Recommended recording

Curated by Guy Jones, Head of Curation

About this work

When a commission to provide a music score for Goethe's Egmont was offered, Beethoven eagerly snatched up the opportunity. The subject matter of Egmont appealed to him: the struggle for freedom. This general theme had already been explored, albeit in a quite different story and venue, in the opera Fidelio.

Goethe's play depicts the Spanish persecution of the people of the Netherlands in 1567-1568 via an inquisition. Count Egmont, a Catholic loyal to the Spanish, pleads for tolerance from the Spanish King, who instead dispatches the malevolent Duke of Alva to command the forces to maintain order. Egmont is eventually arrested by Alva and sentenced to death. His love, Clara (a fictional character; the real Egmont was married and the father of 11 children), plots his escape but fails. She poisons herself, and Egmont is executed, but with the knowledge that the rebellion is in progress and the people will be free.

Egmont opens with its justly famous overture, for years a staple in the concert hall. It begins in a somber, serious mood, marked Sostenuto ma non troppo. The music seems to portray oppression and darkness, the opening motif revealed to represent the tyrant, but when the tempo picks up with a vigorous Allegro, the mood shifts to one of heroic defiance with a theme that seems descending into the depths to do battle. The tyrant's motif evolves throughout the overture and near the end becomes rhythmic and dark and brings on Egmont's execution. The mood of the piece then turns triumphant and celebratory, providing a glorious close.

Next is one of Clara's two songs, "Die Trommel gerühet." She mixes feelings about love and the military, longing to be with Egmont, marching in his army. Entr'actes Nos. 1 and 2 follow, the former maintaining the sweet mood from Clara's song, then turning agitated, while the latter, marked Larghetto, is very touching. Clara's second song follows, "Freudvoll und leidvoll," a quite moving outpouring of love.

Entr'acte No. 3 ensues, wherein the theme from the love song is developed at the outset, with the mood tranquil and bright. The music turns martial then to depict the rebellious forces. The fourth entr'acte, marked Larghetto, begins with a wail of pain, then presents a melancholy and beautiful melody. Clara's death is portrayed by sad, touching music, in another Larghetto tempo.

The Melodrama is next. With soft, soothing music, Egmont falls asleep and dreams of Clara. He sees her as a spirit of liberty, who tells him that the Netherlands will have freedom. He then ponders his imminent execution, but revels in thoughts of the freedom his people will soon enjoy. In the last section, Siegessymphonie, Beethoven reprises the heroic and triumphant music from the close of the overture. This score was unusual for Beethoven in the large amount of slow music he composed. The first performance of the play with the music came on June 15, 1810. A performance of it (apart from Goethe's drama) lasts about 40 to 45 minutes.