Beethoven: King Stephen Overture

King Stephen is a commemorative work composed in 1811. It includes an overture in E flat major and nine vocal numbers. Only the overture is still played today but it is among the least played orchestral works of the composer. The title refers to King Stephen I, founder of the kingdom of Hungary in the year 1000.

In 1808 Emperor Francis II of Austria commissioned the construction of a large theatre in Budapest, to alleviate the nationalist feelings incipient in Hungary and to celebrate the loyalty of Hungary to the Austrian monarchy. At the time of the inauguration of this theatre in 1811, the managers of the New Theatre commissioned the poet Kotzebue to prepare a trilogy, based upon Hungarian historical subjects, suitable for the occasion of its opening, and engaged Beethoven to compose the vocal and instrumental music to accompany it. Both poet and composer accepted the task.

The overture commences with four calls in the trumpets, horns, bassoons, and strings, followed by a march theme announced by the flute, accompanied by the woodwinds, horns, and strings, pizzicato. The march is interrupted by four more calls, and then is resumed, leading to the main section of the overture. A theme of a martial character begins in the woodwinds and horns. After its development, a second theme is introduced, which is the first phrase of the vocal theme in the finale of the Ninth Symphony, showing how persistently Beethoven was haunted by the ideas which finally were worked out in the Choral Symphony. The march theme then returns, and two themes of the Presto are brilliantly developed. A stirring Coda brings the overture to its close.