Wednesday, 8 October 2008

36 Steps to Vienna: 7 Prometheus (3)



In 1800 Beethoven was commissioned by Salvatore Viganò, an avant-garde choreographer, to write the music for a ballet, Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus, The Creations (or Creatures) of Prometheus. The book of the ballet is lost, so we can only conjecture what the substance of the ballet was from a surviving Viennese play-bill, and of course from the music. Act 2, for instance, was set on Mt Parnassus and records the apotheosis of Prometheus, who has brought the human beings he has created to Apollo and the nine Muses for cultural and scientific instruction. Whatever the merits of this, Beethoven's music is mostly very fine, and by all accounts the ballet was popular and the music was well received, impressing even the elderly Haydn.

There are some engaging mysteries here. The music consists of an overture, which is occasionally performed, and 16 dance numbers, which very seldom appear on any concert programme. Rarities abound: virtually the only instances of Beethoven's use of the basset horn (a sort of tenor clarinet) and the harp are found here. More intriguingly, there's a very uncommon and curious example of melodic recycling, re-using a tune he'd earlier written for something else. The last Prometheus movement, the finale, features a tune which Beethoven had written perhaps a year before as No.7 of a set of 12 contredanses, formation dances something like Scottish reels. Within the space of two or three years this tune did quadruple duty, as the contredanse (before 1800), in the Prometheus finale (1800), as the theme for 15 Variations and a Fugue for piano, Opus 35 (1802) and finally, in the place where it's best known, in the last movement of the Eroica symphony (1803). It's very unusual to find Beethoven borrowing his own music, let alone anyone else's, so clearly this tune had a particular significance for him.

It's easier to speculate about this from back to front. The Eroica symphony represented a major and definitive statement of Beethoven's entire aesthetic belief, to such an extent that some commentators divide his music into pre- and post-Eroica. Into the Eroica he poured his most mature invention. The last movement of the Eroica is a massive set of variations not only on the famous tune, but on the bass line that accompanies it. So diverse and ambitious are these variations that some listeners find the movement difficult to come to terms with, but the tune has enough characteristic features to stand a lot of pushing and shoving and transforming into other guises, as Beethoven had already discovered with the piano variations of the year before. But why this particular tune?

The answer lies with Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus. How the tune travelled from an obscure contredanse (in fact Beethoven shoehorned in another as well, No.11) to the finale of his ballet we shall probably never know. Possibly Beethoven simply wanted a lively but dignified dance movement to bring Prometheus to a close, and lifted the most suitable out his bag of contredanses. Once the tune had the Prometheus label and connotation it was inalienably identified with the mythical Greek titan, the hero who stole fire from the sun and brought it to mankind hidden in a fennel stalk. For this presumption Zeus had Prometheus bound eternally with chains to a rock in the Caucasus, where eagles and vultures tore at his liver. So the basic legend ran. It was probably much older than classical Greece: although the Greek 'prometheus' can be harnessed to mean 'forethought' it's equally likely that the name derives from the Vedic pra-mathyu-s, meaning a thief. Classical Greek writers present Prometheus very diversely, not just as the Bringer of Fire, but as the creator of mankind from clay, and as the Great Benefactor, bringing his creation joy and happiness, but at heavy cost to himself.

This notion isn't too distant from those concepts of the hero that Beethoven evoked in Die Ehre Gottes aus der Natur, the Praise of God in Nature, and was to express again in the finale of the 9th symphony. More down to earth, however, was the idea current in Beethoven's generation that there actually seemed to be someone striving then and there to improve the lot of mankind and whose influence was spreading over Europe, if not across the Channel; someone apparently dedicated to universal education, to the widest diffusion of culture and science, to a polity in which everyone had a say, someone unafraid to make sweeping political and social changes on a continental scale to achieve them. A latter-day Prometheus, in fact, although most Anglo-Saxon eyes would see him with a sterner reality as not much of a joy-bringer: Napoleon Bonaparte.

Composition of the Eroica - the Italian for 'heroic' - symphony started shortly after Prometheus. The full title of the symphony is Sinfonia Eroica, composta per festiggiare il sovvenire d'un grand' uomo (Heroic symphony, composed to celebrate the memory of a great man). The original manuscript title page had 'Bonaparte' written at the top and 'Luigi van Beethoven' at the foot, and the pairing makes one wonder if Beethoven saw himself as a kind of Prometheus too. So the symbol of Prometheus became the topical reality of the Eroica, and Beethoven made the link obvious by using the same tune in both.

The scales fell from his eyes in 1804, when Napoleon crowned himself Emperor. When the news was brought to him, Beethoven angrily tore away the offending name 'Bonaparte' from the title page of the Eroica score, saying 'Is he no more than an ordinary human being? Now he too will trample on the rights of man and indulge only his own ambition. He will exalt himself above others, become a tyrant.'


At the gipsy encampment George and I sat hungrily with the whiteshirts and their women and children in the soft light of paraffin lamps and candles, waiting for the promised Abendmahl and wondering what was going to happen. Presently a man dressed in a grey suit whom we hadn't noticed before appeared in the candlelight behind the table and it became immediately clear that some act of worship was about to begin. It turned out to be a Communion service.

I don't know what punishment is reserved for those who take Communion before they've been confirmed. Whatever it is, it will be meted out by priests rather than God-given. At school I strongly resisted confirmation classes, which, it seemed to me, simply led to better ringside seats in a priestly circus that hadn't moved on much from the Barsetshire novels of Anthony Trollope. Confirmation wasn't for me, although I came to love Trollope dearly in due course. (Some of the Barsetshire themes were based on 19th century events - causes célèbres, even - in Rochester Cathedral.) I don't know what George's religious history was or leanings were, if any, but we both accepted the piece of bread and a mouthful of wine without scruple. I learnt much later that it was considered good religious manners to come to the Communion table with an empty stomach.

Afterwards the pastor took us to Cologne. He spoke a little English. Between shaking bouts of laughter and some consequent wobbling of the steering wheel he explained the difference between Abendmahl (Holy Communion) and Abendessen (supper). Some lessons come hard. The white-shirted ones, he said, were Evangelisches fahrendes Volk, evangelical travelling folk. They were good-hearted but often impractical. It was unthinkable that their Saturday night Communion should not have the Light of the World on the altar. He himself would have gone back to Cologne to fetch matches if we hadn't happened to pass by.

He dropped us at about 10.30 at the station. No tall blonde girl in a white dress stood beneath the station clock, but an Imbiss Stube was still open and we ended the day as we'd started it, with Brötchen mit Eier, and found a quiet corner of the concourse to doss down in afterwards, I after my usual post-prandial cigarette.

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