The Coriolan Overture was written by Ludwig van Beethoven in 1807 for Heinrich Joseph von Collin’s 1804 tragedy, not – as is sometimes claimed – for Shakespeare’s play Coriolanus.
Caius Martius Coriolan was a legendary Roman general. Despite having previously provided long and valiant service to his people, Coriolan fell out of favour with the Roman Senate after making ill-judged remarks against the concept of popular rule, commenting that allowing plebeians to have power over the patricians was allowing “crows to peck the eagles”. This led to his banishment from Rome.
Coriolan vowed to seek vengeance for what he saw as a grave injustice. Rome tried to persuade Coriolan to halt his crusade against them. In a desperate measure, they tried a more subtle approach by sending his own mother, Volumnia, along with his wife and child to persuade him to give up. Coriolan eventually gave in to tenderness but, after having led an army to Rome’s gates, he could not turn back, so he placed his fate in the hands of the Roman mob, effectively choosing suicide.
The overture to this tragic tale features two main themes. The main C Minor theme portrays Coriolan’s resolve and war-like tendencies, as he is about to invade Rome. Three powerful unisons are uttered by the strings, and each is answered by a furious chord from the full orchestra. The second E flat major theme represents the pleadings of his mother to desist. Despite the two themes being very contrasting in nature, Beethoven very skilfully links the two. The first furious theme seems to literally melt into the second as if in surrender.
At the end, the music dies away, leaving the listener somewhat up in the air. We should remember, however, that Beethoven intended this movement not to serve as an ending at all, but rather as an introduction to the action that would come in the tragic drama to follow.