|Founder: Len Mullenger|
Music for the stage, like the idea of marriage, attracted Beethoven throughout the major part of his career, and a survey of either produces a bewilderment akin to losing one’s sense of the north. Where are the points of the compass by which to steer a right course? How shall one tell the dividing line between his music for the theatre and his music for the concert room?
With Mozart no such difficulty could occur because his thoughts and technique moved in separate ambits for the separate kinds of work. With Beethoven this was not so. Though he wrote one great opera, he was not a great operatic composer, and his genius turned on a symphonic axis, with sonata form and variation form as its magnetic poles. His symphonies are the most dramatic in existence; his stage works show a homing tendency towards the concert room. Indeed all his finest overtures, Leonora No. 2, Leonora No. 3, Coriolan and Egmont, have found their destiny in orchestral programmes.
Yet since Beethoven designed them for stage use, I propose to discuss them in this chapter coupled with his one opera. The Ritterballet and Prometheus ballet have been already considered in connection with his orchestral music. They led nowhere in his dramatic development, and served but as prologues to his great symphonic works. Let them rest at that.
If environment determined the cast of a man’s genius, Beethoven might well have been a second and greater Gluck. During his prentice years in the opera orchestra at Bonn he had ample opportunity to absorb stage technique and sense of the theatre. But he absorbed little, and he learned nothing of the stage from Haydn in Vienna, for the excellent reason that Haydn understood it even less than Beethoven himself. Dear Haydn with an opera was almost as innocent as César Franck with Satan! Finally, Beethoven appears to have been somewhat indifferent to the stage during his first decade in Vienna. Beyond his studies with Salieri in Italian dramatic declamation, two bass arias, a prelude and a couple of songs written to be introduced into Umlauf’s comic opera Die schöne Schusterin, there is next to nothing prior to Prometheus to show that he had any ambitions in that direction. It is said that Schikaneder engaged Beethoven in 1803 to compose an opera for the Theater an der Wien on a subject said to have been that of Alexander. But Schikaneder passed out of power and the whole story is a tissue of ‘ifs,’ not worth pursuing here. Nor is it necessary to rake up the confused quarrels and changes at the Theater an der Wien, where Schikaneder was reinstated by the new owner, Baron Braun, and where in 1804 a novelty was badly needed. The astute Schikaneder, rather than Braun, was probably the instigator of the commission to Beethoven. If so, he deserves well of us, for to have evoked two such operas as Mozart’s Magic Flute and Beethoven’s Fidelio was a memorable deed.
The commission given, it remained to find a text. Joseph von Sonnleithner, a very cultivated male secretary of the Court Theatre, offered to provide one. He suggested Léonore ou l’amour conjugal. The idea pleased Beethoven; it proved indeed to be the only opera subject that ever fully satisfied him throughout his career, except of course The Water Carrier and The Vestal which Cherubini and Spontini made their own.
Léonore was a ‘pain and torment’ story of a type very popular in a world which had witnessed the French Revolution. Its central incident had really happened within the jurisdiction of J. N. Bouilly, who administered a department near Tours during the Terror. When called upon to supply opera libretti (why are librettists nearly always amateurs?), Bouilly drew upon what he had seen, and produced the texts of Cherubini’s Water Carrier and Pierre Gaveaux’s Léonore, both performed in Paris with immense success. An Italian version of the latter, composed by Paer, was given at Dresden in 1804. Sonnleithner, third in the field, made a German version, but unwisely expanded the book to three acts. Thus Beethoven’s text, like the framework of Shakespeare’s plays, came to him from many sources, and the good points concealed the flaws from his inexperienced eyes. Treitschke, poet and stage manager of the German court opera, records that Beethoven had no fear of his predecessors and went to work with eager delight.
This first opera of Beethoven’s was like a case of love at first sight. Sitting on the low-branching oak in the woodland at Schönbrunn, where he had once composed his oratorio of Christ as deliverer, he surrendered himself to this tremendous new experience. In his Eroica he had given to the world for all time his portrait of the ideal hero, the great man. In Fidelio he now enshrined the companion portrait of his ideal heroine, Leonora, the faithful wife, portraying in deathless music her undying love and devotion. She took possession of him; she took possession of the opera. No other character has any real existence except as it impinges on her, and the incidents, true to fact and necessary for the realistic presentation of the opera, are yet so infinitely more true as symbols of the inner life of the human heart that in a way the opera exists less as a stage construction than as a part of our own being.
The scene is laid in Spain. Florestan, for some political offence never disclosed, is being starved to death in one of the lowest dungeons of a fortress governed by his implacable enemy, Pizarro. News of Florestan’s demise has already been circulated in the outer world. But Leonora - perhaps by the singular awareness of love to the loved one - believes he may still live, and resolves to rescue him. She disguises herself as a boy, takes the name Fidelio (so did Shakespeare’s Imogen take the name Fidele!), and manages to enter the castle in the service of Rocco, the jailer. By another stroke of fortune Rocco’s daughter, Marcellina, who is heartily sick of the suit of Jaquino, the porter, falls in love with The handsome Fidelio. Meanwhile Pizarro, seeing that starvation works too slowly, orders Rocco to kill Florestan before Fernando, the minister, can arrive to inspect the prison. Rocco, a kindly old thing, refuses, but consents to dig the grave if Pizarro will commit the murder. Leonora, overhearing these arrangements, persuades Rocco to take her as his assistant. Meanwhile Rocco has permitted the other prisoners in the fortress to come into the courtyard for exercise. As they file out, haggard and weak Leonora searches each face to see if her husband is among them. (Her intense gaze is a bit of ‘ business’ that has come down probably from Beethoven’s own time, and it is infinitely touching.) Pizarro is furious at finding the prisoners in the courtyard and rebukes Rocco. Meanwhile Florestan, lying in the last stages of exhaustion in his dungeon, dreams of Leonora. Presently Rocco enters with the ‘boy’ and orders her to help him dig a grave. In her anxiety to identify the prisoner, she nearly betrays herself; and can hardly suppress her emotion on recognizing her husband’s voice. Pizarro arrives, tells Florestan he will kill him, attempts to stab him, and is stopped by Leonora, who flings herself as a shield in front of Florestan. Pizarro again tries to kill him; Leonora again defends him, crying out: ‘First kill his wife!’ Florestan’s rapture and Pizarro’s rage burst out uncontrolled; Pizarro exclaims: ‘Shall I tremble before a woman?’ and tries to murder both. Leonora, at bay, draws a pistol and retaliates: ‘One word more and thou art dead’ - when suddenly the sound of a distant trumpet strikes all else to silence. Don Fernando has arrived; Florestan is saved. It is the great moment, the magnificent climax of the story. The last scene is simply the completion of justice and rejoicing.
This libretto appealed to the tremendous liberating passion in Beethoven which M. Closson believes was a mark of his Flemish ancestry. The very name Leonore too was dear to him for the sake of Eleonore von Breuning. Is it some unacknowledged link with her memory and the happy days at Bonn that, into the finale of the 1ibretto - which M. Rolland says is a fairly close transcript of the French original - Beethoven introduced the lines:
Wer ein holdes Weib errungen,
Stimm’ in unsern Jubel ein!
They are practically a quotation from that Ode to Joy by Schiller which Beethoven had resolved to set to music long ago at Bonn, and which he did compose at last in his ninth Symphony. For Beethoven the opera was always Leonore. It vexed him bitterly that the theatre authorities insisted it should be called Fidelio.
From the first performance in 1805 he became aware of the faults of Sonnleithner’s libretto. I have already described in Chapter 5 the well-meaning council of friends who persuaded Beethoven to accept a revision by which Stephan von Breuning carried out such drastic cuts for the 1806 revival that the second state was almost worse than the first, except that the three acts were reduced to two and that Beethoven superseded the original overture by the astoundingly glorious overture known as Leonora No. 3. When Fidelio was revived in 1814, Beethoven secured G. F. Treitschke as his skilful collaborator, and he was himself in a better state than before to pass critical judgment upon the music. Fidelio in its present form is the result of their efforts.
Fidelio was designed along the lines of German Singspiel, i.e. the musical numbers were interspersed with spoken monologues. Admirable in comedy, the form is less suited to drama, where the alternations between song and speech play fast and loose with one’s feelings. This is so in Fidelio, particularly in the first act, though there are places in the second act where the method seems a pure inspiration.
When beginning his opera it was natural Beethoven should examine the best model by other composers. Bekker says that Fidelio has some elements of style that look back to the lyrical opera, and others that belong to dramatic music. ‘Mozart’ he adds, ‘attempted to blend something of the German lyrical drama with the Italian form, and Beethoven carried the idea further with the help of French models, which were of a freer and more declamatory style than the Italian cantabile form.’
M. Rolland is very positive about Beethoven’s French sources. After considering the French origin of the libretto, he continues:
This filiation between a robust junior and the elder members of a noble race ... is not confined merely to vague moral resemblance. It is clearly marked in the music, with a precision that admits of no doubt. The symphonic style of Leonora derives in essentials from that of Méhul and Cherubini. We know that Beethoven, at the height of his genius (in 1823), wrote to Cherubini paying humble homage to this work (Medea). It is not surprising, then, that traces of this influence should be found in his own music.
Arnold Schmitz (1925) finds the resemblances particularly strong in the overtures. Rolland admits, however, that some of the analogues may be explained on the theory of a common source in Gluck; for example, the mighty unisons with which all Beethoven’s tragic overtures open.
No doubt a close study of the scores of Gluck, Méhul, Cherubini and other composers of the period would throw interesting light on the studies which Beethoven quietly conducted for himself, but the more one sees of his debt to other men, the more entirely Beethoven he appears. His great enveloping genius is the fact that dominates all else.
Of the four overtures to Fidelio, Leonora No. 1 is now believed to have been the earliest, written before the first performance and withdrawn by Beethoven as too insignificant. Some affinities with his overture to Prometheus heighten the likelihood of this tale being correct. But Thayer thought the evidence pointed to Leonora No. 1 having been composed for a performance at Prague in 1807, which never took place. Fanny Mendelssohn could not understand Beethoven’s poor opinion of it. ‘Ah, Rebecca,’ she wrote to her sister from Dusseldorf in 1836, ‘we have heard an overture to Leonore, a new piece. It is notorious that it has never been played; it did not please Beethoven and he put it aside. The man had no taste! It is so refined, so interesting, so fascinating that I know few things which can be compared with it.’
The overture Leonora No. 2, played at the actual first performance on 20th November 1805, is a far finer work initiated on a span of sonata form so great that even Beethoven himself does not fulfil it. The slow introduction, the exposition and development of the allegro are so large that there is no time for a recapitulation and the coda is not big enough to compensate its absence. Today such a scheme would be accepted as satisfactory, but it did not content Beethoven. Before the revival of his opera in 1806 he rewrote the overture. The result was the incomparable Leonora No. 3. Into it Beethoven put everything that was vital in his conception of the opera. He succeeded only too well. No. 3 is not the overture to Leonora - it is Leonora. It does not arouse anticipation; it fulfils everything.
By a close comparison between Leonora No. 2 and No. 3 one gains an absorbing lesson in Beethoven’s mental processes, and also a wonderful lesson in musical construction. To all intents and purposes his material is the same in both overtures, but the structural use is different. Where in No. 2 the abstract scheme is grand but unbalanced, in No. 3 it is tense, superb, magnificently proportioned, underlying the music as bones underlie muscles. Moreover, the emotional details are better picked and placed. Compare the immensely more noble effect in Leonora No. 3 of the passage between the two trumpet calls played ‘offstage’ with the corresponding passage in Leonora No. 2.
Those trumpet calls are among the most famous things in music. Rolland, following Schmitz, declares they derive from Méhul’s overture to Hélène, but why Beethoven could not have got the suggestion nearer home from the trumpet call in Haydn’s Military Symphony, is a nice point for the French! Rolland and Schmitz also attribute the ‘boil and swirl of the unison strings in the coda of Leonora No. 3’ to Cherubini’s Elisa overture, besides finding other analogies of rhythm, syncopated chords, etc., with Cherubini and Méhul. These things show how Beethoven, by the alchemy of his genius, made everything into his own gold.
Here is the great unison beginning of Leonora No. 3; pure Beethoven, whatever its origin in Gluck or Cherubini:
Even yet Beethoven was not satisfied. When he revised Fidelio in 1814, he realized that a great dramatic overture was an unsettling preface for a lyrical drama. He therefore replaced Leonora No. 3 by a new work called the overture to Fidelio. The change of name coincided with a change in character. E major, not C, was now the chosen key, fresh themes were employed, and the bright texture of the music was evidently intended to provide a light curtain-raiser that could pass smoothly into the opening scene where the small fry of the cast, Jaquino and Marcellina, ‘sing in’ the opera quite conventionally with a duet about their small love affairs. What an example of Beethoven’s acute dramatic sense, one exclaims! Well, yes, but also of his vacillation, for in that same year he certainly acquiesced in the substitution of his overture to Prometheus for one performance of the opera, and (possibly) of his overture to The Ruins of Athens for another.
Of the two acts now constituting Fidelio, the first contains ten numbers (exclusive of overture) and the second six, several of which are so wide in scope that the opera has often been called symphonic. Beethoven, by his nature, could seldom help bringing symphonic traits of melody, harmony, instrumentation, even symphonic texture itself into music written in the grand manner. But it is totally untrue to suppose that because his opera is symphonic, it is therefore not of the stage. In some extraordinary way the spiritual reality of his drama gets right through the formal operatic mould stiffened with symphonic technique, and the music makes its compelling effect sometimes by direct truth of expression (as in the dungeon scene) and sometimes by a general symbolic artistic evocation, which, by carrying forward the listeners on a broad stream of music conveys their thoughts in the intended direction, even when there is no particular attempt at expression and characterization.
Moreover, behind the musical plan there is a sort of metaphysical design. Each act opens simply, with few characters, then gradually gathers its forces until it expands into a broad concerted finale. But while Act I begins in bright daylight and banter with the simplicity of little everyday affairs and moves from them steadily downward into the shadows of tragedy and the sighing of all that are desolate and oppressed in the prisoners’ choruses, Act II begins below the threshold of hope, and from that lowest prison of the human soul in loneliness, as typified in Florestan, passes gradually upward to faith fulfilled in a burst of light more glorious than any sunrise.
Of the separate pieces in Act I those allotted to Jaquino and Marcellina are of secondary interest. On Leonora’s entrance the music moves to a higher plane, though the quartet between Marcellina, Leonora, Jaquino and Rocco, (a delightful and admired example of effective canon), fails to give any expression to the extremely varied emotions of the characters taking part. For Rocco’s song I suspect Beethoven cast back to Bonn associations - anyhow there seems a good Rhineland ring in the tune about gold. In the trio that follows Beethoven begins to get to grips with the true meaning of things. If he had never done anything else, one would love him for his wonderful understanding of the difference between Leonora’s and Marcellina’s ways of loving. Each in turn is given a musical phrase that opens similarly and ends with a melismatic passage. But where Leonora, thinking of Florestan, intensifies her phrase by a change to minor harmony and then clinches it by that ‘appoggiatura of passion’ which Beethoven reserved for feeling at its strongest, Marcelina’s melody remains undisturbedly in the major and dissipates its sentiment in a superficial florid cadence.
After a march, Pizarro’s aria with chorus enters in the approved way, the villain uttering ‘Ha! ha! ha!’ the third time on a resonant high D. Beethoven here adopted the operatic conventions for villainy with force and success - his dark mood of D minor a little stimulated, I sometimes think, by the so-called motet from Haydn’s Ritorno di Tobia, which we know in England as the anthem Insanae et vanae curae. Beethoven’s chords of the diminished seventh in connection with Pizarro should be noted; also the letting loose of the orchestra at this point for the first time - an application of Gluck’s theory that the instruments should be employed according to the degree of interest and passion. In the duet following with Rocco, Bekker considers that Beethoven brings out the ‘beast of prey instincts’ in Pizarro with great vividness, especially in the ‘furtive unison passages.’
But all such matters go by the board when Leonora begins her recitative and aria, ‘Abscheulicher! wo eilst du hin!’ - the grandest thing in the first act.
Between the original version of 1805 and the final one of 1814, Beethoven made changes which do not meet with the approval of all critics, on the ground that he sacrificed the womanly elements of her character to the heroic. Yet the mere placing of the floriated passages is enough to show how Leonora’s heart expands at the thought of hope fulfilled and how she gathers strength from the consciousness of her noble duty as a loving wife. Besides, this was the moment for heroic resolve. Beethoven met it with this magnificent aria, where every bar is packed with meaning, even to the orchestration of the accompaniment, in which we get privileged glimpses into Beethoven’s own associations between certain ideas and special orchestral colours - for example, in his use of the horns. The great finale that follows is buttressed at the beginning and end by two choruses for the prisoners, one as they steal into the light, the other as they descend again into darkness. The second chorus is enriched by the solo characters, who in the intervening section have passed through a crisis, vividly portrayed in the music, where Leonora’s hope of reaching Florestan is nearly frustrated by Rocco’s misplaced consideration, and have endured the eruption of Pizarro’s rage at Rocco’s kindness (not misplaced!) to the prisoners.
This great finale, with its shadowy progressions, and heart-rending use of piano and pianissimo, is a piece of pure genius only less magnificent than the beginning of Act II, where, in the dungeon scene, Beethoven’s incomparable music rises from inspiration to inspiration. First there is Florestan’s air, ‘In des Lebens Fruhlingstagen ist das Gluck von mir geflohn’ (In the springtime of life, happiness has fled from me), so poignantly beautiful and (like Leonora’s great aria) giving one an extraordinary glimpse into Beethoven’s own mind and heart as man and musician. Berlioz, not usually afflicted with dumbness, found himself unable from sheer emotion to complete his description of this aria. He does mention, however, specially ‘the continued song of the oboe that follows the song of Florestan like the voice of the adored wife which he imagines he hears.’ and what a wonderful touch that is in the introductory recitative where, as the thought of God first comes to Florestan out of the darkness, Beethoven reflects it by an enharmonic modulation out of the muffled harmony of G flat into the pure brightness of F sharp and B major!
In the melodrame and grave-digging duet between Leonora and Rocco the terrifying quiet in which most of the music passes, the tense, short sentences of the diggers, the strange touches of realism in the orchestra when the stone moves, and the suppressed emotion in Leonora’s music are as indescribable as unforgettable. The orchestral parts are minatory with meaning Beethoven’s use of the exceptional colours of double bassoon and trombone, the muted triplets in the violins, the eerie figure in the basses - what a marvellous score! Surely this scene formed the starting-point from which Schubert’s genius leaped forth in 1825 to set Goethe’s Erl King as Richard Capell noted in his authoritative book on ‘Schubert’s Songs.’
As the action intensifies, Beethoven expands his treatment, though the melodious trio between Florestan, Leonora and Rocco is rather a widening of means than of music. The quartet which follows Pizarro’s entrance is the superb culmination for which all the rest of the opera exists. The music sweeps the main action forward on a great wave, within which Beethoven develops the interplay of characters and motives with extreme truth and insight. The first transcendent moment is reached at Leonora’s cry: ‘First kill his wife!’ Beethoven altered the notes several times before he achieved what he considered sufficient intensity for the phrase. It is a striking example of the consistency of his imagination that he should have set this greatest act of heroism to a chord of E flat major, the key of his Eroica. The second and supreme climax of the scene comes with the trumpet calls which announce the arrival of the governor; in Beethoven’s music the shadow of death rolls back like the passing of a solar eclipse.
The beautiful duet of joy between the reunited Leonora and Florestan that ensues fits well, despite its having been taken over by Beethoven from an earlier sketch which Bekker believes to have belonged to the projected opera of 1803.
In the second part of the act, with its broad ceremonial consummation of rejoicing, Beethoven also employs music from an earlier work to express the divine happiness when Leonora frees Florestan from his chains. The movement comes from the Cantata on the Death of Joseph the Second, and I cannot help feeling that Beethoven had been strongly influenced for both by Eurydice’s air, in Gluck’s Orpheus, describing the tranquil loveliness of the Elysian fields. All three arias are in the same key, F major; they have a wonderful musical affinity and are used to express the same sense of emancipation into heavenly calm and blessedness. In Fidelio this is immediately followed by the chorus on those lines from Schiller, ‘Wer ein holdes Weib arungen,’ which Beethoven interpolated into the work of his librettists. The sequence of his Bonn associations sets one thinking very hard. Leonora? Eleonore von Breuning? Beethoven’s ensembles and choruses for the end of Fidelio more than fulfil the requirements of operatic convention in the early nineteenth century, and are a sort of foretaste of his ninth Symphony, but nevertheless they leave one with a little of the same disquiet. Is the big choral finale right or wrong? Treitschke thought the opera should end with the dungeon scene.
But here Beethoven was even more sure of himself than in the ninth Symphony. Whatever the world thought, or still thinks, of Fidelio as an opera, Beethoven believed in it passionately, not only for itself, but for the future of music. When dying he told Schindler that of all his ‘children’ it was the one most dear to him, and: ‘Before all others I hold it worthy of being possessed and used for the science of art.’
Beethoven’s words should be very carefully pondered. Though the world has passed a different verdict, it is quite possible Fidelio may yet show that he knew more than we do and one thing is sure: the opera goes straight to the heart of humanity. A doctor from the Dominions who saw for his first opera a performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio, and exclaimed enthusiastically: ‘I shall go to every opera he wrote!’ found the verdict.
Ah! if only Beethoven had written those other operas! Libretto after libretto was sought or sent, considered and rejected. ‘As to magic, I cannot deny that I am prejudiced against that sort of thing because it so often demands that both emotion and intellect shall be put to sleep,’ he wrote when offered a fairy opera, Bradamante. He rather thought he would like ‘some great historical subject, especially of the Dark Ages, for example Attila!’ [Note: did this hint direct Wagner to the Nibelungenlied?] He revolved the idea of Macbeth with almost demonic excitement; Faust stirred his imagination; an Indian opera left him frigid. Melusine, Return of Ulysses, Bacchus, Romulus and Remus, Alfred the Great, Romeo and Juliet, Schiller’s Fiesco and Voltaire’s tragedies were among the subjects considered and declined. The overpowering solemnity of the list bears out what Beethoven said to Rellstab when the latter offered him a libretto. ‘I care little what genre the works belong to, so the material be attractive to me. But it must be something which I can take up with sincerity and love. I could not compose operas like Don Juan and Figaro! They are repugnant to me. I could not have chosen such subjects; they are too frivolous for me!’
But though Beethoven never composed another opera, his connection with the stage remained fairly steady through the incidental music he supplied for various dramas. Egmont, the most extended and also the greatest of these sets of pieces, was written, he said, for pure love of Goethe’s poem in 1810. The subject set ablaze the Flemish elements in Beethoven’s character: the ‘liberating passion’ was at work again; he poured out music alight with genius. The overture is a superb example of a type which Beethoven made especially his own - the dramatic overture. He had arrived at it during the course of his Leonora experiments. As Bekker well says, it was Beethoven’s own form of music-drama; ‘he projected the whole spiritual content of the drama into the overture.’ A tremendous compression - comparable to the locked power of atomic force. Into the Egmont overture Beethoven packed the whole scene and course of the heroic story. Perhaps the most astounding example of his compression is the passage immediately following the very softly held chords that denote the patriot Egmont’s death, when Beethoven conveys in eight bars the gathering together and uprising of a nation in revolution.
The four orchestral entr’actes, the music depicting Clarchen’s death, the melodrame for Egmont’s dream, and the Victory symphony are all worthy of the overture. Clarchen’s two songs, though not equal to Leonora’s music in Fidelio, are nevertheless among the best lyric songs Beethoven ever wrote, and are beautifully characteristic. Everywhere, too, in Egmont Beethoven profoundly enhances his meanings by his orchestration, a fact that can be proved by comparing the Egmont score with his procedure in the Eroica and Fidelio.
The overture to Coriolan, written in 1807 as preface to Collins’s (not Shakespeare’s) play on that subject, is another of those tremendous overtures which contain the whole drama. Its delineation of catastrophic pride and power is too well known to need description, yet I cannot resist one word about the way in which Beethoven, after launching his tender second subject in the major key, diverts it into the minor before the end - as if he realized that had the full loveliness continued, it would have been almost more than heart could bear.
The overtures and incidental music for Kotzebue’s Ruins of Athens and the same poet’s King Stephen, Hungary’s First Benefactor, date from 1811. Beethoven is said to have composed the lot in a month. He possibly repented at leisure, for though the works were received at Pesth with clamorous applause on their first performance, and though he once called them his little operas, their overtures (when he sold them to the Philharmonic Society of London in 1816 as new) so disappointed his English admirers that they wrote to Charles Neate who had been one of the go-betweens: ‘For God’s sake, don’t buy anything of Beethoven!’
Both The Ruins and King Stephen have fallen into a desuetude that is the complete comment on their place among Beethoven’s works. Perhaps, however, one ought to mention the Turkish March in the former because the theme had already been used by Beethoven in the Variations in D he dedicated to Oliva. The tradition runs that it was Russian. What a glorious medley!
Among Beethoven’s other ‘occasional’ pieces of dramatic music were the Triumphal March for Tarpeja (1813), which is effective in the conventional way of such doings; also in 1814 a Soldiers’ Chorus for male voices unaccompanied, a romance with harp, Es blüht eine Blume, a little melodrame with harmonica, and an orchestrated version of the Funeral March from his piano Sonata, Op. 26, all for a drama called Leonora Prohaska that was never performed, because, it is said, the censor vetoed it. As the Soldiers’ Chorus was a glorification of ‘die Freiheit’ (freedom), and as the story was concerned with a heroine who fought through the war of liberation, one sees at once why the play attracted Beethoven and displeased the censor. A chorus, Germania, w. k ie stehst du, was supplied by Beethoven for a Singspiel, called Gute Nachricht (Good News), which Treitschke put together to celebrate the occupation of Paris in 1814.
Next year history repeated itself. Paris again capitulated; Treitschke prepared another jubilant piece, Die Ehrenpforten, and Beethoven composed for it the chorus Es ist vollbracht.
These compositions served their topical purpose, but Beethoven’s last work for the stage stands in a wholly different category. The Josephstadt Theatre was to be opened on the emperor’s nameday, 3rd October 1822, and the first piece town for performance was a paraphrase of The Ruins of Athens, now changed and adapted by Carl Meisl into The Consecration of the House. New words, with misfits that worried Beethoven, were for the most part set by Meisl to the old music. However, at one point Beethoven supplied a fresh and stately chorus leading to a tableau and - far more important - discarded the old overture to The Ruins of Athens, composing in its place the one we now know as Die Weihe des Hauses (The Consecration of the House), Op. 124. If ever music was rich with mellow wisdom it is this noble and strangely neglected work, whose significance in the sequence of Beethoven’s thoughts is not sufficiently recognized. It stands in the same relation to his latest period as does the Prometheus overture to his middle period, and, by a beautiful inevitability like a natural law, Beethoven returned here to the reflective, non-dramatic type which had served him for Prometheus, but which he now employed with infinitely greater mastery. Schindler tells a valuable anecdote of its composition. Beethoven, already at work on the Consecration, was walking one day with his nephew Karl and Schindler in the Helenenthal, when two motives suddenly came to him, one in the free style, the other in the strict. He sang them to his companions and asked which they liked better. Karl voted for both, but Schindler expressed ‘a desire to see the fugal theme worked out for the purpose mentioned. It is not to be understood,’ continues Schindler, ‘that Beethoven wrote the overture The Consecration of the House as he did because I wanted it so, but because he had long cherished the plan to write an overture in the strict, expressly in the Handelian, style.’
This story tallies with the overture itself, which may be described in a rough and ready way as consisting of blocks of tutti in free harmonic style, and blocks of close-reasoned fuguing. Better still, it illustrates the principle of duality which had shown itself in Beethoven’s mind from early times, and which became a governing force in his latest compositions. I feel sure that this overture, intended by Beethoven as homage to Handel, must have been planned by him as a companion piece to the overture on the name of Bach, which he sketched about this time, but never completed. With beautiful perception the overture for Handel was written for the theatre, the one for Bach designed for the concert room. The fact that the overture to The Consecration of the House also owes something to Mozart’s overture to The Magic Flute is perhaps only a further acknowledgment of Handel as a common source.
Bekker says of this great piece of ceremonial music that it is ‘a perfect expression of the joy of a creator in his creation ... an apotheosis at once secular and religious, of the priestly quality of the artist.’
Thus out of the Ruins of Athens was built a new and glorious temple - one which, ‘never built at all,’ was therefore ‘built forever. Beethoven’s last work for the stage was not an end, but a beginning.