Beethoven: Overture to King Stephen (König Stephan), Opus 117
Ludwig Van Beethoven
BORN: Beethoven’s baptismal certificate is dated December 17, 1770. Bonn, then an independent electorate (now Germany)
DIED: March 26, 1827. Vienna, Austria
COMPOSED: Late summer 1811, perhaps continuing until early 1812
WORLD PREMIERE: February 9, 1812, in a production of August von Kotzebue’s play King Stephen at the Hungarian Theatre in Pest, Hungary
SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—April 1949. Pierre Monteux led.
MOST RECENT—January 2014. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted
INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes,2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings
DURATION: About 7 mins
THE BACKSTORY Beethoven endured an unsteady relationship with the stage. He aspired relentlessly to conquer the genre of opera, and his career was littered with fervent expressions of desire, and even a few fragmentary attempts, to compose an opera worthy of his genius. In the end he managed to complete only one full-fledged opera; and, as if to underscore his unease, he actually “completed” it twice under the title Leonore before it reached the final state in which it is usually performed today, under the name Fidelio. But there was more to the stage than opera, and in other theatrical genres Beethoven scored better success. He wrote music for ballets (the Ritterballet and The Creatures of Prometheus) and incidental music, ranging from a single number to complete multi-movement collections, for a half-dozen stage plays: Egmont, Coriolan, King Stephen, The Ruins of Athens, Tarpeja, and Leonore Prohaska. Except for Goethe’s Egmont, all of these plays would be profoundly forgotten today but for Beethoven’s contributions to their productions. Even that has not been enough to keep most of them alive, with the result that these scores contain many of Beethoven’s least known pages.
In July 1811, Beethoven accepted a commission to provide incidental music for two dramatic pieces that were being created for the inauguration of the new Hungarian Theatre in Pest, the town that in 1872 would become the left-bank half of the consolidated city of Budapest. Since the event was slated for early October, Beethoven set to work promptly, carrying out the project while on vacation at the spa in Teplitz, Bohemia, where he was taking a cure for maladies that were plaguing him. On September 13, he dispatched his music for the two plays to the theater’s management: König Stephan: oder Ungarns erster Wohltäter (King Stephen: or Hungary’s First Benefactor) and Die Ruinen von Athen (The Ruins of Athens). Just about then, the inaugural festivities were pushed back four months, to February 9–11, 1812, which allowed Beethoven to go on refining his music at greater leisure.
Both plays were authored by August von Kotzebue (1761–1819), a German lawyer, political journalist, government official (in Estonia), prolific playwright, magazine editor, and cultural journalist who ended up being assassinated in Mannheim by a theology student who suspected him of being a Russian spy. As befit the occasion, these were overtly nationalist plays, with King Stephen evoking incidents in the life of the late-tenth to early-eleventh-century founder of modern Hungary, and The Ruins of Athens depicting Pest as a prolongation of the ideals of ancient Athens. The two plays were designed to be part of the same festivities, with King Stephen serving as prologue (Vorspiel) and The Ruins of Athens as epilogue (Nachspiel); in between came yet another play by Kotzebue, one without any incidental music. Kotzebue’s plays were written and presented in German, which was widely employed as a “language of culture” in Pest at that time.
The only parts of these scores to hold a place in the repertory today are the overtures, though Beethoven’s music for both was quite extensive. His biographer Barry Cooper describes both plays as being essentially singspiels, which is to say that music mingled generously with spoken text. Their musical content therefore resembled Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, for example, more than what was typical “incidental music” for a theater production of the time, in which the play was characteristically the dominant event and the music was literally incidental.
THE MUSIC In his Overture to King Stephen, Beethoven took pains to incorporate something of a Hungarian flavor. Two of the principal themes reflect the Hungarian folk-styles known as lassú and friss, respectively slow and fast dance movements that were typically linked together in folk music. Both display what period listeners would have heard as Magyarisms, the first (andante con moto, introduced by the flute) through the ornament on the first note, the second (a presto section that begins a minute into the piece) through its vivacious syncopations. In other particulars, however, this overture is marked by gestures that seem to have evoked something vaguely humanitarian to Beethoven, particularly to the extent that they would mark his Ninth Symphony more than a decade later. The descending unisons that open the King Stephen Overture would seem to prefigure the opening of the Ninth Symphony; in both instances the effect evokes the sound of instruments tuning up. And then a later theme, introduced by flutes and clarinets, seems almost to be a variation (before the fact) of the famous Ode “To Joy” melody of the Ninth Symphony’s finale. (The Ninth Symphony connection surfaces again in the rousing conclusion of the King Stephen music, where soaring sopranos similarly adumbrate the finale of the symphony that Beethoven would begin working out a decade in the future.)—JAMES M. KELLER