Beethoven: Overture to Consecration of the House
Last performed by the UC Davis Symphony on November 22, 1998
On August 31, 1822, Beethoven began work on music for the opening of the new Josephstadt Theatre in Vienna. The commission came from the theater’s director, Carl Friedrich Hensler, who was a respected friend of Beethoven’s. The librettist, Carl Meisl, had written two theatrical pieces for the opening, scheduled for 3 October 1822, not coincidentally the name day of the Emperor. The first of these pieces (Die Weihe des Hauses, or “The Consecration of the House”) was a paraphrase of Die Ruinen von Athen by Kotzebue, for which Beethoven had composed music in 1811 and 1812.Meisl had made many alterations, however, to Kotzebue’s original, creating difficulty for Beethoven to fit the new words with the old music. Furthermore, additional scenes were added. So, Beethoven wrote some new music (for a choral dance), and revised and altered much of the older. And, instead of recycling the original overture to “The Ruin of Athens,” he chose to write a new piece.
However, even in mid-September he was still trying to find ideas for the musical motives that would become the new overture. It was on a walk with his nephew and his friend Anton Schindler that the ideas surfaced. Having asked the two to go ahead and meet him later, Beethoven was suddenly inspired with the themes he had so urgently sought. When he met up with his friends, he was full of excitement and enthusiasm, not just for the motives themselves, but also for his plan regarding their execution. He proposed treating them in either a free style or in a more strict and Handelian fashion. While his nephew was equally in favor of either course, Schindler recommended the more formal of the two, knowing that Beethoven had long cherished a plan to write in such a style.
The new orchestra of the Josephstadt Theatre received the overture on October 2nd, only one day before the festivities. However, the parts were riddled with copyists’ errors. The single rehearsal, which took place just before the performance and in the presence of the almost filled house, hardly afforded enough time to correct even the worst of the innumerable mistakes. Despite this, however, Beethoven conducted the rather successful performance seated at a piano with his left ear to the stage; this was one of the last occasions on which he could still hear. While Beethoven’s music was well received, perhaps Meisl’s theatrical treatments were not. The overture was repeated a year and a half later at the premiere of the Ninth Symphony, in 1824, and was published in 1825.
Beethoven’s plan to emulate the style of Handel is indeed well executed. The works opening theme—marked Maestoso e sostenuto—evokes the feeling of Handel’s greatest and most regal works. This is interrupted, though, by trumpet fanfares accompanied by brisk bassoon solos and punctuating string chords. A more freely composed transitional section brings us to the final and rather substantial Allegro con brio, emulating a fugue, but characterized by dynamic contrasts in a fashion known to us mostly through the great opera overtures of Rossini.