Monday, September 27, 2010

9/27 Beethoven's "Creatures" (Ballet)

Beethoven only composed one complete ballet, "The Creatures of Prometheus".  It's the only orchestral work of his that has a harp in it, I have no idea why.  It's also his only work which has a bassett horn.  That I can understand.  Written in 1801, there's no surviving notes on the choreography but what typically happened in those days is that shorter music pieces in a "dance style" were used to accompany the stage action.  The producers weren't interested so much in large themes or any kind of symphonic development so this ballet really comes across more as a 19th century jukebox collection.  It's admittedly far from his greatest work, but it's still fascinating and is fun to listen to.  The story itself is pretty interesting.  When I first read the title "Creatures of Prometheus" I expected scenes of giant monsters fighting in volcanoes.  Not quite.

Basically Prometheus created Man, and gave Man his skills in creativity and logic, everything a civilization needs.  Zeus got jealous of these upstarts and took away Man's fire.  Prometheus stole some fire from another god and smuggled it back to Man.  Zeus later punished Prometheus with some gory animal-inflicted punishment.  So the titular characters of the ballet, the "Creatures", are actually Man!  Pretty cool (tho a bit disappointed about the lack of fire-breathng dragons).  The ballet itself portrays a man and woman being given these artistic/technological gifts and learning to play music and dance from various gods whom Prometheus introduces them to.  I think.  Who knows?

Beethoven wrote an Overture, an Introduction and 16 pieces in 2 Acts.  Most importantly the Eroica theme, used in the Finale to the Eroica 3rd Symphony as well as the Eroica Variations Op.35 (not to mention one of his German Dances WoO.14) can be found in the finale to this ballet.  According to the playbill the story goes something like this:
"...the ballet presents two animated statues who, by the power of harmony, are made susceptible to all the passions of human existence. Prometheus takes them to Parnassus, to receive instruction from Apollo, god of the arts, who commands Amphion, Arion, and Orpheus to teach them music; Melpomene and Thalia, tragedy and comedy. Terpsichore aids Pan, who introduces them to the Pastoral Dance, which he has invented, and from Bacchus they learn his invention—the Heroic Dance."

Here's a possible rundown:
Ouverture – Adagio – Allegro molto e con brio – attacca:
ACT I: Introduction. (La Tempesta) Allegro non troppo – attacca: (C Major)
    Heavy accents represent stormy nature
No 1. Poco Adagio – Allegro con brio – Poco Adagio – Allegro con brio (C Major)
    Prometheus uses fire to light the hearts of 2 statue-like humans, which slowly come to life.
No 2. Adagio – Allegro con brio (F Major)
    The humans do not "get" the fire and Prometheus gets frustrated and almost destroys these stupid creatures.
No 3. Allegro vivace (F Major)
    Prometheus gets an idea - take them to the land of the Gods!
    The gods Euterpe, Amphion, Arion and a couple others play music using harp, flute, cello etc and this slowly awakens "reason" within the human pair.
    Terpsichore and Bacchus enter and engage in a "warlike" dance, which the pair participate in.
    Then Melpomene appears and the mood gets very somber.  See below:
No 4. Maestoso – Andante (D Major) (arrival in Parnassus)
No 5. Adagio – Andante quasi Allegretto (B♭ Major) (Euterpe and Amphion's duet)
No 6. Un poco Adagio – Allegro – attacca: (G Major) (Humans react with joy)
No 7. Grave – attacca: (G Major)
No 8. Marcia. Allegro con brio – Presto (D Major) (War dance)
No 9. Adagio – Adagio – Allegro molto (E♭ Major) (Melpomene)
    This is followed by Prometheus getting punched by Melpomene, the humans getting some kind of "comic masks" and then the pastorale ensues. 
No 10. Pastorale. Allegro (C Major) (rustic dance)
No 11. Coro di Gioja. Andante – attacca: (C Major) (entrance of solo dancer)
No 12. Solo di Gioja. Maestoso – Adagio – Allegro (C Major) (comic dance solo)
No 13. Terzettino - Grotteschi. Allegro – Comodo – Coda (D Major)
No 14. Solo della Signora Cassentini. Andante – Adagio – Allegro – Allegretto (F Major)
    (sinfonia concertante for basset horn and oboe)
No 15. Coro (e) Solo di Vigano. Andantino – Adagio – Allegro (B♭ Major)
No 16. Finale. Allegretto – Allegro molto – Presto (E♭ Major)
    (uses Eroica theme)

There you have it.  Though I have no idea if any of the above description helps or hinders the enjoyment of this ballet...
The Creatures of Prometheus, Op.43 (1801), I.Overture.Allegretto. Finale.
Willem Mengelberg, Orchestre du Concertgebouw d'Amsterdam, enr 01-11-1942.


  1. i've never heard anything about this ever performed as an actual ballet.

    is it, indeed, ever performed? if not, why?

  2. If there is no choreography exisiting then it would have to be written from scratch. I guess this has not appealed to anyone........

  3. Well, Fred Howald choreographed Beethoven's Geschöpfe des Prometheus at the Frankfurt Oper in 1979, together with Scriabin's Prométhée - le Poème du Feu and two works by B.A.Zimmermann, all conducted by Michael Gielen. I still have the programme. But Frederick Ashton had already choreographed the Beethoven in 1970. Even a cursory glance at the internet will offer you more results...