Beethoven and the Heroic Part 4: The Egmont Overture
Notes by Fred Haight
Part 4: The Egmont Overture
The cause of human liberty and freedom led political discussion around the late 18th-early 19th century, and the poets Goethe and Schiller collaborated to tell the story of Switzerland’s fight for freedom. In his play Wilhelm Tell, Schiller updated the “Rutli Oath” (taken in the year 1291), in a manner that echoed the U.S. Declaration of Independence, written almost 500 years later:
“No, there is a limit to the tyrant’s power, when the oppressed can find no justice, when the burden grows unbearable-he reaches with hopeful courage up unto the heavens and seizes hither his eternal rights, which hang above, inalienable and indestructible as the stars themselves.”
It is no accident that Schiller’s played was staged, with Goethe directing, in 1804, the same year as Napoleon crowned himself emperor.
Both men also wrote about the 16th century fight for the independence of the Netherlands from Spain: Schiller in his “Don Carlos” and “History of the Revolt of the Netherlands”; and Goethe, in his play “Egmont”.
If you wish to see the level of brutality presented by the Spanish Inquisition in the Netherlands, examine Pieter Breughel’s 1562 painting, “The Triumph of Death”. (Painting below).
Count Egmont was a Dutch nobleman who sided both with his people and King Phillip of Spain. His peer, the much wiser William the Silent, fled Brussels, and warned him of potential betrayal by Spain’s treacherous Duke of Alba. Egmont foolishly accepted a dinner invitation to discuss his grievances with Alba. He was arrested at that dinner, and soon executed, along with 1,000 others in 1568.
Though Alba was seeking to dominate through a reign of terror, it backfired on him. “Sometimes a long train of usurpations and abuses, leads people to think that they have no recourse, but to throw off such government.”
Though not immediate, the execution of Egmont contributed to a popular uprising. Beethoven’s “Egmont” Overture to Goethe’s play, condenses the long historical process into one optimistic moment of change. Listen to this recording, and you will hear the representation of the public executions, beginning at 6:42, with the execution of Egmont coming at 7:02. After a moment of quiet sorrow and reflection, something begins to swell up, out of the silence. Beethoven’s magnificent ending displays the spirit of the people, rising up against tyranny.