Beethoven: Incidental Music to “Egmont”
Love. Heroism. Allegiance. Tyranny. Honor. Battle. Victory. Sacrifice. Freedom. Death.
These big concepts resonate throughout the compelling epic drama that is Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Egmont. The narrative takes as its source material the historical conflicts leading up to the rebellion of the Netherlanders against the Spanish during the Inquisition. That said, Goethe played fast and loose with history. The Egmont whom you’ll encounter tonight is a lively, passionate bachelor, who shares an idyllic love with a simple maiden Clara. (Indeed, she dies of a broken heart once she realizes that Egmont’s fate is sealed and that he will perish at the hands of the villain—“cruel Alba.”) The real Count of Egmont was 45 years old, with a loyal wife and almost a dozen children, when he was executed in 1567. Yet historical biopic was not Goethe’s intent. Completed in 1787, Egmont was one of three plays written during Goethe’s Sturm und Drang—storm and stress—period. Indeed, sea imagery, lightning, and other references to Nature pepper the text that you’ll hear tonight.
The narrative interspersed through Beethoven’s incidental music to Egmont has a number of manifestations. In 1821, the author Friedrich Mosengeil wrote a series of monologues to be inserted between the entr’actes and songs, so that those less familiar with Goethe’s drama would benefit from the dramatic impact of Beethoven’s music. As musicologist Elizabeth Paley writes, “They carry the music beyond abstract semantic concepts and emotions and provide it with an explicit plot. Beethoven’s music alone fails to communicate the story of Egmont just as Mosengeil’s binding texts alone fail in their lacking endeavour.” That said, these monologues were highly melodramatic and stirring, and Mosengeil prompted other imaginations, including fellow German Grillparzer and British writer W. Bartholomew. Tonight’s narrative is an abridged version of Bartholomew’s verses—written in the manner of Goethe—for an “undress concert” in Manchester, England, in 1855.
The joy of narrating this material is that (as the theatre historian, Allardyce Nicoll put it), “With Goethe’s works we move into the full flush of romanticism.” And rare it is these days to have the opportunity as an actor to inhabit this emotional largesse, as well as the vast panoramas of love, honor, and justice, in such a non-naturalistic, non-psychological way. This is storytelling at its most heightened and liberating—not to mention exciting, with the wave of a full orchestra and its maestro upon which to ride. In all honesty, Goethe’s Egmont probably doesn’t warrant too much searching for tragic depths—he is idealistic, stubborn and the stuff of storybooks. He irrepressibly sets himself up against the Inquisition, while ultimately being just too benevolent to battle reality. Yet it’s arguably Egmont’s naiveté that renders him so endearing a hero. In the manner of Bartholomew, perhaps I might say:
“I play Egmont and find that I am woven
Into the spells of Goethe and Beethoven.”