is a commonplace of the history of the arts that some artists create with a deep reflection of their times and circumstances (to the delight of aficionati who prize personality), while other artists are able to pursue their art in an Olympian detachment from personal circumstances. Beethoven unquestionably could work in the latter fashion, and the Overture to Egmont fits the bill. Vienna was in turmoil during the summer of 1809, owing to the occupation of Napoleon’s army, and the state of the economy and currency values added to everyone’s distress. Beethoven—always concerned with money—took it all with difficulty, but was able to put it aside and compose some of his most important works. Completion of the “Lebewohl” piano sonata and the “Harp” string quartet, as well as initial work on the “Emperor” piano concerto date from that summer, and so does the composition of Egmont. That being said, it is not difficult to draw the conclusion that much of the storm and triumph of the overture stems from the anxiety over the French invasion.           

           Beethoven was a great admirer of Goethe, and was commissioned to provide incidental music for a performance of his play about the heroic death of Count Egmont in the fight to liberate the Netherlands from Spanish rule. He finished the commission in June 1810, providing an overture and other appropriate music, lasting in all about forty minutes. The overture, in best Beethovenian fashion commences with somber gravity, a vigorous “working out” of his melodic materials in the middle section, and concludes with triumphant victory—arguably of good over evil owing to heroic strife of the individual.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan