About this work
Shakespeare's Coriolanus was not the direct inspiration for Beethoven's overture of the same name; instead, the work was written to accompany Heinrich Joseph von Collin's all-but-forgotten drama Coriolan, which was revived in Vienna's Burgtheater in 1807. Beethoven's music depicts the story of Coriolanus in an often stormy essay whose evolution mirrors the action in the drama.
In the drama, Coriolanus is a Roman patrician who has been banished from his native city as a result of his lack of concern for the starving people there. After taking up with the Volscians and plotting revenge, the proud and disgraced Coriolanus leads their armies against Rome. Upon reaching the border of his former city, he is approached by emissaries who plead with him to abandon his intentions to invade. Coriolanus, who has long waited for the day on which he will finally avenge his eviction and humiliation, sends them away and prepares for attack. A last effort to save Rome comes when his mother and his wife plead with him to desist. He is at last dissuaded from carrying out his plans, realizing they are now abhorrent to him. In Collin's play, he determines that he must regain his honor, which can only be effected by death at his own hand.
The sonata-allegro-form overture begins darkly, Allegro con brio, the strings thrice playing an intense unison C, each time answered by a single emphatic chord from the orchestra that rises higher with each response. The strings then take up a rhythmic, agitated figure which makes up the main part of the first subject. This music represents Coriolanus' proud character, his defiance and unsettled nature; it longs, half cries out, but manages to sound subdued, as though ruled by some dark inner constraint. A second theme appears, a memorable creation of great lyrical beauty that also possesses an unmistakably heroic element -- a trait nearly ubiquitous in Beethoven's middle-period works. A brief development follows, focusing mainly on the two-note motive that appears at the close of the second subject.
The recapitulation might almost be regarded as a second development, since the thematic material is presented quite differently this time and the key switches from C minor to F minor. The expansive coda makes use of the second theme group at its outset, then turns intense and grim. The music from the opening returns, but dissolves quickly into a dark haze, fading to uneasy silence. Many believe that this ending is a depiction of the actual death of Coriolanus; it may be, however, that it merely reflects his realization that he must die by his own hand to restore his tarnished honor.
The Coriolan Overture is one of the most frequently performed and recorded of Beethoven's orchestral works. It was premiered in March 1807 and first published in Vienna in the following year. The work is about nine minutes in duration.