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8.553404 - BEETHOVEN: Creatures of Prometheus (The), Op. 43

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43


Beethoven’s time was one of revolutions and wars, terror and reform, poverty and extravagance and in many ways his music reflects the turbulence of the age in which he lived. Austria was at war with Ottoman Turkey, the French were in dispute with Austria and England with France. The fall of the Bastille in 1789 was a sign of the end of the old order, extinguished for ever, to be replaced by “sophisters, economists and calculators”. The period brought wide cultural changes, changes in political philosophy and in society, in literature, in painting and in music with the towering genius of Beethoven, hailed by Schumann, in the next generation, as a giant, and by Liszt as the pillar of smoke that led to the Promised Land.

Vienna, where Beethoven had settled in 1792, was a dazzling city. Under Queen Maria Theresia, to whom the Habsburg Empire had fallen in 1740, the political capital was a rich cultural centre. Here there were as many as three new ballet productions a month, with divertissement and dance as a prescribed element in fashionable opera. Chief among Vienna’s great ballet-masters were Franz Hilverding, who had studied in Paris, a pioneer of the so-called “ballet d’action”, the ballet with a story. His pupil Gaspero Angiolini, choreographer of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, continued the tradition, with the French choreographer Noverre, who was in Vienna for a time from 1767. It was in the 1790s that the innovative Italian dancer and choreographer Salvatore Viganò, a nephew of the composer Boccherini, came to Vienna. His contemporaries saw in him the creator of the so-called “coreodramma”, with its strong element of rhythmic mime and primary attention to the music. It was for him that Beethoven wrote in 1800 and 1801 his second ballet score, the music for the two-act “mythologicalallegorical” Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus (The Creatures of Prometheus), dedicated to Princess Maria Christiane von Lichnowsky, wife of his benefactor, Prince Karl Lichnowsky.

The original scenario of the ballet is lost, making it difficult to establish the precise context of many of the sixteen numbers of the score and leading to different treatments of the music by various choreographers since, including, in the twentieth century, Serge Lifar, Ninette de Valois and Frederick Ashton. Nevertheless a broad outline of the story can be gathered from a surviving theatre-bill for the first performance at the Hofburgtheater on 28th March 1801:

“The basis of this allegorical ballet is the fable of Prometheus. The Greek philosophers, by whom he was known, allude to him thus—they depict him as a lofty soul who drove ignorance from the people of his time, and gave them manners, customs, and morals. As the result of this conception, two statues that have been brought to life are introduced… and these, through the power of harmony, are made sensitive to the passions of human life. Prometheus leads them to Mount Parnassus in order that Apollo, the deity of the arts, may instruct them. Apollo gives them as teachers Amphion, Arion and Orpheus to instruct them in music; Melpomene to teach them tragedy; Thalia, comedy; Terpsichore and Pan, the latest Shepherd’s Dance which the latter has invented, and Bacchus, the Heroic Dance of which he was the originator”. The punishment of Prometheus, who had stolen fire from Olympus to bring to life his “creations” and was, at the command of Zeus, the King of the Gods, chained to a rock in the Caucasus, where his liver was daily eaten by vultures, is omitted.

It is not clear to what extent the high hopes raised by the commission were realised. The ballet, in the years 1801 and 1802, had some 23 performance and Beethoven’s piano transcription of the work was published in June 1801 by Artaria, with the orchestral parts of the Overture following in 1804 from the Leipzig publishers Hoffmeister & Kühnel. In his own letters, however, he expresses dissatisfaction with the work of the choreographer. The critic of the Zeitung für die elegante Welt (The Newspaper for the Elegant World), writing on the nineteenth of May 1801, had serious reservations: “The music [like the choreography] did not completely come up to expectations, notwithstanding some uncommon virtues. Whether Herr van Beethoven can achieve what audiences such as those [in Vienna] demand with so uniform—not to say monotonous—a subject, I leave undecided. There can scarcely be any doubt, however, that his writing here is too learned for a ballet, and pays too little regard to the dancing. Everything is on too large a scale for a divertissement which is what the ballet ought to be, and in the absence of suitable situations it was bound to remain fragmentary rather than becoming a whole…”.

In Beethoven’s sketch-book for the period nearly a hundred pages of sketches for the ballet survive, excluding the Overture [1] and No. 11 [13]. Hastily scribbled reminders and stage directions, mostly in German or Italian, supplement what little we know of the story and its possible action, as does Carl Ritorni’s early nineteenth century account of Viganò’s ballets.

The C major Overture [1] has a slow introduction followed by a brilliant sonata-form Allegro molto con brio, drawing on material from the last scene of the ballet. This sets the scene: “Pursued by the mighty wrath of Heaven (giving occasion for a loud and vigorous musical prelude) Prometheus enters, running through the forest towards his two clay figures, to whose hearts he hastily applies the celestial fire” (Ritorni). The Introduction [2] follows, La tempesta (The Storm), marked Allegro non troppo, linking the Overture to the first act and a prototype, as Sir George Grove pointed out more than a century ago, of the storms of the Pastoral Symphony.

The first act opens in C major with Poco adagio / Allegro con brio [3], as the clay figures falteringly acquire life and motion, becoming man and woman. There follows a D minor Adagio — Allegro con brio [4] to which Prometheus, exhausted on a rock, recovers, to find that his figures have neither reason nor feeling. They fall to the ground under a tree. In an Allegro vivace [5], less animated and more hostile, they move about clumsily, trying to escape Prometheus, who finally catches them and drags them away.

In the second act the scene changes to central Greece and Parnassus, sacred of old to Apollo, the sun-god. He is surrounded by the nine Muses, daughters of Zeus and Memory, inspirers of poetry, music and the arts, the three Graces and Bacchus, god of wine, together with his revellers. Three characters, a bold anachronism, in Ritorni’s opinion, pay court, Orpheus, Amphion and Arion, half divine, the legendary musicians of the ancient world. In a hushed series of stately stepping unisons, Maestoso – Andante, in D major, [6] Prometheus presents his animate but spiritless figures to Apollo. In the following B-flat major Adagio [7], a rapturously woven tapestry of texture and timbre, feeling is instilled in the figures, through solos, tremolos and Sublime aria, accompanied pizzicato. Euterpe, one of the Muses, begins to play (flute), accompanied by Amphion on his lyre (harp, for the only time in Beethoven’s orchestral writing, and plucked strings). Arion (bassoon) and Orpheus (clarinet) join in, then Apollo (cello) with a high-ascending 6/8 dance-song, Andante quasi Allegretto, to which the figures start to respond. To a G major Un poco Adagio – Allegro, [8] they are awakened to human consciousness and begin to gambol skittishly, welcoming their creator. In a G major Grave [9] Terpsichore and the Graces take the stage, followed by Bacchus and his retinue. The tight, double-dotted rhythms add a portentous French dimension, with a contrast of forceful assertions and quiet rejoinders. The ensuing D major Allegro con brio [10] is a war-like Bacchic dance, the alla marcia refrains interrupted by three episodes, the first suggesting the fashionable “Turkish” mode. This is rounded off by a rousing Presto. Seizing weapons, the figures become obsessed with the quest for military glory. An E-flat major / C minor Adagio – Allegro molto, [11] in the sketches “la muse tragique’, marks the intervention of Melpomene. In a dramatically intense movement, she shows, through mime, that mortal life ends in death. Horrified they recoil. Then, stabbing Prometheus with a dagger, she punishes him for exposing his “children” to human destiny. In Beethoven’s note-book, across the final three major triads are the French words “Promethe mort, les enfants pleurent” (Prometheus dead, the children weep). There follows a richly scored “Pastorale”, a C major Allegro, [12] with separate cello and double bass parts and a joyful wind choir. This is Pan’s Shepherd’s Dance, a parody of the familiar Italian pastoral style of the eighteenth century. Prometheus is brought to life again and Thalia holds masks before the still weeping figures.

The following G major Andante [13] is transitional, its narrative unknown. This is succeeded by a C major Maestoso – Andante – Allegro, Solo di Gioja’, [14] in the guise of a march, interrupted by a reflective interlude for flute, bassoon and violin. The narrative is unknown, but the Italian dancer and composer Gaetano Gioia was in Vienna for the 1800–1801 season, when his own ballets were staged there. He may have danced the part of the male “child” of Prometheus. There is no narrative element for the following D major Allegro [15], a sectional number with a coda in German country-dance style, perhaps intended for the corps de ballet. There now comes an F major Andante – Allegro [16], described as “Solo della Cassentini”, delicately scored with basset horn, Beethoven’s only use of the instrument, and oboe. The bewitching Marie Cassentini, of bared shoulders and dark ringlets, was prima ballerina at the Vienna Court Opera, taking the rôle of the female creature of Prometheus. The first night of the ballet was given in her benefit. Once again the narrative relevance of this is unknown, as is that of the following B-flat major Andantino – Adagio – Allegro [17], “Solo di Viganò”, presumably for Viganò in the rôle of Prometheus. It is suggested that the function of these solos and a possible ensemble were as display set-pieces, lacking, therefore, any direct narrative relevance.

In E-flat major, the proud key of the new age, the Finale [18], marked Allegretto – Allegro molto – Presto, provides a rondo for the concluding tableau, its refrain and four-note bass to be used in the Eroica Symphony in 1803 and in the so-called Eroica Variations, as well as in the seventh of the Twelve Contretänze WoO 14. Symphonically exultant, driven onwards by energising rhythms and off-beat accents, the closing paragraphs bring the curtain down in a blaze of orchestral sound, clarinets, horns and attacking kettle-drums, characteristic of Beethoven at the turn of the century, “like Lucifer, a son of the morning, glorying in his power”.

Ateş Orga
Ateş Orga is author of Beethoven: His Life and Times, rev. ed. Omnibus Press/Music Sales London & New York 1983

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