Coriolan Overture

by Ludwig von Beethoven (1770-1827)

Ludwig von Beethoven

About this Piece

Although Beethoven was certainly familiar with Shakespeare’s play Coriolanus, this overture was inspired by the drama Coriolan, conceived in 1802 by the playwright and Austrian official Heinrich Joseph von Collin. Both plays tell the story of the Roman military leader Coriolanus and his unsuccessful attempt to wage war against the city of his birth. In the end, Shakespeare has Coriolanus labeled a traitor and murdered; von Collin opts for a basic suicide.

Historians, and even critics in Beethoven’s time, differed as to which play Beethoven had in mind. Some critics, noting that Beethoven struck from the manuscript the words “based upon the drama Coriolan,” believe the overture more closely mirrors Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. The famous composer Richard Wagner advised listeners to look only to Shakespeare for enlightenment (when he wasn’t advising them to look only to Wagner). Wagner suggested that the opening chords depict Coriolanus’s resolve to take Rome by force, and the ensuing soft, pleading melody in the strings represents the general’s mother begging for mercy.

Still other critics and some contemporaries of Beethoven believed the overture to be a Beethoven self-portrait, rather than the portrait of a Roman statesman. One could perhaps argue Beethoven intended it to be both.


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