Overture to The Ruins of Athens Op. 113
Ludwig van Beethoven
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In 1811, on his doctor’s advice, the ailing Beethoven summered in the Bohemian spa town of Teplitz. While there, he composed incidental music to accompany two new plays by August von Kotzebue. The works debuted in 1812 at the opening of a theater in Pest, Hungary, in a thinly veiled political gambit by the Austrian Emperor Franz I. Recognizing the rising nationalist (i.e., anti-imperial) sentiment brewing in Hungary, Franz tried to win over his subjects by building them an opulent new theater. The opening night program began with Kotzebue’s play King Stephen, a celebration of Hungary’s founding monarch from the year 1000. The evening ended with Kotzebue’s other new drama, The Ruins of Athens, in which Minerva, the Roman goddess of art and music, awakens after two millennia to find Athens occupied by the Turks; she is relieved to learn that culture is alive and well in the city of Pest, thanks to the benevolent emperor. Reinforcing Franz’s agenda, the play’s final chorus (set to music by Beethoven) closes with the lines: “In thanks we swear anew/to old Hungarian royalty unto the death!”
The Overture to The Ruins of Athens is one of the least explored of Beethoven’s orchestral works, partly because he replaced it when a Viennese theater staged a revival of the play in 1822. (That newer overture is known as Consecration of the House and has become a concert staple in its own right.) The original overture begins with a slow introduction. A sense of unsettled ruin emerges from the rising cascades of unstable diminished harmonies. A minor-key theme has a whiff of bygone antiquity; a response from a solo oboe offers hope in a melody formed around ascending triads. The woodwind accompaniment resembles a harmonie, the favored outdoor ensemble of royalty in that era, further reinforcing the noble aura in the music. The fast body of the movement, comprising a brisk three minutes of music, alternates deftly between duple and triple pulses on its way to a regal conclusion.