Across the centuries, myths have been retold and reinterpreted, each storyteller helping bring the legend to life. Tonight, we offer you our take on Prometheus’ enthralling story of defiance and creation. Avid Classics scholar Stephen Fry lends his twinkling voice to Gerard McBurney’s brand new script, and the whimsical animation of Hillary Leben illustrates the protagonist’s journey – all while Beethoven’s music breathes life into the tale.
At the heart of Beethoven’s adaptation of this legend lies the idea that it’s the arts that make us fully human. Music, dancing, poetry, not only brighten our existence but are part of who we are – something that strongly resonates with all of us after the last few months.
Please share your thoughts on the performance on social media, using the hashtag #PhilharmoniaSessions.
Header image: Stephen Fry © Luca Migliore
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Esa-Pekka Salonen © Mark Allan
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827): The Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43 (complete ballet, 1801)
- Overture: Adagio – Allegro molto e con brio
- Introduction (La Tempesta): Allegro non troppo
- Act One: Poco Adagio – Allegro con brio
- Adagio – Allegro con brio
- Allegro vivace
- Act Two: Maestoso – Andante
- Adagio – Andante quasi Allegretto
- Un poco Adagio – Allegro
- Marcia: Allegro con brio – Presto
- Adagio – Allegro molto
- Pastorale: Allegro
- Coro di Gioja: Andante
- Solo di Gioja: Maestoso – Adagio – Allegro
- Terzettino – Grotteschi: Allegro – Comodo
- Solo della Signora Cassentini: Andante – Adagio – Allegro – Allegretto
- Coro, Solo di Viganò: Andantino – Adagio – Allegro
- Finale: Allegretto – Allegro molto – Presto
“Prometheus lifts the people of his time up out of their ignorance, makes them more refined through scholarship and art, and gives them manners.” Zeitung für die elegante Welt, 1801
Beethoven’s first ballet score, Ritterballet (Ballet of the Knights) dates back to 1791 when he was living in Bonn. A decade later, he was introduced to the Viennese stage with a commission for a full-length ballet, Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus – The Creatures of Prometheus. He collaborated with Boccherini’s nephew and student, Italian choreographer Salvatore Viganò, who had already achieved notable successes in Vienna with his previous productions. Viganò had been given the commission by the Empress Maria Theresa, and although he was a composer himself, he decided that Beethoven would be a fitting choice for the task. Viganò was right: Beethoven wrote an overture, introduction, 15 numbers and finale in only 11 days.
The work’s premiere took place at the Burgtheater in Vienna on 28 March 1801. A piano version was published in the same year, dedicated to Princess Maria Christine Lichnowsky, wife of Beethoven’s patron, Prince Karl Lichnowsky. The orchestral score to the overture and the orchestral parts were published in 1804. There is no surviving libretto, but a review in the Viennese magazine Zeitung für die elegante Welt dated 19 May 1801 offers a succinct summary: “Prometheus lifts the people of his time up out of their ignorance, makes them more refined through scholarship and art, and gives them manners. This in a few words constitutes the subject matter.”
We can piece together the action in more detail from Beethoven’s notebooks and the theatrical playbill, which reads:
“This allegorical ballet is based on the myth of Prometheus … a lofty spirit who, finding the human beings of his time in a state of ignorance, refined them through art and knowledge and gave them laws of right conduct. In accordance with this source, 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.”
This premise combines three Classical myths: Prometheus, bringer of fire, Pygmalion, who brings a statue to life, and Orpheus, god-like musician. Greek stories about Prometheus vary, but Beethoven would have been familiar with the character’s portrayal as a noble figure who sees the ignorance of human beings and lifts them up through art, knowledge and ethics. He would also have known that Prometheus becomes the victim of divine retribution when Zeus punishes him for taking fire to mankind, chained to a rock in the Caucasus where an eagle pecks out his liver every day.
Prometheus running with fire © Hillary Leben
One of the driving forces behind Beethoven’s approach to Prometheus was his admiration of Haydn’s oratorio, The Creation (1798). Beethoven was striving for a secular equivalent while also creating something new that transcended oratorio, opera and the symphony, elevated by musique parlante – music that speaks eloquently even without words.
When Haydn congratulated Beethoven at the Viennese premiere of Prometheus, Beethoven is said to have replied: “That is very kind of you, but it is not yet a Creation by any stretch of the imagination!” To which Haydn apparently responded: “That is true, it is not yet a Creation; and I find it difficult to believe that it will ever become one.” These words contributed to the work’s troubled reputation after its initial success. At the time, the ballet was well received and was performed again more than 20 times, with further revivals during Beethoven’s lifetime.
Haydn was not alone in his reservations. The Zeitung für die elegante Welt critic argued that: “The music did not completely come up to expectation, notwithstanding some uncommon virtues. Whether Herr van Beethoven can achieve what audiences such as those here demand with so uniform, not to say monotonous a subject, I leave undecided.”
“... torture and solitude, Scorn and despair, – these are mine empire … No change, no pause, no hope! Yet I endure.” Percy Bysshe Shelley, Prometheus Unbound
The relatively lightweight status of ballet music in relation to self-contained symphonic works, and the fact that this is not the most felicitous ballet to stage, has led to the significance of Prometheus being underestimated. Today, the work is increasingly recognised as pivotal in Beethoven’s evolving style, its heroic spirit paving the way for the Eroica Symphony, No. 3 (1803), his opera Fidelio (1805) and the Violin Concerto (1806). In the ballet’s finale Beethoven uses a melody that clearly mattered to him because he revisited it as the theme for his Op. 35 piano variations (1802) and in the variation finale of the Eroica.
Beethoven almost certainly identified with Prometheus, bringing the fire of his creativity to humanity yet enduring unjust suffering. The composer’s increasing deafness was a source of great turmoil, and he first wrote to a friend about it in 1801, the year of the ballet’s composition. In 1802, in his anguished Heiligenstadt Testament, Beethoven wrote: “Though born with a fiery, active temperament … I was soon compelled to isolate myself ... If at times I tried to forget all this, oh how harshly was I flung back by the doubly sad experience of my bad hearing… I must live almost alone, like one who has been banished…” This foreshadows the Romantic portrayal of Prometheus in Shelley’s play, Prometheus Unbound (1820): “torture and solitude, Scorn and despair, – these are mine empire … No change, no pause, no hope! Yet I endure.”
Ceiling fresco of Prometheus' Donation of Fire to Mankind, Beethoven Temple (1927) by Wilhelm Luksch, Baden bei Wien, Public Domain
The theme of heroism in the face of adversity is one to which Beethoven would return explicitly with Fidelio and in the incidental music to Egmont, and implicitly in the emotional trajectory of other, more abstract works. Later, and in better spirits, he found parallels between himself and another of the Classical figures of Prometheus, writing that “... music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy, the wine which inspires one to new generative processes, and I am the Bacchus who presses out this glorious wine for mankind and makes them spiritually drunken.”
"... 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..." Burgtheater playbill, 1801
Act I opens with Prometheus running towards two statues, pursued by the wrath of Zeus. The Overture begins with a slow introduction of arresting chords and a pastoral melody, after which a torrent of boisterous exuberance is unleashed. This is linked to the first number by an Introduction representing a storm, anticipating the storm music of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, No. 6 (1808).
The rest of Act I is summarised in Beethoven’s copy of the choreographic notes: “The two statues move slowly across the stage from the background. – Prometheus gradually regains consciousness, looks towards the field, and is pleased when he sees that his plan is such a success; he is irrepressibly delighted, stands up and beckons to the children to stop – They turn slowly towards him in an emotionless manner – P continues to address them, expresses his divine and fatherly love for them, and commands them (gives them a sign) to approach him. – They look at him in an emotionless manner – turn to a tree, the great size of which they contemplate. – P begins once more to be disheartened, is fearful, and is saddened. He goes towards them, takes their hands and leads them to the front of the stage; he explains to them that they are his work, that they belong to him, that they must be thankful to him, kisses and caresses them.”
Prometheus © Hillary Leben
Act II takes us to Mount Parnassus. The statues start to come to life, after which, during the ‘Adagio – Andante quasi allegretto’, their musical instruction begins, with solos for flute, clarinet, bassoon, cello and, to evoke the lyre, the harp, an instrument only used by Beethoven in this work. (There is also a basset horn part included later in the work – another instrument rarely used by Beethoven.) The statues become playful (‘Un poco Adagio – Allegro’) to a theme later reworked by Beethoven in the overture to The Consecration of the House, Op. 124 (1822).
“... music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy, the wine which inspires one to new generative processes, and I am the Bacchus who presses out this glorious wine for mankind and makes them spiritually drunken.” Ludwig van Beethoven
Terpsichore and the Graces teach their dance, before Bacchus and his subjects enter in militaristic fashion, and the Muse Melpomene rebukes and stabs Prometheus. Pan presents his lilting ‘Pastorale’, during which it is revealed that the death of Prometheus was merely staged, and the next few numbers were composed to showcase the three principal dancers, before the finale in which Beethoven quotes two of his earlier Contretänze (WoO 14, Nos. 7 and 11). The atmosphere is emphatically jubilant, the ballet’s tensions resolved. When we strip away the Classical paraphernalia, Prometheus at its heart is about humankind’s ability to turn the darkest situations to the good, a message that resonates powerfully during this exceptionally difficult time. Shelley summarises this challenge in Prometheus Unbound:
“To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite; To forgive wrongs darker than death or night; To defy Power, which seems omnipotent; To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates From its own wreck the thing it contemplates …”
Notes by Joanna Wyld © Philharmonia Orchestra/Joanna Wyld
Salvatore Viganò, lithograph by P. Bertotti based on drawing by Angelo Magni showing a bust by Lorenzo Bertolini, Beethoven-Haus Bonn, Public Domain
“Too learned for a ballet”? Prometheus on the stage
The production and reception of a ballet presents something of a chicken and egg problem: which comes first, the music or the dancing? Which should be prioritised both in the creative process and when assessing the end result? When Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was jeered, it was not just the music that alienated audiences but the choreography (counting to 11 in Russian is notoriously time-consuming). Beethoven’s music to The Creatures of Prometheus was criticised as “too learned for a ballet”, paying “too little regard to the dancing”, with clumsy results: “everything was much too large”. The same critic referred to the ballet’s “lack of appropriate situations” and its “monotonous” subject. This leads us to what may, ultimately, have hampered the work’s reputation: the plot.
Both Beethoven and the choreographer Viganò had lofty intentions when they embarked on this collaboration. Prometheus was dubbed a “ballet serio”, combining allegorical pantomime and heroic ballet. Viganò had already experimented with balletic form in what he called coreodramma: naturalism combined with narrative structure. The artists were first rate: the statues were played by Viganò himself and prima ballerina Signora Cassentini (or Casentini), who replaced Viganò’s wife Maria Viganò as a principal in his company, with Bacchus played by Signore Gioja, dancer, choreographer and mime, known as “the Sophocles of the Dance”.
Salvatore Viganò's wife Maria Viganò as Terpsichore, 1794, New York Public Library, Public Domain
Even so, Carlo Ritonir’s biography of Viganò, published in Milan in 1838, includes a summary of Prometheus that clunkily unfolds the machinations of these mythical characters. Like Prometheus with his clay figures, Beethoven had to animate a rather static premise.
Bearing his burning torch, Prometheus runs “through the wood towards his statues … As he slumps onto a rock, exhausted and breathless … the statues acquire life and movement”. Then: “falling sluggishly to the ground, they turn towards a tall tree rather than to him…” and “with awkward movements” they “attempt to move further off”. Prometheus hatches a plan, “takes hold of them both and drags them with him to another place”.
Next: “The scene opens to reveal a fine tableau… the Choreographer does not especially need to use either music or dance, so that when these come to be employed for particular effects, the novelty of their introduction will be recognised.” It is interesting that both music and dance, the key elements of ballet, are downplayed here. “The Initiates move this way and that”, acknowledging Prometheus by “prostrating themselves”.
“… in an emotionless manner, they sometimes merely shake their heads, are completely indifferent, and stand there, groping in all directions.” Beethoven's choreographic notes
Slumping, sluggish falling, awkward movements, dragging, swaying, prostration… Not the most balletic directions with which to work. Beethoven’s copy of the choreographic notes is scarcely more inspiring: “… in an emotionless manner, they sometimes merely shake their heads, are completely indifferent, and stand there, groping in all directions.”
Maria Cassentini’s resultant performance was interpreted by the critic of the Zeitung für die elegante Welt as boredom: she “expressed no interest at all and, with conspicuous indifference, immediately allowed her glance to wander to other things. One can certainly not convince oneself that she should have ignored the respect she owes to such a public, particularly in a ballet that brought her over 4,000 gulden in receipts, simply because of a bad mood.”
The stage of the old Burgtheater in Vienna, c. 1880, credit Josef Löwy, Public Domain
Beethoven’s music suggests that Prometheus himself was more graceful, and by the end of the ballet the statues would also have been more fluid in their movements. After Terpsichore and the Graces dance, Bacchus and his followers lead a “heroic dance”, and “the Fauns perform a comical dance led by Pan”, possibly a traditional Schäfertanz or shepherds’ dance. Grotesque masks were used as the comic Muse, Thalia, reveals that the death of Prometheus is an illusion. The ‘Terzettino – Grotteschi’ (‘little trio of grotesques’) may have featured a type of free, improvisatory ballet in which the dancing did not correspond with the music. There were two numbers showcasing Gioja’s talents, as well as solos for Cassentini and Viganò, before “the fable ends in festive dancing”.
Despite mixed reviews, contemporary audiences were delighted and the ballet was reprised more than 20 times. The Creatures of Prometheus was also one of the first full-length Beethoven works to be performed in the United States, where it was staged at New York’s Park Theatre on 14 June 1808. More recent revivals have included Frederick Ashton’s production with The Royal Ballet, first performed in 1970 at the Theater der Stadt in Bonn, Beethoven’s hometown. Today, Prometheus is brought to life again in Hillary Leben’s imaginative animation.
Feature by Joanna Wyld © Philharmonia Orchestra/Joanna Wyld
Esa-Pekka Salonen © Mark Allan
Back in 1983, an unknown young Finnish conductor made his Philharmonia debut at the Royal Festival Hall in London, stepping in at a few days’ notice to conduct Mahler’s epic Symphony No. 3.
Esa-Pekka Salonen has been part of the life of the Philharmonia ever since, and this season is the last in his remarkable 13-season term as Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor. Throughout his tenure he has worked relentlessly to redefine what classical music can be in the 21st century.
He has collaborated with the Philharmonia on groundbreaking ways to present orchestral music, including large-scale interactive installations The Virtual Orchestra, Universe of Sound and Re:Rite, an acclaimed iPad app, The Orchestra; and a virtual reality experience featuring the piece that first brought him to us, Mahler’s Symphony No. 3.
He has programmed outstanding, critically acclaimed series examining social and cultural history through the prism of music – among the most memorable are Vienna: City of Dreams, Paris: City of Light, Stravinsky: Myths and Rituals, and Weimar Berlin: Bittersweet Metropolis. And he has led the Philharmonia on tours to Japan, China, Taiwan, Korea, Russia, the USA, and all over Europe.
Alongside his position with the Philharmonia, Esa-Pekka is also Conductor Laureate for both the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where he was Music Director from 1992 until 2009. He is the Artist in Association at the Finnish National Opera and Ballet. He recently joined the faculty of LA’s Colburn School, where he leads the Negaunee Conducting Programme (in partnership with the Philharmonia). He co-founded the annual Baltic Sea festival, serving as Artistic Director from 2003 to 2018. In the 2020/21 season he takes up the baton as Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony.
He is renowned as a composer as well as a conductor – his music has been praised for its “tremendous technique, intellect, charm and musicality” (The Times), and his Violin Concerto won a Grawemeyer Award. He spends part of each year composing, deep in the Finnish countryside, and when he’s not working internationally, is based the rest of the time in Los Angeles.
Stephen Fry © Elliott Spencer
Stephen Fry is an English actor, screenwriter, author, playwright, journalist, poet, comedian, television presenter, film director and all-round national treasure.
Whilst at university, Fry became involved with the Cambridge Footlights, where he met his long-time collaborator and friend Hugh Laurie. As half of the comic double act Fry and Laurie, he co-wrote and co-starred in A Bit of Fry & Laurie and Jeeves and Wooster.
Fry’s acting roles include the lead in the film Wilde, Melchett in the BBC television series Blackadder, the titular character in the television series Kingdom, a recurring guest role as Dr Gordon Wyatt on the crime series Bones, and as Gordon Deitrich in the dystopian thriller V for Vendetta, Mycroft Holmes in Warner’s Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows and The Master of Laketown in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy. He was a Presidential candidate in Veep and played Roland in CBS’ series The Great Indoors. He has also written and presented several documentary series, including the Emmy Award-winning Stephen Fry: The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, and was the long-time host of the BBC television quiz show QI. He played Prime Minister Alistair Davies in the ninth season of Fox TV’s 24: Live Another Day.
As a proudly out gay man, the award-winning Out There, documenting the lives of lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender people around the world is part of his 30-year advocacy of the rights of the LGBT community.
As well as his work in television, Fry has contributed columns and articles for newspapers and magazines, frequently appears on radio, reads for voice-overs and has written four novels and three volumes of autobiography: Moab Is My Washpot, The Fry Chronicles and his latest, More Fool Me. The most recently published works are Mythos, Heroes and Troy, constituting a trilogy retelling the Greeks myths from the Creation to the aftermath of the Trojan War.
Gerard McBurney © Matthias von der Tann
Gerard McBurney is a composer, writer and deviser, working in theatre, radio, television and the concert hall. In March 2020 he worked with the Philharmonia, Stephen Fry and Esa-Pekka Salonen on a recreation of Beethoven’s four-hour Akademie concert of 1808, the Orchestra’s last live concert in the Royal Festival Hall before lockdown. Other projects have included collaborations with Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé, the Southbank and Barbican Centres, Lincoln Center (New York), the Lucerne Festival and Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic and Philadelphia Orchestra.
In May 2017 he was Creative Partner for the Cincinnati May Festival, directing productions of Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius. In January 2018 he made a new staging of The Genesis Suite for Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra; and in August 2018 for the BBC Proms a tribute to Leonard Bernstein, The Sound of an Orchestra, performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Joshua Weilerstein. In 2019 he collaborated with the Philharmonia and Esa-Pekka Salonen as Creative Consultant on their series Weimar Berlin: Bittersweet Metropolis, in which he was also Creative Director of a cabaret evening. He worked on the dramatic conception of a lost melodrama by Liszt for Kirill Karabits and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, who gave the modern premiere in 2019.
Between 2006 and 2016 he was Artistic Programming Advisor at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and Creative Director of Beyond the Score®, live multimedia explorations of orchestral masterworks, also filmed for online streaming. More recently he joined the San Diego Symphony as Artistic Consultant.
As an orchestrator, Gerard is known for completions of lost and forgotten pieces by Shostakovich including Hypothetically Murdered and Orango, which was given its world premiere by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2011.
Hillary Leben © Hillary Leben
Hillary Leben is an animator and projection designer based in Chicago. A graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she has designed video for The Handel and Haydn Society, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Chicago Opera Theater, Milwaukee Rep, Silk Road Ensemble, and others. Her ongoing autobiographical comics, videos and animations can be found at thehillsite.com.