Mark Ferraguto

Beethoven’s Coriolan and its Creative “Moment”

Critics from E. T. A. Hoffmann onward have struggled to reconcile the suspensefulness of Beethoven’s Coriolan overture (1807) with the “reflective” tone of the tragedy that inspired it, Heinrich von Collin’s Coriolan (1802). The uncertainty surrounding the overture’s origin—and the absence of sketches documenting the creative process—has allowed for much speculation about Beethoven’s intentions. Many have argued that his inspiration may not have come from Collin’s tragedy at all, but rather from Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. This notion has had a decisive influence on the overture’s reception history, shaping the interpretations of Richard Wagner (1852), Donald Francis Tovey (1936), and Lawrence Kramer (1995), among others. More recently, Steven M. Whiting (2013) and Jonathan Kregor (2015)—anticipated by Paul Mies (1938)—have sought to read the overture in light of the drama to which it was originally attached. Whiting makes a persuasive case for taking Collin’s play seriously; however, his programmatic reading of the overture presupposes a level of congruence between the drama and the music that goes beyond what was typical during the period.

As Antoine Hennion (2003) has observed, artistic creation is not governed by the artist alone but is rather a form of “collective work.” Artistic creation is “far more widely distributed” than traditional models of authorship imply, taking place “in all the interstices between…successive mediations.” Collin (or Shakespeare for that matter) was hardly the first to engage with the Coriolanus story, and multiple versions of it—across several different media—were known in Vienna in the early 1800s. Taking a wider view of the creative process, this paper examines the mediating influence of this multimedia context on the composition and early reception of Beethoven’s overture. In addition to new editions of Plutarch and Livy, modern histories of Rome such as Vertot’s Révolutions romaines (German translation: Vienna, 1802) imbued the subject matter with political urgency. Meanwhile, paintings such as Heinrich Füger’s depiction of the confrontation between Coriolanus and his mother (Vienna, 1803–5), supplied poignant moral and sexual commentary. In contrast to well-known portrayals of this scene by Le Sueur (1638–9), Poussin (c. 1652), Le Barbier (1764), Kaufmann (1765), and others, Füger’s painting reflects a complex gendering of female and male heroism that resonates with Beethoven’s own interest in the feminine heroic at this time (see Matthew Head, 2006/2013). Documenting a Coriolan “moment” in Vienna circa 1800, this paper opens up a new perspective on the overture’s many possible meanings for its early listeners and suggests a new way of thinking about its programmatic design.


Pennsylvania State University, USA

He teaches music history at the Pennsylvania State University. A specialist in late 18th- and early 19th-century music, he received his PhD in musicology with a concentration in performance practice from Cornell University in 2012. His work has been published in Music and Letters, the Journal of the American Musicolo- gical Society, Studia Musicologica, and elsewhere. He co-edited the multidisciplinary volume Music and Diplomacy from the Early Modern Era to the Present (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). An Associate of the American Guild of Organists, he is an active performer on early and modern keyboard instruments.