Many composers in the nineteenth century were to be inspired by Shakespeare, from Berlioz (Beatrice and Benedict, Romeo and Juliet), to Tchaikovsky (Hamlet, another great Romeo and Juliet,) to Verdi (Falstaff), and it might be thought that Beethoven’s Coriolan was an early example, drawing on the harrowing tale of the Roman Coriolanus, whose revolt against the Roman establishment had resulted in tragedy, but in fact his inspiration was a play written in 1802 by an Austrian Civil Servant, one Heinrich Joseph von Collin, a friend of the composer but – somehow – unaware that Shakespeare had written his version in 1607. The source for both plays was the true story of Caius Martius as told in Plutarch’s Lives of Noble Greeks and Romans; some five hundred years BC, he rose to fame by sacking the Volscian city of Corioli, enemy of Rome, and was honoured with the name Coriolanus and the status of Consul, but then through arrogance lost the loyalty of the Roman Senate and people and defected to the Volscians. Intent on destroying Rome, in both plays he is persuaded against an attempt by his mother Volumnia; however, in Shakespeare’s play the Volscians perceive his betrayal as treason and murder him, whilst in Collin’s Coriolan is stricken by remorse at his failings and takes his own life.
Collin’s play was first performed on 24 November 1802 in Vienna and remained current for some three years, but a brief single-performance revival in 1807, possibly to try Beethoven’s overture as a prelude to the play, was eclipsed by a rising tide of admiration throughout Germany for Shakespeare’s version, and Collin’s play disappeared virtually without trace.
Beethoven, fascinated firstly by the conflicts of loyalty which faced Coriolanus / Coriolan and the personal flaws which proved his downfall, and secondly by the relationship between the Consul and his mother, decided to write the work despite the fact that no further performance of the play was officially planned; there was no commission and there would be no incidental music, unlike the circumstances surrounding the composition of his music for another political play, Egmont, two years later.
Thus, in effect, Coriolan was written as a stand-alone concert item, and its gravitas and subject-matter raise it to the status of an early tone-poem in all but name. Beethoven clearly also identified with Coriolan’s anger and desperation, his deafness, which had caused him to contemplate his own suicide in 1802, having by 1807 become almost complete.
The work, in the tragic key of C minor, could scarcely begin more dramatically or with more searing intensity; the strings then set off a darkly conspiratorial figure which will pervade much of the piece. Two species of muscular tied rhythms fight each other – one imagines that Brahms must have admired this piece as these passages surely presage similar muscularity in the later composer’s symphonies and piano concertos. A lyrical theme depicts Volumnia’s pleading with Coriolan to avoid attacking Rome, but music of complete defiance soon dismisses it. More conspiracy ensues with lower strings and bassoon working away underneath, but once again this is rudely thrown aside. The structure of the piece is sonata form; the exposition of the material to date leads to a development and then a recap, before the crisis is reached and the opening string theme is unravelled in desolation by the cellos as Coriolan’s life ebbs away.
Notes by HDJ 27 January 2018