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Beethoven (1770-1827) - Coriolan Overture

If you've 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. 

The overture 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? 

Beethoven's 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
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