Ludwig van Beethoven wrote his Egmont music in 1810 to accompany Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s play of the same name, a play about the struggle between liberty and tyranny, and a work that contains in itself expressions both of tragedy and profound triumph.
Count Egmont was a real historical figure, a Flemish nobleman who had loyally served the Spanish king Philip II in his earlier wars and who had received in return the administration of the city of Brussels and other parts of the Spanish Netherlands. Egmont, though a loyal Catholic, believed in religious toleration and, at the Council of Trent, openly expressed his disapproval of Philip’s persecution of Dutch Protestants.
In return, in 1568, Philip sent troops to the Netherlands under the cruel and tyrannical Duke of Alva, who ordered Egmont’s arrest and execution without a trial or clear evidence of any manner of treason. Egmont’s heroic final words in defense of the ideals of liberty and religious toleration, as well as the efforts of Egmont’s friend, William of Orange, in rallying the Dutch to resist the Duke of Alva, triggered a massive revolt against Spanish rule that eventually led to the independence of the Netherlands.
Goethe wrote a play in honor of Egmont between 1775 and 1787, in which he transferred much of his own philosophy and personality to the character of Egmont, in whom were especially prominent a devotion to individual freedom, a joy of life, and a hatred for arbitrary power. Goethe even made his Egmont twenty years younger than the historical one in order to bring the character even closer to the state of the young playwright.
Beethoven volunteered to write incidental music for the first public performance of Egmont in 1810, in collaboration with Goethe, with whom Beethoven shared the high ideals of individualism, toleration, and a government of liberty. Though the play features a tragic death and brutal oppression by Spanish troops, themes of the inevitable and coming triumph of freedom and justice permeate it.
Egmont’s death does not dull the power of the principles that he advocates and does not prevent the Duke of Alva’s defeat. Thus, when making instructions to Beethoven for the music to be written, Goethe emphasized that he wished Egmont to be a “Symphony of Victory,” and Beethoven delivered precisely that.
The Egmont Overture, itself a microcosm of the events of the play, features a constant conflict between two themes, a gloomy and overbearing minor that dominates in the beginning, symbolic of Spanish tyranny, and a powerful, radiant major, demonstrating the power of Egmont’s resistance to Spanish rule. Near the end of the overture, several harsh violin notes indicate Egmont’s beheading, but not the death of the principles for which he stands. The beheading is followed by the most triumphant fanfare of the entire work, and perhaps the most gloriously uplifting creation of Beethoven’s musical career. The rest of the incidental music was designed to be performed along with the actual recitation of Goethe’s play.
Egmont has a special significance due to its ability to capture in melody the ideas of individualism, toleration, freedom of conscience, and limited government. Beethoven’s music demonstrates in a most directly accessible form the dynamic, heroic, triumphant possibilities of a world built upon such principles, and a spirit of grandeur, dignity, and magnificence that today’s world urgently needs to restore in its art and general sense of life.