Tone Poem Tuesday

It’s well known that Beethoven write only a single opera, Fidelio. A bit less well known is that Beethoven also wrote a single ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus. In Beethoven’s time, ballet was seen mainly as a dance art, and the music was just a framework for the dance. This being the case, it was generally the job of lesser composers to write ballet numbers, while the finer, more serious composers stuck with opera and symphonies and concertos and all the rest. Beethoven was approached in 1801 by Salvatore Vigano, a composer and dancer who was preparing a new ballet based on the legend of Prometheus, the Greek god who stole fire from the heavens and gave it to humanity. Vigano apparently felt strongly enough about the project to want better music for it than he could himself provide, so he asked his friend Ludwig van Beethoven to compose it for him. Beethoven agreed, perhaps because by this point he hadn’t really composed anything for the Vienna stage yet and wanted to establish his name in that arena (Fidelio was still in the future). His resulting ballet is full of Beethovenian classicism and drama, with good cheer and wit throughout. If you’re looking for the brooding Beethoven of, say, the Pathetique Sonata or the storm of the Third Symphony (which was still three years away from revolutionizing the symphony as a form), you won’t find it here. This is as close as Beethoven probably came to the verve and energy of, say, Rossini.

Here is a suite drawn from Beethoven’s music for The Creatures of Prometheus. The work proper starts about a minute in; what’s heard at first over the gathering of concertgoers in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam is a brief snippet of the larger work that you’ll hear in full later on. I’d never heard this piece before I gave it several listens this weekend past, and it’s an utter delight. It’s always worth remembering that Beethoven could be delightful!

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