Beethoven's music: John Suchet explores the Egmont Overture

A personal favourite of John Suchet's, Beethoven's Egmont Overture powerfully and beautifully tells the story of Count Egmont through Beethoven's exquisite music

Beethoven portrait

A personal favourite. A well known piece (even if the incidental music to Goethe’s Egmont which follows it is less well known) which can be enjoyed if you know nothing at all about its subject matter.

Brief history lesson. When the Spanish occupied the Netherlands in the 16th  century, a certain Count Egmont, member of one of the oldest and noblest families in Flanders, led resistance to the Inquisition and persecution of Protestants. For his troubles, he was arrested and executed.

Now you know this, listen again to the Egmont Overture . In the music you hear the arrest of the Count. You hear, in the deep strings, the Spanish judges prosecuting him. You hear, in the plaintive wind, his wife, mother of his 11 children, pleading for mercy for her husband. You hear, in the fortissimo  staccato notes of the brass, the verdict of guilty being given. A final piano  pleading in the first violins. The whole orchestra in unison on a single note is the sentence of death. A forte  fall of a fourth in first and second violins is the executioner’s sword coming down.

But Beethoven has not finished. Triple piano, slowly building to a massive fortissimo, an exhilarating passage in the major key which tells us that Count Egmont’s spirit, and all he fought for, lives on; that the people of the Netherlands ultimately threw out the rapacious invader. That – as in so much of Beethoven’s work – darkness has given way to light, freedom has triumphed over oppression.

In this case he felt it particularly personally. He was writing about the land his beloved grandfather and forebears came from.