About this Recording
8.573853 - BEETHOVEN, L. van: Geschöpfe des Prometheus (Die) [Ballet] (Turku Philharmonic, Segerstam)

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus, Op. 43 (‘The Creatures of Prometheus’)


Born in Bonn in 1770, Ludwig van Beethoven was the eldest son of a singer in the musical establishment of the Archbishop-Elector of Cologne, and grandson of the Archbishop’s former Kapellmeister, whose name he took. The household was not a happy one. Beethoven’s father became increasingly inadequate both as a singer and as a father and husband, with his wife always ready to draw invidious comparisons between him and his own father. Beethoven, however, was trained as a musician, however erratically, and duly entered the service of the Archbishop, serving as an organist and as a string player in the archiepiscopal orchestra. He was already winning some distinction in Bonn, when, in 1787, he was first sent to Vienna, to study with Mozart. The illness of his mother forced an early return from this venture and her subsequent death left him with responsibility for his younger brothers, in view of his father’s domestic and professional failures. In 1792 Beethoven was sent once more to Vienna, now to study with Haydn, whom he had met in Bonn.

Beethoven’s early career in Vienna was helped very considerably by the circumstances of his move there. The Archbishop was a son of the Empress Maria Theresa and there were introductions to leading members of society in the imperial capital. Here, Beethoven was able to establish an early position for himself as a pianist of remarkable ability, coupled with a clear genius in the necessarily related arts of improvisation and composition. The onset of deafness at the turn of the century seemed an irony of fate. It led Beethoven gradually away from a career as a virtuoso performer and into an area of composition where he was able to make remarkable changes and extensions of existing practice. Deafness tended to accentuate his eccentricities and paranoia, which became extreme as time went on. At the same time it allowed him to develop his gifts for counterpoint. He continued to revolutionise forms inherited from his predecessors, notably Haydn and Mozart, expanding these almost to bursting point, and introducing innovation after innovation as he grew older. He died in 1827, his death the occasion of public mourning in Vienna.

Nephew of the composer Luigi Boccherini, the dancer and choreographer Salvatore Viganò won considerable success in Vienna with ballets that he described as coreodramma, involving an element of naturalism in a narrative dramatic structure. It was for Viganò that Beethoven was commissioned to provide music for the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus, which was staged in Vienna at the Burgtheater in March 1801. A piano version of the score was published in the same year as Op. 24, a numbering that later had to be changed, and with a dedication to ‘Princess Maria Christine Lichnowsky’, the wife of Beethoven’s patron, Prince Karl Lichnowsky. The score of the Ouverture and orchestral parts were published in 1804 by Hoffmeister. The libretto has not survived, but something of the narrative may be derived from the theatre playbill, and from Beethoven’s sketch book. In mythology Prometheus is not only the victim of divine justice when he is punished by Zeus for the theft of fire for mankind, chained to a rock in the Caucasus, where daily an eagle pecked out his liver, but is also credited with the creation of mankind. It is on this that Viganò bases his drama, although in a Milan restaging in 1813 he used the fuller legend and different music. The playbill explains the project:

This allegorical ballet is based on the myth of Prometheus. The Greek philosophers who knew him tell the story thus: they depict Prometheus as a lofty spirit who, finding the human beings of his time in a state of ignorance, refined them through art and knowledge and gave them laws of right conduct. In accordance with this source, the ballet presents two animate statues who, by the power of harmony, are made susceptible to all the passions of human existence. Prometheus takes them to Parnassus to receive instruction from Apollo, god of the arts, who commands Amphion, Arion and Orpheus to teach them music, Melpomene and Thalia tragedy and comedy. Terpsichore, muse of dance, aids Pan who introduces them to the Pastoral Dance which he has invented, and from Bacchus they learn his invention—the Heroic Dance.

In Act I Prometheus enters, running through the forest to the two clay figures he has made and pursued by the wrath of Zeus. The Introduction that links the Ouverture  1  to the following number represents a storm  2 . The two inanimate clay figures, representing man and woman, come to life, but lack reason and feeling. The figures try to escape from Prometheus, but are finally captured  3  5 .

Act II is set in pastoral Greece, where, on Mount Parnassus, Prometheus seeks the aid of Apollo, with the nine Muses, the three Graces and Bacchus. The clay figures start tentatively to come to life  6 . The flute-playing Muse Euterpe starts to play, with the legendary semidivine musicians, Orpheus, Amphion and Arion to teach the newly created figures music, Amphion on the lyre (the harp), Arion with the bassoon and Orpheus with clarinet. Apollo is represented by the cello  7 . The figures start to gambol and disport themselves  8 . Terpsichore and the Graces teach the dance  9 , and Pan the pastoral dance. Bacchus and his followers, in warlike mode, enter  10 , and Melpomene adds a reminder of human mortality and, for the moment, death to Prometheus  11 . Pan’s lilting Pastorale follows convention  12  and there are dances for the Italian primo ballerino Gaetano Gioia  13  14 , briefly in Vienna. The three leading figures of the ballet appear in grotesque masks  15 . There is a solo for the prima ballerina, Maria Casentini, the female clay figure of the plot  16 . The creator of the ballet, Salvatore Viganò, who presumably danced the title-role, has a solo  17 . The Finale  18  brings the very familiar Prometheus theme, later to be used in the ‘Eroica’ Symphony and the ‘Eroica’ Variations, in a conclusion of heroic optimism for humanity.

Keith Anderson

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