ClassicsOnline Home » BEETHOVEN, L. van: Egmont / Ah, perfido / Marches (Pierard, New Zealand Symphony, Judd)
Shortly after completing his breathtaking Fifth Symphony, Beethoven composed incidental music for Goethe’s drama, Egmont. While the Overture is well known, the remaining movements deserve no less attention as they chart the tragic course of Count Egmont’s rebellion against the Spanish occupation of the Netherlands and his ill-fated love for Clara, whose suicide Beethoven movingly portrays. Two Marches, composed at around the same time, and his concert aria Ah! perfido, written a decade earlier, complement one of Beethoven’s most effective theatrical scores.
By Giv Cornfield
The New Recordings, Cliffs Classics
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Incidental Music to ‘Egmont’, Op. 84 • Ah! perfido, Op. 65
The son of a singer and grandson of a former Kapellmeister in the service of the Archbishop-Elector of Cologne at his court in Bonn, Beethoven became familiar, even as a boy, with theatrical repertoire. In 1782 his teacher Neefe used him as his deputy, employed in rehearsals of theatre music. In subsequent years in Bonn
he became familiar with a wide operatic repertoire, further extended by the variety of works that he heard in Vienna, after he had settled there in 1792. In Bonn he had contributed music for Count Waldstein’s Ritterballett of 1791. Ten years later he provided a score in Vienna for the ballet Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus (The Creatures of Prometheus) by Salvatore Viganò. Although he wrote arias for use in operas by other composers, it was not until
1804 that he started work on what was to be his only opera, Fidelio, a work that underwent two major revisions before it reached its final form in a staging in 1814.
1807 had brought an overture for Heinrich von Collin’s play Coriolan, a tribute to the writer and perhaps associated with a revived staging of the play. Collin went on to suggest to Beethoven an opera based on Macbeth, and other subjects were mooted, including a version of Goethe’s Faust, as it then existed, but these came to nothing. For the 1809–1810 season, however, plans were made by the Royal Imperial Court Theatre in Vienna to mount Goethe’s play Egmont, and Beethoven was commissioned to provide incidental music for the occasion, the first of a number of such collaborations. In the event the music was not finished in time for the first performance at the Burgtheater on 24 May 1810 and mention is only made of it in connection with the third performance of the play on 15 June. It is thought, however, that the two songs for Clara, Die Trommel gerühret! (The drum beats!) in the first act, and Freudvoll und leidvoll (Full of joy, full of sorrow) in the third, are likely to have been included for the earlier performances. The first of these is given by Goethe to Clara and Brackenburg together. Other incidental music is suggested by Goethe for the end of the third scene of the last act, to accompany Clara’s death, with further music for Egmont’s dream in the scene that follows.
The subject of the play, the historic rebellion of Count Egmont against Spanish domination in the Netherlands in the sixteenth century, had a certain topical, political relevance, although Goethe’s work had been written thirty years before. Egmont trusts blindly in his own judgement, urged on by a passion that transcends reason in his conflict with a state that he has hitherto served loyally. His love for the bourgeoise Clara, who poisons herself when she fails to persuade the people to rise in Egmont’s defence, is associated with notions of political freedom.
The Overture to Egmont is programmatic and some have suggested a reference to the Duke of Alva, the Spanish Governor of the province, in the sarabande
rhythm of the opening and allusion to the rebel cause in the first subject of the following Allegro. The closing section brings the death of Egmont, followed by a final Allegro con brio that suggests his moral victory. The third scene of the first act is set in the house of Clara (Clärchen), who is in love with Count Egmont, a nobleman who has been active in his opposition to repression by the Spanish rulers of the Netherlands, in spite of his loyalty to the King and to the Regent, Margaret of Parma. The scene is a domestic one and Brackenburg, the son of a citizen of Brussels, is found with Clara and her mother. He is out of spirits, but Clara’s mother persuades them to sing Clara’s favourite song, about a soldier. This is introduced by wind instruments and timpani, piccolo, clarinets, bassoons and horns, before the gradual entrance of the strings. Brackenburg is in love with Clara, but leaves to find out what is happening in the street outside, where the usual patrols have been augmented. He returns with news of an uprising. Left alone he complains of Clara’s neglect of him and contemplates suicide with poison he has taken from his brother’s medicine chest.
The first Entr’acte leads to a scene in a square in Brussels, where citizens discuss the state of affairs, and arguments lead to violence, only quelled by the appearance of Egmont with soldiers. Egmont’s generosity and fairness are demonstrated in the following scene with his secretary and in his discussion with the Prince of Orange about the Regent, her reaction to the disturbances and the possibility of her replacement by a stronger ruler from Spain; the Duke of Alva is said to be on his way. A second Entr’acte is followed by Act III, which opens in the palace of the Princess Regent, where she has received a letter from her brother, King Philip, telling her of the unwelcome appointment of the intransigent Duke of Alva to deal with disaffection in the Netherlands. The second scene, in Clara’s house, finds her mother urging marriage with Brackenburg, while Clara sings of her overwhelming love for Egmont, who joins them, formally dressed but revealing something of his inner conflict. The third Entr’acte ends with a march. Act IV opens in the street, where citizens discuss the repressive measures taken by the Duke of Alva, who, in a second scene, reveals his plan to arrest Egmont, when he comes to see him, as has been arranged. The scene continues with a discussion between Alva and Egmont that ends in the latter’s arrest. The fourth Entr’acte is followed by Act V. In a street at twilight Brackenburg tries to dissuade Clara from her vain attempts to rouse the people in Egmont’s defence and rescue. The scene changes to a prison cell, where Egmont lies, unable to sleep. In her house Clara awaits news from Brackenburg, who tells her of the condemnation of Egmont and his coming execution. Her only recourse is to take poison, and the scene ends with music representing her death. The final scene is in Egmont’s prison, where he seeks help to escape from his friend Ferdinand, son of Alva, then sending a final message to Clara. At last he finds sleep and in his dream sees a vision of freedom, a figure bearing the features of Clara, who seems to pity and then to encourage him, offering a victor’s crown. His final words are set as melodrama. He wakes and guards enter, taking Egmont to a hero’s death, a moral triumph celebrated in a final Victory Symphony.
Beethoven’s March in F major, WoO 18, was written in 1809 and the March in F major, WoO 19, the following year. With a dedication to Archduke Anton, elder brother of Beethoven’s patron Archduke Rudolph, who had commissioned what Beethoven calls his ‘music for horses’, they were performed on 24 August 1810 at a tournament to celebrate the birthday of the Empress Maria Ludovica. It seems that the Trios were added in 1822 or 1823, when Beethoven tried to have the Marches and other works published by Peters.
The recitative and aria Ah! perfido is a setting of a passage in Metastasio’s libretto Achille in Sciro and was written by Beethoven in 1795–96. The composer wrote on the cover of a copy that he had revised ‘Une grande scène mise en musique par L.v.Beethoven à Prague, 1796’. The first page has the explanatory note ‘Recitativo ed Aria composta e dedicata alla Signora Contessa di Clari da L.v.Beethoven’, but it seems probable that the work was completed in Prague in 1796 and intended for and sung there by Madame Duschek, as there is, at least, mention
of an Italian scena written for her by Beethoven. The Countess Josephine Clary, to whom the work was seemingly dedicated was an amateur singer in Vienna, who in 1797 married Count Christian Clam-Gallas. The work was published in 1805, and badly performed at the famously extended and under-rehearsed concert of 22 December 1808 given in the unheated Theater-an-der-Wien. The taxing programme included the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Fourth Piano Concerto, and the Choral Fantasia, the last of which came adrift and had to be started again. Johann Friedrich Reichardt, who attended the concert at the invitation of Beethoven’s patron Prince Lobkowitz, left an account of the occasion, which opened with the Pastoral Symphony, followed by the aria: ‘Then followed a long Italian scena, sung by Mlle. Kilizky, the beautiful Bohemian with the beautiful voice. That today this pretty child rather shivered than sang could not be
taken amiss, in view of the bitter cold; in our box near by, we too were shivering, wrapped in our furs and great coats.’ (qv. O. Strungk: Source Readings in Music History, pp.737–39). The singer, Josephine Killitschgy, sister-in-law of the violinist Schuppanzigh, had finally been recruited to take the place of the soprano Anna Milder, with whom Beethoven had quarrelled.