Gefesselten Prometheus des Aeschylos, Concert Overture Op. 38 (1889)

By Benjamin M. Korstvedt, Clark University

Written for the concert Opera Scandal 1920s, performed on March 5, 2004 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Karl Goldmark (1830-1915) may not be counted among the Great Composers, but he was a very good composer. He was long an important, well-respected figure in Central European music life, and at his zenith was so esteemed and well-connected that he was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Order of St. Leopold by the Austrian Court in 1896 and an honorary doctorate from Budapest University in 1910. Throughout his life, Goldmark’s musical sympathies were broad and non-sectarian. He was friendly with Brahms and was made an honorary member of the tradition-minded Vienna Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde as early as 1866, yet he also championed Wagner’s music and supported the founding of an Academic Wagner Society in Vienna in 1872.

Goldmark’s compositional work was equally wide-ranging. He worked in all of the important genres of his time, particularly opera and symphonic music, and created a number of works of real distinction. His six operas form a diverse and ambitious group, including one on an Old Testament story (The Queen of Sheba), one derived from Arthurian legend (Merlin), one after Dickens’s The Cricket on the Hearth, and one after Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale. His dozen orchestral works display a similar range. The Violin Concerto, Op. 28 (1877) was an important concert piece for several generations of soloists and his “Rustic Wedding” Symphony (1876), which is still fairly well known, makes for provocative comparison with contemporaneous symphonic works by Brahms, Dvořák, and Bruckner. Between 1865 and 1913 Goldmark composed a total of seven concert overtures, of which the Overture to Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound, Op. 38 of 1889 was the fifth. In these works he adopted a rather more adventurous style, as is typical for the genre, than he did in his symphonies and concertos.

The myth of Prometheus, with its theme of defiant transgression and immovable will, had great resonance for the romantic mind and attracted a number of outstanding composers in the nineteenth century. Beethoven composed music for a ballet entitled The Creatures of Prometheus and later used a theme from its finale in the last movement of his “Eroica” Symphony. Liszt, who like Goldmark was a Hungarian working in the German-speaking music world, had devoted one of his best symphonic poems to Prometheus. Goldmark’s Prometheus Bound Overture is a communicative and effective work grounded solidly in the mainstream of late-romantic program music. Despite its title, the work is more a symphonic poem than an overture. It was not composed as a prelude to a performance of Aeschylus’s tragedy, nor is it directly based on a narrative program; rather, Goldmark created a Lisztian character study that conveys in music Prometheus’s lonely longing, misery, and dauntlessness, as well as the external force of Zeus’s wrath.

Goldmark’s Prometheus uses a large traditional orchestra, complete with three flutes, three trumpets, four trombones, and a bass tuba. The work begins with a spacious Adagio introduction (marked “Feierlich still und ruhig”) containing three distinct sections that prefigure elements of the main movement: a mournful C-minor opening, a grandiose proclamation in dotted rhythms featuring the brass, and a series of espressivo solos in the woodwinds (which, as the old Standard Concert Guide suggested, may represent the voices of alluring Oceanids). The main Allegro con brio is based on two main thematic groups. The primary theme emerges from a burst of turbulent music in the strings and begins with a sharply profiled motive forcefully declaimed by the horns, bassoons and violins (Zeus’s angry voice, perhaps). This is followed by a strong, agitated response in the orchestra (possibly depicting Prometheus’s defiance) that develops into a full thematic paragraph before the well-defined second theme group arrives. This broadly drawn section involves a series of lyrical woodwind solos followed by a tenderly nostalgic melody in the violins. The central section of the movement vigorously develops the conflicts of the opening theme group as it builds to a staggering orchestral restatement of the music that began the Allegro. The full reprise of the second theme group that follows rises to a soaring statement only to break off just as it is about to crest. An urgent passage intrudes and quickly moves through a series of peaks and valleys, with the horns and trombone making a series of chromatic entries, and drives to a strong C-minor tonic cadence. The coda begins with a loud funeral knell by the brass and timpani before subsiding with gentle solos by clarinet and flute and coming to a pianissimo close.