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6 - The Prometheus Theme and Beethoven's Shift from Avoidance to Embrace of Possibilities

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 September 2020

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Summary

Beethoven's fascination with the Prometheus theme between 1800 and 1803 is evidenced by four works: the Contredanse, WoO 14, no. 7; the finale of The Creatures of Prometheus, op. 43; the Piano Variations, op. 35; and the fourth movement of the Eroica Symphony, op. 55. The theme provides Beethoven with the materials for remarkably distinctive works and an outpouring of creativity. Scholarship on the four pieces inevitably recognizes the extent of Beethoven's thematic exploration. In a book chapter entitled “Recurring Ideas,” Barry Cooper writes, “[Beethoven] was particularly good at finding different and unexpected ways of developing such material.” Cooper concludes, “Thus his reuse of earlier ideas, far from being a sign of a limited imagination, is an indication of his extraordinary ability to discover hidden possibilities in them.”

This is true, but the narrative of Beethoven's triumph in continuing to find developmental possibilities makes it easy to overlook another part of the story—the extent to which Beethoven, in the Prometheus finale and the Piano Variations, largely avoids pursuing certain types of obvious musical development and possibilities. Different types of developmental restraint help to define each of these early works. An important element of the drama that connects each of these pieces is that toward the end, at a coda, the music escapes the restraints that have largely controlled what has come before. The end of each piece introduces a new path that can be taken with old material. And when Beethoven returns to the Prometheus theme in successive works, the developmental space that was opened up at the end of one work energizes a new exploration of the theme in the next.

Beethoven composed The Creatures of Prometheus from 1800 to 1801, in between his First and Second Symphonies. Lewis Lockwood writes of opus 43 that “[i]t was deliberately tailored to the conventions of theater music, which [at this time] had no need of the developmental types of discourse that were expected in the symphony.” Even so, Beethoven's aversion to significantly varying the recurring material is astonishing, especially given the amount of repetition found in the movement.

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The New Beethoven
Evolution, Analysis, Interpretation
, pp. 123 - 147
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2020

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