Week 31 – Beethoven’s Blog

Posted on August, 13th 2021

Egmont Overture, Op. 84

Ludwig van Beethoven and Johan Wolfgang von Goethe were two of the dominant intellectual forces of the early 1800s in Europe. They were well acquainted with each other with much mutual admiration. However, they were friends with reservations. Goethe thought that Beethoven was somewhat of a sans culotte, a ruffian, ill-mannered and crude, but a tremendous genius. Beethoven appreciated Goethe’s work, especially those with noble and aspirational themes for the common man, however, he was put off by his deference to nobility and in that sense – a lack of spine. There is a famous anecdote about the two of them walking along, perhaps in the Stadt Park in Vienna, when a group of the nobility approached them from the opposite direction. Goethe stepped aside and bowed deeply as they passed whereas Beethoven just marched right through them without so much as nodding his head. He reproached Goethe afterwards and said, “You must understand that they should be bowing to us!” Such was Beethoven.

Inspired by Goethe’s play, Beethoven wrote an overture and nine incidental pieces to it. It includes pieces for soprano, male narrator, and full symphony orchestra. The play deals with a Spanish nobleman of the 16th century who stood up to oppression and died for that cause. Of course, this is a theme close to Beethoven’s heart. Remember Fidelio?

The Egmont overture is the first piece of Beethoven that I ever played or ever heard. It opens in the key of F minor and is very powerful in its slow, heavy, portentous rhythmic statement. As a youth, I remember being so stirred by playing it. I hated when the piece ended. I’m sure all of you will recognize it. I just love the rest of the incidental music also. The soprano aria is so beautiful and the narrator lends a wonderful feeling to it. Here is an interesting aside I found from an old Chicago Symphony Orchestra program:

Beethoven met Bettina Brentano in May 1810, when he was hard at work on his incidental music for Goethe’s Egmont. He sang and played two of his recent settings of poems by Goethe for her, because he knew that she was a good friend of the great poet. Bettina wrote to Goethe about the composer with such enthusiasm that he answered her at once, suggesting that Beethoven meet him that summer in Karlsbad. In letter after letter that month, Bettina boasted to Goethe about Beethoven’s remarkable talent and, in particular, of the way he had uncovered a “new sensuous basis in the intellectual life.” On May 28 she even quoted Beethoven: “Music, verily, is the mediator between the life of the mind and the senses.”  Nice!!

I so hope that you will enjoy listening to this beautiful and powerful music, wonderfully performed by Claudio Abbado and the Vienna Philharmonic. I will also include a translation of the text.

Beethoven Overture and Incidental Music to Goethe’s Egmont


Die Trommel gerühret! Das Pfeifchen gespielt! Mein Liebster gewaffnet Dem Haufen befiehlt, Die Lanze hoch führet, Die Leute regieret.
Wie klopf mit das Herz! Wie wallt mir das Blut!
O hätt’ ich ein Wämslein, Und Hosen und Hut.
Ich folgt’ ihm zum Tor ’haus Mit mutigem Schritt,
Ging’ durch die Provinzen, Ging’ überall mit.

Die Feinde schon weichen, Wir schiessen da drein— Welch Glück sondergleichen, Ein Mannsbild zu sein.

The drum is resounding, And shrill the fife plays; My love, for the battle, His brave troop arrays; He lifts his lance high, And the people he sways. My blood it is boiling!
My heart throbs pit-pat! Oh, had I a jacket,
With hose and with hat!
How boldly I’d follow,
And march through the gate; Through all the wide province I’d follow him straight.
The foe yield, we capture
Or shoot them! Ah me!
What heart-thrilling rapture
A soldier to be!

Freudvoll und leidvoll, Gedankenvoll sein; Langen und bangen
In schwebender Pein; Himmelhoch jauchzend, Zum Tode betrübt; Glücklich allein
Ist die Seele, die liebt.

Blissful and tearful,
With thought-teeming brain; Hoping and fearing
In passionate pain;
Now shouting in triumph, Now sunk in despair;
With love’s thrilling rapture What joy can compare!
Translations from The Harvard Classic, vol. 19 (New York: P.F. Collier & Sons, 1909)