The Theater of the Listener’s Imagination in Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture

Program Notes for Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, Op. 62

As Scott Burnham writes in his book Beethoven Hero, what makes Beethoven’s music so exciting to listen to is that the listener identifies with the emotions and can project his or her own experiences onto it. In other words, the music does not describe just one story. It is flexible enough to support multiple readings. This observation also applies to Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, which on the surface is about a Roman general Coriolan who abandons his country to fight for the enemy Volscians. Does the music convey Coriolan’s inner turmoil, or does it depict his dialogue with his mother and wife – who plead with him not to attack his fatherland? The flexibility of the music permits either reading, as well as the listener’s own feeling of identification with the emotions expressed in the music.

Beethoven composed this work in 1807 for his friend Heinrich von Collin’s play Coriolan. Collin’s play is based on Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, which also served as the source of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. In contrast to Shakespeare, Collin shifts the drama inward – the play is about Coriolan’s inner moral dilemma – and has the protagonist kill himself at the end.


Nicolas Poussin, Coriolanus, 1652-3, Musée Nicolas Poussin, Les Andelys.

The overture is in sonata form, and begins with an introductory section consisting of a series of fortissimo chords separated by rests. The first theme is in minor and sounds unstable. The second theme, now in the relative major, is lyrical and more stable. While the first theme suggests Coriolan’s dark, brooding thoughts, the second theme conjures up images of his pleading mother and wife. The development section develops smaller motifs taken from the exposition. The music shifts downward and features several beautiful exchanges between the strings and the woodwinds. The return of the introductory material marks the beginning of the recapitulation. The first theme is shortened, and the second one is expanded. The introductory material returns one last time, now followed by a coda in which the first theme is dissolved into silence.

At the time that Beethoven composed the Coriolan Overture, he was living in Vienna and was eager to secure a more permanent position as the house composer of the Theater an der Wien. Beethoven hoped eventually to compose an opera based on a libretto by Collin. In the meantime, Beethoven thought that the overture would demonstrate his theatrical style to his prospective employers. Though Beethoven was not offered the job at the Theater an der Wien, the directors were nevertheless impressed with the dramatic intensity of his music. And while Collin’s play quickly disappeared after its revival in 1807, the overture took on a life of its own as a concert piece. Beethoven’s work became a model for generations of composers after him, and remains a staple of the symphonic repertoire to this day.

Recording Recommendations

Harnoncourt, Nikolaus. Beethoven: Overtures. Recorded with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, November 1993. Teldec 13140, 1996. CD. [Link to YouTube]

Further Reading

Burnham, Scott. Beethoven Hero. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.

Kregor, Jonathan. “Expression, Musical Painting, and the Concert Overture.” In Program Music, 39-68. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Swafford, Jan. Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014.

Note: These program notes were written by Alexander K. Rothe for the Gustavus Symphony Orchestra’s 2016 Malaysian Tour. The concert will be held at the Eastern & Oriental Hotel in Penang, Malaysia on June 25, 2016.

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