Beethoven’s Overture to Egmont

Political allegory finds potent artistic manifestation in Beethoven’s Overture to Egmont. When Beethoven composed the overture and incidental music to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s play Egmont between 1809 and 1810, Europe was engulfed in the Napoleonic Wars (1800-1814), during which Napoleon dramatically extended the reach of the French empire. Goethe’s historical play Egmont (1788) describes the Count of Egmont, a sixteenth-century Flemish nobleman who was executed for fighting against Spanish domination in the Netherlands. The celebration of the heroic efforts of the Count of Egmont to resist foreign oppression undoubtedly resonated for Beethoven, whose city of residence, Vienna, was twice occupied by Napoleon (in 1805 and 1809). The Overture to Egmont proves remarkably powerful, opening with an unmistakable gravitas, followed by a succession of themes that seem to illustrate Count Egmont’s life and struggles. By this point in his career Beethoven had succeeded in uniting vigorous, dynamic musical expression with masterful technical fluency, and the Overture to Egmont stands as a testament to this achievement.

This was written by Molly Barnes, a doctoral student and teaching assistant in the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Department of Music. She wrote it for the program of the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique conducted by John Eliot Gardiner in November 2011.

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