Beethoven – Coriolan Overture, Op. 62

by Max Derrickson

Coriolan Overture, Op. 62

Ludwig van Beethoven
(Born in Bonn, December 16, 1770; died in Vienna, March 26, 1827)


The Roman Caius Marius Coriolanus is reported to have lived, by Plutarch’s reckoning in his Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, between 156 – 87 B.C.  “Being naturally valiant and warlike,” he was a brilliant general, and when Rome went back to war with one of its most stalwart southern enemies, the Volscians, Coriolanus proved himself to be, yet again, a fearless leader.  All but vanquished, the Volscians retreated to their camps, and Coriolanus returned to Rome a hero.  Because of his bravery, he was elected to the Roman Consul, but this is when his fateful flaws began to emerge.  His love for chain of command was shown in his famous retort, that giving commoners a vote was like allowing “crows to peck the eagles.”  Later, when famine occurred in Rome, Coriolanus reacted to the Senate’s proposal to ration grain to the commoners by saying that because they hadn’t fought for it, like faithful soldiers, the commoners didn’t deserve it.  This led to his exile from Rome.  Hubris and wounded ego then pushed Coriolanus to seek out his old adversaries, the Volscians, to march on Rome.  Plutarch tells us that the Romans turned Coriolanus back by appealing to his heart through the pleadings of his mother and wife.  Coriolanus called off the battle, and was then murdered by the Volscians for betrayal.  The historicity of the tale has been doubted since, but the tale of the tragic hero always remained attractive to writers.

Shakespeare was the next author to tell the tale in his last, and some say his best, tragedy “Coriolanus.”  In the Bard’s hands, the hero took on more metaphorically heroic importance – how tragic flaws are simply that, tragic, and fickle commoners often have the last say.  Centuries later in 1802 another playwright of Vienna, Heinrich Joseph von Collin (1771-1811), cast Coriolanus (by then referred to as Coriolan) as still more the Romantic tragic hero – caught in the struggle between good governance and an ignorant populace, yet still haunted and undone by his own arrogance.  In Collin’s play, Coriolan commits suicide, a more noble end to his untenable situation.  For all of Beethoven’s enlightened leanings, Collin’s Coriolan seemed to have resonated deeply for the composer – an enlightened hero pitted against a world of ignorance – something Beethoven often felt about himself.  He wrote his Overture to Collin’s play of his own volition, hoping it would gain him a contract with the Viennese Theatres for more operas.  A contract never materialized, but Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture is one of the great Romantic pieces in music.

Beethoven approached his Overture in a very Romantic way in 1807 – it’s based on the literary themes of the story, and essentially unfolds          [. . .]     these two themes battle each other until the peripeteia, the plot changer, when the opening chords come back with vehemence, and the first theme begins to interrupt it while crumbling [. . . ]   in three quiet and vacant plucks of the strings.  For Beethoven, this was a watershed in his composing career, where he successfully [. . .].  For any listener, Coriolan is one of Beethoven’s most satisfying works.