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8.574076 - BEETHOVEN, L. van: Ruinen von Athen (Die) (The Ruins of Athens) (Chorus Cathedralis Aboensis, Turku Philharmonic, Segerstam)

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Die Ruinen von Athen


Born in Bonn in 1770, Ludwig van Beethoven was of varied musical ancestry. Of particular significance in the family was his grandfather, whose name he bore, and who served as Kapellmeister to the Archbishop Elector of Cologne from 1761 until his death in 1773. A native of Flanders, he had served as a singer in various churches before his appointment in 1733 to Bonn, where he also set up a wine business. Beethoven’s father, Johann, became a singer in the Bonn court musical establishment, but enjoyed a much less distinguished career, his musical abilities increasingly deteriorating. His mother had suffered from some form of alcoholism, leading to her seclusion in an appropriate institution, and her only surviving child, Johann, brought a further problem with his marriage to a young widow without the old Kapellmeister’s approval. The Beethoven household was not a happy one. Johann 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, albeit erratically as far as his father was concerned, and duly entered the service of the Archbishop 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 two younger brothers, in view of his father’s domestic and professional failures. In 1792 Beethoven was sent once more to Vienna, a few weeks before his father’s death, now to study with Haydn, whom he had already 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. At the same time he was able to profit from lessons in counterpoint with Albrechtsberger and in Italian wordsetting with the old court composer and Kapellmeister of the Imperial Chapel, Antonio Salieri. 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.

The occasion for Beethoven’s Die Weihe des Hauses (‘The Consecration of the House’) was the opening of the Josephstadt Theatre in Vienna, music commissioned by the director Carl Friedrich Hensler, calling for settings of two pieces by the Imperial Navy Commissioner, Carl Meisl, to mark the opening. Meisl had adapted Kotzebue’s 1812 Die Ruinen von Athen (‘The Ruins of Athens’) for the opening of the new theatre in Pest. The changes in the text meant that Beethoven had to make matching changes in the score. The earlier Overture for Pest was setting what had been an Epilogue. For the new occasion in 1822 Beethoven found it necessary to write a new Overture, a work that was given the title Die Weihe des Hauses. Reflecting Beethoven’s interest in counterpoint, the Overture had an opening marked Maestoso e sostenuto, followed by a contrapuntal Allegro con brio. Various adjustments were made, including the addition of an offstage chorus, Folge dem mächtigen Ruf der Ehre! (‘Follow the Mighty Cry of Honour’) and a setting of a newly written movement for soprano solo, chorus and solo violin, Wo sich die Pulse, WoO 98. The March with Chorus, Op. 114, Schmückt die Altäre (‘Deck the altars!’) was adapted from Die Ruinen von Athen.

Die Ruinen von Athen provided an epilogue to August von Kotzebue’s celebration of the opening of the new German theatre in Pest in 1812, with its prologue König Stephan (‘King Stephen’). The overture that was to be replaced for Die Weihe des Hauses is followed by a chorus, Tochter des mächtigen Zeus! (‘Daughter of mighty Zeus!’), later to be used, with adapted text, in Meisl’s Josephstadt Theatre Festspiel.

Minerva appears, after an absence of two thousand years, following the death of Socrates (proclaimed by the Delphic oracle as the wisest of men)—she is now forgiven. Merkur appears, bringing pardon from Zeus. Minerva seems to wake from a bad dream, now to return to her Athens, but Merkur warns her that much has changed; she must forget Athens. Minerva, however, will never forget her own city: together they leave. The scene is now the ruins of Athens, with the Parthenon, Temple of Theseus and the Tower of the Four Winds. Minerva asks Merkur where they are and is told that this is Athens: he shows her the ruins of the city, its walls destroyed and the Tower of the Four Winds now a mosque, the people enslaved. There is a duet for a young Greek couple, Ohne Verschulden Knechtschaft dulden (‘Without blame for bondage), and dialogue between them and the gods Minerva and Merkur. Minerva is horrified at the state of her city and its people. A chorus of dervishes sing to the Prophet, Du hast in deines Ärmels Falten (‘You have in the folds of your sleeves carried the moon), their music briefly dismissed in dialogue between Minerva and the Greek maiden. There follows the Turkish March, which has long enjoyed its own fame. Minerva remarks on what she describes as ‘ein barbarisches Geschrei’, and Grecian girls announce the coming of the Janissaries, who arrive to the well-known Marcia alla turca, accompanied by piccolo, oboes, B flat clarinets, bassoons, contrabassoon, horns, trumpets, triangle, cymbals, bass drum and strings, an occidental Janissary band, performing with characteristic melodic figuration and a complement of percussion to which is added, in Beethoven’s handwriting on the original manuscript, the words ‘alle mögliche hierbei lärmende Instrumente wie Castagnetten, Schellen etc.’ (‘All possible noisy instruments such as castanets, cymbals and so on’). Two Turks plan further use for the stone ruins, to the horror of Minerva, who is appalled and suggests that ‘das ist zu viel!’ (‘That is too much!’); she proposes taking refuge in Rome, but Merkur discourages her: Rome too has been subject to barbarian invasion. She bids Athens farewell—‘Lebe wohl, Athen!’—following Merkur’s advice, while an old man tells, over the music, of the festivities for the Emperor. Minerva asks where they are, and questions the old man, who explains the cultural riches of the place, the new Athens—Pest. His excitement grows as a pageant approaches, with figures of the Muses and heroes and heroines from drama. The scene changes to a splendid temple, with altars to Melpomene and Thalia, Muses of tragedy and comedy. The chief priest addresses them, welcoming the two Muses, Melpomene and Thalia. He prays, with the chorus, for a third genius, to be found in the Emperor, patron of the arts. Minerva crowns the bust of the Emperor Franz with a laurel wreath, praising him and his family. Priests and maidens join in decking the altars and in praise of the Emperor.

Keith Anderson

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