Die Ruinen von Athen

Ludwig van Beethoven

Die Ruinen von Athen

Op. 113

About this work

In 1811 Beethoven was commissioned to provide incidental music to August von Kotzebue's Prologue (König Stephan) and Epilogue (Die Ruinen von Athen), which were to be performed at the opening of the new imperial theater in Pest on February 10, 1812. Because the occasion was patriotic, the works are filled with flattery for the current emperor, Franz. Both works were well received at their premieres; the Overture to Die Ruinen von Athen was published in 1823 by Steiner in Vienna, but the complete piece was not printed until 1846.

Die Ruinen von Athen (The Ruins of Athens) tells the story of Minerva, who, after sleeping for 2,000 years, awakens to find the Parthenon destroyed and Athens occupied by the Turks. Culture and reason have disappeared from what was the ancient Greek world, but these human qualities have been preserved in Pest by the enlightened Emperor Franz.

In addition to solo soprano and bass, four-part chorus, and a full orchestra with paired woodwinds and four horns, Beethoven calls for piccolo and percussion -- instruments associated by the Viennese with Turkish Janissary bands. This instrumentation would reappear in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, in the Turkish March variation of the finale.

Beethoven constructed the Overture to Die Ruinen von Athen in an unusual manner: the key relationships follow the sonata-form pattern, but the treatment of the melodic material does not. Marked Andante con moto, a slow introduction begins with a brief gesture, in G minor, stated first by the string basses and then moving through the rest of the orchestra. An arching tune in the strings gives way to the first theme, Allegro ma non troppo, set in G major and played on the oboe. Transitional material modulates to the dominant, where the second theme, more angular than the first, also appears in the oboe. A diminutive development refers to the introduction by briefly touching on the minor mode with melodic material drawn from the transition -- not the first or second theme (this is the main deviation from standard sonata form). After the return to the tonic, we hear neither the first or second themes, but rather a recapitulation built almost entirely on transitional material, which closes the overture in G major. To Beethoven, key relationships -- not an ordered repetition of melodic material -- were the crux of the Classical style.

Aside from the overture, the "Chorus of the Dervishes" and the "Marcia alla Turca" remain the most effective and appealing selections from the incidental score, composed in a popular "Turkish" style.