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Composed: 1800–1801

Length: c. 5 minutes

Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: August 11, 1936, Otto Klemperer conducting

About this Piece

Beethoven was not a composer to the theater born. His one opera, Fidelio, a difficult dozen years in the making, had caused him extreme anguish. There was, however, a happy ending for the project: After the failure of the original and the first revision, the second revision in 1814 was a triumph for the long-suffering artist. Other than some incidental music for several plays, his only other forays into the theatrical arena were two ballet scores, the first written in Bonn in 1790 when he was only 20 (Ritterballett, or Chivalrous Ballet), the second, The Creatures of Prometheus, composed in Vienna 10 years later.

In 1800, still only on the eve of celebrity—even though he had to his credit a symphony, two-and-a-half piano concertos, 11 piano sonatas, and a variety of chamber works—Beethoven was ready to try to gain entrance into Vienna’s charmed musical circle through the door of the theater. The project was a ballet, to be choreographed by the Italian dancer Salvatore Viganò and for which Beethoven would write the score. The ballet treated the ancient myth of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and brought it to mankind—a subject that should have sparked the musical fire-hurler more than it did. In fact, although the ballet was an immediate success and helped somewhat to strengthen Beethoven’s growing Viennese reputation, most of the score is only rarely exhumed in toto. The only genuinely important items remaining of the venture are the quicksilver Overture, one or two of the 16 pieces comprising the whole, and the theme of the finale, later used by Beethoven as the basis for a set of piano variations and for the last movement of his “Eroica” Symphony.

The Overture does not contain the “Eroica” theme, nor does it refer to any specific choreographic action. Rather, it suggests, in a slow opening, the Olympian grandeur of the godly hero and, in the main body of the piece, the exuberant joy of the mortals who benefit from his warm ministrations. In the Adagio introduction, Prometheus shows his bold hand in four loud, solemn measures, then his serene good graces in music that leads directly into the bustling energy of the main section. There is plenty of the Beethoven dash in the first theme, and his lilting lyricism in the second idea. The structure is simple and condensed, the whole a brief and brilliant essay in the Classical orchestral gospel according to Beethoven. —Orrin Howard