Listening to Beethoven #163 – Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus (The Creatures of Prometheus) Op.43

Maria Casentini, Beethoven’s prima ballerina for The Creatures of Prometheus. Used courtesy of Beethoven-Haus Bonn

Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus (The Creatures of Prometheus) Op.43 for orchestra (1801, Beethoven aged 30)

Dedication Salvatore Viganò & Empress Maria Theresa
Duration 60′

Music and reconstruction of the plot (from Wikipedia)

Overture
Act 1
Introduction
Poco adagio
Adagio – allegro con brio
Minuetto
Act 2
Maestoso – Andante
Adagio – Andante quasi allegretto
Un poco adagio – Allegro
Allegro con brio – Presto
Adagio – Allegro molto
Pastorale
Andante
Maestoso (also known as “Solo di Gioia” for solo dancer Gaetano Gioia) – Procession of Silenus
Allegro – Comodo – Dance of Pan and two fauns or nymphs
Andante – Adagio (also known as Solo della Casentini, written for Beethoven’s prima ballerina, Maria Casentini)
Andantino – Adagio (also known as Solo di Viganó)
Finale- Wedding

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Ballet had been a central feature of entertainment in Vienna’s court theatres for several generations prior to Beethoven’s arrival, and after a fallow period under Joseph II, Leopold II restored it to a higher standing in the 1790s. Beethoven had just one encounter with the stage in Bonn, his music for the Ritterballet, but as Daniel Heartz points out many of the piano variations he wrote in Vienna were based on dances or arias, showing he was keeping abreast of new works for the stage.

The celebrated choreographer Salavtore Viganò was asked to premiere a new work each year in Vienna from 1799, and in 1801 he chose to focus on the story of Prometheus. With the intention to honour Empress Marie Therese, Beethoven was invited to write the music, and the hour-long score occupied him up to the premiere in the Burgtheater on 28 March 1801.

Anthony Burton, writing in the Deutsche Grammophon Complete Beethoven, remarks that ‘The Creatures of Prometheus is a work of unusual interests in two respects. It consists of over an hour of mature Beethoven…which is virtually unknown apart from a short overture and one tune in the finale. And it is one of only two extended ballet scores by major composers of the Classical period (the other is Gluck’s Don Juan) to have survived intact. After its first performance the piece became wildly popular, receiving another 28 performances before the end of the following year.

Summarising the plot, he writes, ‘The demigod Prometheus creates two human figures out of clay and brings them to life with the aid of fire stolen from heaven. Finding them lacking in any emotion, he leads them to Parnassus, where they are instructed in the arts by Apollo, Bacchus and the Muses, and through the power of harmony made susceptible to all the passions of human life.’

Heartz describes the structure of the ballet as a ‘heroic-allegorical’ story with the heroism in Act 1 and the allegorical work in Act II, a much longer structure’. The overture, with its close links to the Symphony no.1 in C major, is often performed separately as a concert-opener. Act II is described as ‘more pageant than action ballet’.

Heartz picks out three numbers for special attention. No.8 is described as ‘an impressive rondo in martial style’, no.10 ‘a lovely Pastorale’, and no.16 ‘the great Finale’, where Beethoven writes a theme later used in his Eroica Variations Op.35, and the finale of the Eroica symphony. No.14 in F is the big solo for the celebrated Signora Casentini, playing the first woman created.’

Anthony Burton’s conclusion is striking. ‘Prometheus caught and enhanced the dramatic fire of which Beethoven was capable. It emboldened him to attempt more daring orchestral feats in Symphony no.2. Experience in theatre helped him when he returned to the dramatic stage with his Leonore in subsequent years.

With all that said, audiences were disappointed, in spite of Beethoven’s prowess as a composer. As he wrote just three weeks after the premiere, ‘I have made a ballet, but the ballet master did not make the very best of his end of the job’.

Thoughts

Most concert-goers encounter just five minutes of Beethoven’s music for The Creatures of Prometheus, through the Overture. It is often chosen as an opening piece by orchestras because of its abrupt start, a chord hewn from the rock face. Like the beginning of the first symphony it is a C major chord with an added seventh (B flat) but this time the added note is at the bottom of the texture. The sharp attack no doubt stifles conversation among even the most disruptive audience members! Beethoven’s expert use of silence around the first few chords heightens the drama.

If the Overture is the only part of the ballet you have heard, then you have been missing out. The Creatures of Prometheus might not be a forsaken masterpiece, but it has a lot of good tunes, imaginative orchestration and some very positive music. The relative lack of plot does play a part at times, meaning there is not quite as much contrast in the music of Act 2 as there might have been, but Beethoven’s writing more than compensates.

The orchestration feels heavier than the first symphony, both in the overture and in the bright and breezy section where the statues come to life. The harp playing of Amphion is a striking beginning to the fifth number, which also has a striking cello solo (Orpheus) whose cadenza is followed by a soft-hearted theme as the creatures are presented to Apollo.

There is an impressive heft to the section where the two humans are taught martial arts, while the Pastorale is rather lovely. The prima ballerina solo is elegant and beautifully scored, with solos for basset horn and oboe. The penultimate number begins in subdued fashion but breaks out into a vigorous exchange. Finally we turn to one of Beethoven’s favourite keys, E flat major, for the wedding and celebration of Prometheus’ mission. The important theme ends the ballet in celebratory mood, with a spring in the step and some bracing orchestral figures.

A highly enjoyable hour in Beethoven’s company, then – and an energising one too.

Spotify playlist and Recordings used

Orchestra of the 18th Century / Frans Brüggen (Philips)
Chamber Orchestra of Europe / Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)
Freiburger Barockorchester / Gottfried von der Goltz (Harmonia Mundi)

After the opening chords ricochet, the sound of the Freiburger Barockorchester is unexpectedly rich in the lower end, before a headlong rush through the first Allegro. Their approach is a vigorous one, and highly enjoyable in the faster music where a gutsy orchestral sound is revealed.

Frans Brüggen conducts another ‘period instrument’ version with real panache, his Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century not quite as bombastic as their counterparts from Freiburg but giving a classy interpretation nonetheless. Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducts a version with plenty of character from the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, while the conductor-less Orpheus Chamber Orchestra impress with their control and depth, if not quite as much evident excitement as the period versions.

To listen to clips from the recording from the Scottih Chamber Orchestra conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras on Hyperion, head to their website

You can chart the Arcana Beethoven playlist as it grows, with one recommended version of each piece we listen to. Catch up here!

Also written in 1801 Haydn The Spirit’s Song, Hob.XXVIa:41

Next up Sonata for piano and violin no.4 in A minor Op.23

Listening to Beethoven #80 – Sextet in E flat major Op.81b


University square in Vienna by Bernardo Bellotto (18th century)

Sextet in E flat major Op.81b for 2 horns and string quartet (1795, Beethoven aged 24)

1. Allegro con brio

Dedication unknown
Duration 17′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

In his early twenties Beethoven wrote a good deal of music for wind instruments, staying close to the ‘Serenade’ and ‘Divertimento’ forms perfected by Mozart. The combination for this particular work is quite unusual, with the two horns and string quartet unmatched in any other composition. The only comparable instrumentation would seem to be Mozart’s Horn Quintet in E flat major from 1782.

Peter Holman, in his booklet notes for the Gaudier Ensemble’s recording on Hyperion, speculates that the work may have been written for performance by Nicholas Simrock, a friend of Beethoven’s since their days at the orchestra in Bonn in 1789. Simrock published the work in 1810 with the misleading Op.81b, suggesting a composition date much later than the actual year of 1795.

The work brings the two horns to the front, giving them plenty of opportunity for display – and often has the horns and string quartet as opposing or complementary forces.

Thoughts

This is a light-hearted work, very undemanding for the listener – but pleasant too, with plenty of easy natured tunes. Sometimes it feels like Beethoven is just trying out the agility of the horns, while other times he writes unexpectedly moving music. Some of the horn lines in the slow movement in particular, a lovely reverie in A flat major, are sublime, as are the colours Beethoven achieves with the richness of the horns and the strings.

The third movement has something of the hunt about it, from the opening theme on the horn, but it also shifts to the minor key for quite a big section in the middle, exposing a mournful theme from one of the horns. There are some lovely low notes towards the end, part of a pretty rigorous technical challenge for both horn players.

Overall though the Sextet has a lovely communal feel, an undemanding but quite substantial work – and occupies quite a unique spot with its instrumental combination.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Members of the Berlin Philharmonic Octet (Philips)
Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Chamber Ensemble (Philips)
L’Archibudelli (Sony)
Gewandhaus Quartet, Hermann Baumann, Vladimir Dshambasov (horns) (Deutsche Grammophon)

The older recordings from the Members of the Berlin Philharmonic Octet and the Gewandhaus Quartet show their age a little, with quite grainy string sound, and with the DG recording the two groups feel very separate. The L’Archibudelli version, on period instruments, is really enjoyable, and the slightly unpredictable horn tuning adds a touch of authenticity. The ASMF Chamber Ensemble are excellent in this repertoire, beautifully poised and balanced.

The Spotify playlist below collects the recordings used:

You can chart the Arcana Beethoven playlist as it grows, with one recommended version of each piece we listen to. Catch up here!

Also written in 1795 Frederich Witt Horn Concerto in E flat major

Next up String Quintet in E flat major Op.4

Listening to Beethoven #44 – Octet in E flat major Op.103


View of Vienna during the Baroque era by Bernardo Bellotto (18th century)

Octet in E flat major Op.103 for wind octet (2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 horns and 2 bassoons) (1792-93, Beethoven aged 22)

Dedication Maximilian Franz, Elector of Cologne
Duration 21′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

The Octet dates mostly from 1792, when Beethoven was still in Bonn – where author Daniel Heartz confirms it was written as Tafelmusick for the Harmonie band of the elector. The Harmonie band had a specific instrumentation mirroring the one written for by Mozart in Vienna – two each of oboes, clarinets, horns and bassoons.

When Beethoven had arrived in Vienna and was studying under Haydn, the elder composer unwittingly submitted the completed work back to the Elector in Bonn. It was covered in the enclosure of ‘a few pieces of music, a quintet, an eight-voiced parthie, an oboe concerto, variations for the piano, and a fugue composed by my dear pupil Beethoven, who was so graciously entrusted to me’. The Octet was finally published as Op.103, three years after Beethoven’s death.

In his appraisal of the piece, Anthony Burton writes that ‘some of the accomplishment of this work may be due to its revision in 1793, after Beethoven had moved to Vienna and begun studying with Haydn. He complements the first movement as ‘particularly well constructed, with intensive treatment of its opening idea’, saying that ‘Beethoven yields nothing to Mozart in his handling of the instruments. If anything, he makes more effective use of the contrast between the full band and groups of two or three players’. He gives the bassoon in the second movement as an example of this, and in the fourth movement applauds the way in which Beethoven ‘spreads the arpeggio figuration of the first theme around the group, including – spectacularly – the horns.’

Thoughts

The Octet is an attractive and entertaining piece, with all the first principles of communal chamber music. Beethoven’s part writing is inclusive, passing his melodies and their development between the groups of oboes, clarinets, horns and bassoons.

The lively first movement explores the lovely sonorities of the wind ensemble, with lively exchanges and imaginative working of the melodies. The second movement is effectively pared down to bring out the solo qualities of oboe and bassoon, who pass Beethoven’s graceful writing between each other, the rest of the ensemble content to accompany from afar.

The Minuet (really a scherzo in all but name) has a nervous energy running through it, generated from the four-note motif the instruments share, with a few unexpected minor-key harmonies and occasional pauses. The trio section of this movement has fragments of melody from the clarinet and bassoon, punctuated by horns.

The last movement is the standout, ending on a high with some virtuosic writing for the horns amongst the bright and characterful writing, while the clarinets bubble to the surface too. Beethoven’s wit comes out smiling here.

Given this is one of his early works for wind ensemble the assurance of Beethoven’s writing is striking, taking the piece close to the world of Mozart’s serenades for wind of around 11 years earlier. The Viennese audiences would surely have been impressed, and it’s no wonder Haydn made a case in favour of the Octet.

Recordings used

Members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)
L’Archibudelli (Sony Vivarte)
Sabine Meyer Bläserensemble (Warner Classics)
The Albion Ensemble (Helios)

Like the Rondino previously heard, there are some fine versions of the Octet. The Members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, a starry cast, give a strong account from 1969 for Deutsche Grammophon. There is a greater lightness of touch from the Sabine Meyer Bläserensemble, who are especially fluent in the first movement. The rougher contours of the L’Archibudelli horns are appealing, as is their expansive approach to the second movement, taken at a slower tempo. The finale is an eventful quickstep.

Spotify links

L’Archibudelli

https://open.spotify.com/track/21tzSX512uU3pTJgClXMeR?si=BfN5sBRoQiSFSnCIfkTk0w

Sabine Meyer Bläserensemble

https://open.spotify.com/album/14YW4LEuvkVJfAqB3Ed2PX?si=eIF2H30PQ7aLHqut9MiNcA

You can chart the Arcana Beethoven playlist as it grows, with one recommended version of each piece we listen to. Catch up here!

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/4BJCc2kWe7McJUVsR7t7bF?si=t8WaPuz4SIGhzDawjH2avA

Also written in 1793 Cimarosa Concerto for 2 flutes in G major

Next upOboe Concerto in F major (fragment)