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LUCAS, Stephen
Beethovens Coriolan Overture, Op. 62: Interpreting the Tragic Hero
I. Introduction
Beethovens Coriolan Overture, Op. 62 illustrates musicologys difficulty in
rationaliing hermeneutical concepts !ith musical analysis. Although the title alludes to a
descriptive tone poem in relationship to "illiam Sha#espeares Coriolanus or $einrich
%oseph von Collins Coriolan, analysts find nuisance in proving ho! these !or#s are
related. By connecting the fundamental characteristics of a tragic hero to the structural
aspects of Beethovens Coriolan Overture, ne! interpretations can reconcile past
pro&lems !ith musical analysis.
II. Analytical Problems
'he most stri#ing dilemma !hen analying Coriolan is the issue of relating the
overtures structure to a traditional sonata form. Although the piece appears to unfold in a
traditional manner, at the &eginning of the recapitulation, the first thematic group is
missing !hen the reprise introduction proceeds directly to the &ridge. (ost analysts
adopt the "agnerian interpretation, !hich concludes that the conflict during the
development &et!een the masculine first theme and the feminine second theme leaves the
first theme crippled &y the &eginning of the recapitulation.
'he dominance of the second
theme is further supported &y the modal shift at m. *+, from ma-or to minor,
characteriing the persistent nature of the feminine theme, !hich d!arfs the masculine.
.ichard "agner, Selected Letters of Richard Wagner. trans. and ed. Ste!art Spencer and Barry
(illington /0e! 1or#2 ". ". 0orton, )9,,3, pp. *+94*55.
.oger 6is#e, Beethoven Concertos and Overtures. /7ngland2 British Broadcasting Corporation, )9893, p.
'his interpretation of the structure is convincing, &ut lends itself to an ;a&solute music<
stance, !here metaphysical themes are independent from the plot of a tone poem.
Although this type of validation may appear to &e applica&le in a programmatic
e>planation, it represents an irresponsi&le characteriation of the tragic hero, Coriolanus.
'he Aristotolian tragic hero does not meet his death &ecause of the dominance of other
characters, &ut &ecause of an internal fla! in his personality. 'ovey asserts that the direct
correspondence of Beethovens narrative to either Sha#espeare or Collin is irrelevant, due
to the transcendent plot unfolding in the music.
By tracing a musical ;fla!< in Coriolan
in relationship to the characteristics of a tragic hero, this transcendent narrative can &e
demonstrated as &oth a programmatic description of the tragic hero Coriolan, and as an
independent !or#.
III. Coriolans Noble Character
'he introduction of Coriolan contains an alternation &et!een octave Cs in the
strings and tutti chords toniciing the piece in C minor /7>. )3. 'his au>iliary cadence has
t!o distinct purposes. 6irstly, the tonal am&iguity of the initial octave Cs is clarified only
!hen the first thematic group &egins in m. )5, adding a dramatic emphasis to the theme.
Secondly, this cadence demonstrates an idealied harmonic language &efore any melodic
material is introduced? more specifically, the a&ility of the 6@ to ascend to A as a leading
tone outlines emphasies the &ass moving up!ard &y half step.
Bn literary parallel, Aristotles tragic hero al!ays &egins the plot !ith success and
no&ility? only &y having an ideal circumstance outlined, can the tragic fla! &e most
'homas S. Arey, Wagners Musical rose! "e#ts and Conte#ts. /0e! 1or#2 Cam&ridge University Cress,
)9953, pp. +94+).
Donald 6rancis 'ovey, $ssa%s in Musical &nal%sis. /0e! 1or#2 E>ford University Cress, )9,)3 pp. +*4
devastating. Bt is fitting to &egin the overture !ith no complications, as Coriolanus is
initially very successful, &oth in !ar and politics.
IV. Hamartia The Tragic !la"
Although the masculine first theme seems ro&ust and attractive /illustrating the
strengths of the Coriolanus character3, the &ass motion at ma-or structural points moves
opposite the idealied introduction /7>. *3. 'he &ass &egins on C, &ut moves do!n!ard
!ith B&, A&, A, and 6 natural, !ith a some!hat unsettling opposition to the initial
emphasis of the up!ard motion. 'his contrasting &ass motion illustrates &oth sides of the
Coriolanus character, in that his initial Fualities ma#e his success seem inevita&le, &ut
there is a lingering pro&lem in his direction.
'he tragic fla!, or $amartia, is a trait in the tragic hero !hich leads him to his
death. Bn m. +9, the first theme is still &eing used in a &ridge section, and the glorious
GBBHG !ith 6@ in the &ass finally resurfaces at the pea# of a dynamic crescendo, to
reassure the listener of Coriolanus strength /7>. =3. $o!ever the 6@ is not allo!ed to
resolve up!ard, and the &ass &egins another tra-ectory of do!n!ard steps. 'his point
represents the tragic heros $amartia, &ut is not merely foreshado!ing. 'he death of the
hero is fated from the &eginning, and the do!n!ard &ass motion sho!s it to &e
inevita&le, despite the attractive strength of the motivic material.
V. Peripeteia The #eversal o$ !ortune
Although the second theme is certainly influential in the do!nfall of the first
theme, the &ass line in the development further clarifies the conflict &et!een the ideal
harmonic motion from the introduction and the $amartia. 'he development &egins in m.
)9* !ith an alternation in the &ass &et!een 6@ and A, !hich is emphasied &y the
droning &assoon line. 'his reminiscence of the introduction is set against the descending
$amartia &ass line in mm. )9:4)99? throughout the development, these contrasting &ass
themes are transposed, &ut are al!ays accentuated in the &assoon and never grant the
same decisive role of the leading tone that !as so assertive in m. )).
'hrough this conflict in the development, the confusing fate predicted in m. +9 is
clarified to &e unavoida&le, and is demonstrated !ithout any interference from the second
theme. 'his element of tragedy is rooted deeper than any type of conflict &et!een the
hero and other characters, and is demonstrated su&terraneously in the motion of the &ass.
'he actual moment of the reversal of fortune, or Ceripeteia, occurs in m. )5,
!hen the reprise introduction is interrupted &y the &ridge to the reprise second theme /7>.
:3. 'he $amartia is further accentuated &y the B in m. )5, collapsing to the B& in m. ):=,
&eginning another do!n!ard stepping &ass line. Ence again, this descent and structural
deviation is caused &y the internal conflict of the first theme, even &efore the reprise of
the second theme &egins.
VI. Anagnorisis The Heros #ecognition
Coriolanus recognition of his prideful fla! is manifested during the coda !hen
reprise introduction returns in mm. *8:4)99 /7>. 83. Although the 6@ in m. *,:
disastrously collapses to 6 again, there is some glimmer of hope !hen the B: chord in m.
*,, has an up!ard stepping &ass via modal mi>ture, and the G: chord in m. *99 allo!s
the &ass to rise up from B to C in m. *9*. 'his is representative of the tragic hero?
although he can not prevent his death, he reconciles !ith his $amartia and meets his
physical defeat !ith honor. 'he victory !hen the B moves up to the C does not erase the
Ceripeteia, &ut does provide some metaphysical consolation.
VII. Catharsis The Audiences Pity
'he final step for the tragic hero is to evo#e pity and fear from the audience, upon
their recognition that they !ould fare no &etter under similar circumstances. Beethoven
presents this &y overlapping the Anagnorisis B to C &ass !ith fragments of the original
first theme /7>. ,3. 'his is a reminder of ho! attractive the Fualities !ere in the first
theme, &ut that they !ere cut short in the collapse of the recapitulation. 'here is no
reminiscence for the second theme, &ecause it is clear &y no! that the focus !as al!ays
the tragic hero.
VIII. Beethovens Hero
'his type of tragic hero defines a point of stylistic change in Beethovens !or#?
this is most clear in a piece li#e Coriolan !ith such dramatic programmatic tendencies.
'he transcendent, hermeneutical conclusion of Beethovens hero can &e emphasied &y
contrasting the endings of Sha#espeares Coriolanus and Collins Coriolan. Bn
Sha#espeares play, the hero is assassinated &y the Golscians after &eing persuaded &y his
mother Golumnia to halt their attac# on .ome? ho!ever, in Collins play, the hero
commits suicide as a means to free himself from the choice &et!een honor and mercy.
Although the end result may seem similar, there is a philosophical difference in !hether
or not the tragic hero has a dynamic or static role in the plot, despite his recognition of his
fatal fla!.
Beethovens interpretation is structured eloFuently to assert that the tragic hero is
destined to die from the &eginning, &ut the victory in the internal struggle is far more
important to the physical ending. 'he ending of the overture has octave Cs -ust as it
(ichael Broyles, Beethoven! "he $'ergence and $volution. /0e! 1or#2 7>celsior (usic Cu&lishing
Company, )9,83, pp. )+*4)++.
&egan, to imply the circular nature of this theme, in that the struggle is ongoing, and the
hero meets his internal conflict !ith victory each time.
I%. Conclusion
'his interpretation of Beethovens Coriolanus does not dispute the validity of
previous attempts, &ut offers a deeper parallel to the conte>tualiation of themes in
programmatic music. Bt is inconseFuential !hat Beethovens intentions !ere, &ecause
these conclusions are &ased on the fundamental aspects of the tragic hero? they are
intrinsic Fualities of the narrative, and cannot &e removed from the music o&-ectively.
'his musicological vantage point allo!s a diverse spectrum of conclusions, !ith
sensitivity to underlying themes.
&'. () Beethoven) Coriolan. Introduction) mm. (*(+.
&'. ,) Beethoven) Coriolan. !irst Thematic -roup and Bridge) mm. (.*.+.
&'. .) Beethoven) Coriolan. &nd o$ Bridge to Thematic -roup T"o) mm. ./*+0.
&'. 1) Beethoven) Coriolan. &nd o$ Bridge to 2evelopment) mm. 34*(0,.

&'. +) Beethoven) Coriolan. Bassoon Part in 2evelopment) mm. (0.*((,.
&'. /) Beethoven) Coriolan. #ecapitulation 5issing !irst Theme) mm. (+,*(/0.
&'. 6) Beethoven) Coriolan. Introduction 5aterial 2uring Coda) mm. ,6/*,3/.
&'. 4) Beethoven) Coriolan. #eprise !irst Theme in Coda) mm. ,3/*.(1.
Alper, Clifford D., ;Beethovens Coriolan Everture, Epus :*2 'hree Coints of Gie!.<
Beethoven (e)sletter : /)99)32 +=4+9.
Broyles, (ichael, Beethoven! "he $'ergence and $volution. 0e! 1or#2 7>celsior
(usic Cu&lishing Company, )9,8.
6is#e, .oger, Beethoven Concertos and Overtures. 7ngland2 British Broadcasting
Corporation, )989.
Arey, 'homas S., Wagners Musical rose! "e#ts and Conte#ts. 0e! 1or#2 Cam&ridge
University Cress, )995.
Solomon, (aynard, Beethoven. 0e! 1or#2 Schirmer, )988.
'ovey, Donald 6rancis, $ssa%s in Musical &nal%sis. 0e! 1or#2 E>ford University Cress,
"agner, .ichard, Selected Letters of Richard Wagner. trans. and ed. Ste!art Spencer
and Barry (illington. 0e! 1or#2 ". ". 0orton, )9,,.