As a musical giant who, despite all the trials and tribulations of his life, sought to change the musical world with what could be thought of as an incendiary talent, it seems more than fitting that Beethoven should find himself writing a ballet based on the legend of Prometheus.
The Greek God Prometheus, one version of mythology has it, looked down from Mount Olympus and saw that humanity was struggling in ignorance, so he stole fire from the Gods to pass down – as interpreted by the Greek writers he gave not only the gift of fire itself but also by extension culture and scientific knowledge. As a punishment Prometheus was sentenced to be bound to a rock and subjected to having his organs eaten by an eagle by day only to have them replenished overnight ready for the next attack. Eventually he was freed as one of the Twelve Labours of Heracles.
Sadly, Beethoven’s life somewhat mirrored that of Prometheus — his music was one of the greatest gifts ever bestowed upon humanity, but his deafness and other physical suffering might be interpreted as a punishment from the Gods for his temerity.
Late in 1800 in Vienna Beethoven was approached by the composer and dancer Salvatore Vigano who had been commissioned by the Empress Maria Theresa to produce a ballet for the Court Theatre. Vigano had chosen the story of Prometheus but realised that whilst he was confident of his choreographic ability, the composition needed a greater talent.
Vigano’s scenario adapted the myth of Prometheus and borrowed that of Pygmalion to bring the work into a more suitable form for the ballet conventions of the time. In his libretto Prometheus, an artist, dies and is resurrected to create two inanimate figures, a man and a woman, whom he brings to life with the fire he has stolen. He helps civilise them through music and art before proudly presenting them, his creatures, to the Gods. If all that sounds familiar, it explains firstly why Mary Shelley subtitled her novel Frankenstein ‘A Modern Prometheus’, and, secondly, the derivation of the title of George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion.
Normally Beethoven was a slow and painstaking composer but he worked uncharacteristically quickly for the ballet, which came to be called The Creatures of Prometheus. Beethoven wrote the Overture, plus an Introduction, fifteen movements and a Finale, and the ballet was premiered in March 1801, but in truth his score, the only complete ballet score he ever wrote, was too powerful and difficult to choreograph.
Latterly the Overture is the only section from the ballet which is heard regularly, except that in 1802 Beethoven recycled one of the themes from later in the ballet to become the Eroica Variations and Fugue for solo piano, Op.35, and elevated it still further in 1804 to form the skeletal core theme of the finale of the Eroica symphony.
The Overture, in C major, begins with a slow introduction; the opening chords declare the serious intent of the piece but the general tenor of the introduction is one of aspiration. The sonata-form Allegro arrives shortly with a perpetuum mobile, hushed to begin with, then bursting into life with the full orchestra. Woodwind introduce the jaunty second theme, but drama with complex key changes and vivid dynamic contrasts is not far away in the remainder of the development. The lengthy recap eventually brings us to a satisfying coda and a triumphant conclusion.