COMPOSER: Ludwig van Beethoven
BORN: December 17, 1770, Bonn
DIED: March 26, 1827, Vienna
COMPOSED: 1822 for the re-opening of the Theater in der Josefstad
WORLD PREMIERE: October 3, 1822, Vienna
INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes, 2 clarinets, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, strings
ABOUT THE COMPOSER: By 1822, Beethoven enjoyed a reputation as the most eminent composer in Europe. He had given up playing the piano in public due to his almost total deafness, and the “Consecration” Overture marked, perhaps, the last time he successfully conducted a public performance. But he was still producing enormous, transcendental works, and the notebooks he offered his visitors as a way to overcome his hearing loss reflect their sense of awe and wonder, despite the fact that the Ninth Symphony was still in the future.
WHAT YOU’LL HEAR:
The “house” being consecrated was, surprisingly, not a church or cathedral. Rather, Beethoven was commissioned to write this overture for the opening of a new public playhouse. The piece is structured like an oratorio overture by Handel, whom Beethoven admired: a slow, dignified march – as if for a king to enter – followed by an energetic fugue.
The march is in C major, considered a “royal” key because trumpets were the prerogative of royalty, and valveless natural trumpets were usually pitched in C or D. After a few opening chords, we hear a song with four balanced four-measure phrases in the woodwinds; the strings join in for the repeat. This passage, about two minutes of music, may have been written so that the local dignitaries could enter in a procession and take their seats. Trumpet calls with an oddly out-of-place bassoon obligato follow; then comes a horn call followed by a slow imitative passage in the strings that disintegrates and re-forms as a buildup to the rhythm long-short-short-long-long that serves as the most hearable feature of the subject of the fugue in the fast section.
Beethoven appears to offer us a fugue in double counterpoint, with the long-short-short-long-long figure as the subject, and a descending scale in sustained notes as the counter-subject; the counter-subject is actually easier to recognize. The entrances come as the violins versus the upper woodwinds first, answered by the cellos versus the lower woodwinds, then the cellos with violin and woodwind counter-subject, then violins versus cellos, then woodwinds versus cellos, and the section ends with the cellos versus woodwinds. In a new section, the subject appears alone, and Beethoven brings in his famous Fifth-Symphony trick, gradually cutting the four-measure subject down to half its original length, then fragmenting it further until only five notes remain. The horns, cellos, and timpani signal the approaching end of the fugue, and the overture itself, with a rumbling pedal tone that leads to thunderous cadencing, interrupted by a big deceptive cadence, then a return to cadencing and a 16-measure final chord.