Beethoven (1770-1827) - Coriolan Overture
a lot of talent, brass neck and a little luck, “going for broke” is the
fast track to fame and fortune. The Viennese playwright Heinrich von Collin
clearly thought so when, in 1802, he had the brass neck to go into direct
competition with Shakespeare. He also had a little luck - some good actors.
Appparently, all Collin lacked was talent, for not even the support of
Beethoven could prevent the venture - and its author - from sinking into
obscurity. Having said that, Beethoven pretty well missed the boat, because
his Coriolan Overture didn't surface until 1807, when the said boat had
more or less foundered.
remains, as a magisterial musical analogue of the crux of the plot: the
proud General, Coriolanus, is banished from Rome for holding the plebeans
in contempt. Vengeful, he defects to Rome's enemies, the Volscians. Laying
seige to the city, he flatly rejects all entreaties to spare his own people.
Finally, in desperation, his wife and mother are sent to plead with him.
Caught in a self-inflicted cleft stick, he decides in favour of family
and inevitably incurs the wrath of the frustrated Volscians. While Shakespeare
had Coriolanus die at the hands of his erstwhile allies, Collin rather
less logically opted for Coriolanus to fall on his sword. Not that it matters
much, because clearly the key to the drama is that moment of decision,
a collision of morals and ethics: will he exact what he sees as justifiable
punishment at any price, or forgo what is effectively personal revenge
to spare his innocent family?
overture eschews narrative in favour of a concentrated sonata form which,
assuming we already know the plot, seems to distil this critical moment,
focusing all his musical drama on what is going on between the General's
ears. In this context, the unyielding opening gesture at once implies the
implacability of the General and furnishes the skeleton of the first subject,
whose incessantly evolving turbulence parallels the growing torment of
his dilemma. The harsh sonorities are melted by the arrival of the fluid
second subject, which is a brilliant master-stroke: in its turn, it is
a derivative of the first subject, both tautening the form and inextricably
linking Coriolanus with his feminine counterparts. Thus do the two main
subjects analogise the inseparable horns of his dilemma. But Beethoven
does not stop there: the phrase-ends of the second subject's tender pleadings
are consumed by the first's rage, which dominates the end of the exposition.
Passing seamlessly into the development, the emotional torrent continues
unabated, until brought up short by the opening gesture - which now
shows signs of wavering. The recapitulation finds the first subject weakening,
and the second by comparison "implacable" in its pleading. At the end of
the reprise, a sudden pause not only unveils the previously invisible join
between exposition and development, but also begins a coda that is a stroke
of pure genius. The second subject returns to make one further supplication;
the bellicose opening gesture finally crumbles, leaving the exhausted first
subject to wind down: Coriolanus saves his family and determines his doom.
© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street,
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