Beethoven: “Egmont” Overture, op. 84
Lamoral, Count Egmont (1522–68), was a historical figure immortalized in Goethe’s tragedy of 1788, the play for which Beethoven later provided incidental music. Egmont, a Dutch nobleman, was on the one hand a loyal subject of Philip II of Spain–he pled Philip’s troth before Mary I of England—and on the other a fervent opponent of the repressive measures visited on the Netherlands by the Spanish regime.
He could neither support the governor-general nor bring himself to join a military insurrection against the Duke of Alba, and was at length captured and beheaded as a traitor for having entertained such high moral scruples.
Beethoven’s overture is altogether appropriate to the swashbuckling tale. It begins with a terrifying unison F and then a fateful, sinister progression in F minor. The melodic undulations in woodwinds and first violins are picked up by the cellos, which work the material into the restless theme of the Allegro, still in minor. The second theme is a major-mode version of the mysterious chords heard in the opening bars. A taut sonata makes its way routinely on through to recapitulation, at which point the insistent chords of the second theme are interrupted by a delicate modulation in the woodwinds. From these there breaks forth a coda in F major of rousing military triumph, with piccolos and heroic brass—quite the equal of the memorable coda that concludes the Fifth Symphony.