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prometheus unbound

February 16, 2014

prometheus unbound

Prometheus is a fascinating mythological figure. His story has been told in numerous versions, with some variations among them, of course. The first known mention of the Titan Prometheus was in an eighth-century B.C. epic poem by Hesiod called, Theogony. The section of the poem dealing with Prometheus lasts only about a hundred lines, but it hits upon a couple of the myth’s main points, namely: 1) Prometheus gives fire to the mortal creatures on earth in defiance of Zeus and the gods; 2) for this transgression, Prometheus is chained to a rock and must daily endure having his liver eaten by an eagle. (This is a daily occurrence because Prometheus is immortal and his liver apparently regenerates every night.) In later versions of the story, it is Prometheus who creates the humans out of clay, with Athena literally breathing life into them. This third aspect of the myth is one that brings new meaning to Prometheus’ theft of fire; if Prometheus brings fire to the humans because he wants to anger Zeus, that’s one thing, but if he gives fire to protect and empower his creations, that’s something else. The gift of fire becomes more poignant in light of Prometheus’ sense of responsibility towards his creations and in terms of his punishment: the hero sacrifices his life and endures torture for the good of his creations.

(In case you’re wondering if that eagle thing happened for eternity, note that in some versions of the story, Heracles—Hercules, as we know him—kills the eagle and rescues Prometheus.)

The story of Prometheus has been explored in art for hundreds of years. The different aspects of his story have appeared in painting, sculpture, music, and literature. Depictions of Prometheus showed up on painted vases after the eighth century B.C. There’s a beautiful eighteenth-century sculpture in the Louvre by Nicolas-Sébastien depicting the eagle attacking the bound Prometheus. Mary Shelley’s story, Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus, mentions the myth in its title. In this case, Frankenstein refers to the scientist (not the monster) who made a creature and gave it life. Prometheus even makes an appearance in science. There’s an element on the Periodic Table called Promethium, a radioactive lanthanide. Although in the process of its discovery many names were suggested, Promethium was chosen because, as the discoverers explained, it crystallized “both the daring and possible misuse of the human intellect.” Prometheus has made appearances in music as well. Franz Liszt composed an eponymous symphonic poem about the titan in 1850, and more than half a century later, Scriabin composed the orchestral piece Prometheus: Poem of Fire. Stage versions include Fauré’s opera Promethée from 1910. But predating all of these works is an 1801 ballet called Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus (_The Creatures of Prometheus_) by none other than Ludwig van Beethoven.

Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus is one of the little-celebrated works of Beethoven’s early career, although it was popular at the time of its premiere. There’s a practical reason why Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus didn’t enter the repertoire: after the first run of the ballet—about twenty performances—the choreography was lost. The piece was also overshadowed by Beethoven’s next great triumph, the Eroica Symphony, which is musically linked to the ballet: the main theme from the final section of the ballet also appears in the final movement of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. LACO will be presenting the “Eroica” on February 22nd as part of the “Discover” series.

The aspect of the Prometheus story that Beethoven (and collaborator Salvatore Viganò) seemed most interested in was, according to Beethoven scholar William Kinderman, “the defiant champion of humanity in a manner compatible with the spirit of the Enlightenment. Prometheus ennobled humankind through his gifts of knowledge and art fashioned from fire that he stole from the gods.” Beethoven and Viganò took some liberties with the story, making the creatures a man and a woman instead of just man as the original myth described. Beethoven also omitted the hero’s punishment of being bound to the rock, instead opting for Prometheus to be put to death and then reborn.

That the music of The Creatures of Prometheus forms such an important part of the “Eroica” Symphony is interesting, and it suggests that we might be able to read a bit more into the latter work. Beethoven had originally intended to name the “Eroica” Symphony, Bonaparte, but changed his mind when he learned that Napoleon crowned himself emperor. The narrative progression of the four movements of the symphony may suggest a heroic portrait of Napoleon, charting the hero’s journey from struggle (movement 1), through death (the second movement’s funeral march), and finally rebirth and ascension to the status of legend (represented in the scherzo and finale). As you can see, the theme of death and rebirth—taken up in _The Creatures of Prometheus_—appears in the Eroica Symphony. (And it would be an idea he would revisit in the Egmont Overture in 1809.) The characterization of Beethoven’s version of Prometheus, whom Beethoven represented as a benevolent creator, brings up the ideals of the Enlightenment, and humanity’s gifts of knowledge, creativity, and free will. Perhaps Beethoven once thought Napoleon was an enlightened ruler, worthy of honor, but he certainly changed his mind.

And if we dig a little deeper, and think about Beethoven’s increasing struggle with deafness at the time of the Eroica’s composition, we can see Beethoven as the triumphant hero. We can envision the tumult of the first movement as the composer’s inner turmoil at the loss of his hearing, and the lingering doubts he must have had about his future. If seen in this interpretation, the funeral march might be the descent into despair. Beethoven captured these thoughts in a letter known as the Heiligenstadt Testament that he wrote to his brothers around this time. On the one hand Beethoven talks about his creative ideals, but on the other hand he wonders if he can even continue living with his deafness. But that’s not the end of the story. If I may stretch this interpretation just a little further, the funeral march can be seen as the end of one Beethoven, while the scherzo and finale represent the birth of a new one. This is the beginning of the composer’s “heroic” period, wherein his music gets more complex, and his ideas are more creatively explored and developed. When we remember Beethoven, we think of his incredible struggles and, like Prometheus, his ultimate heroic apotheosis. This symphony stands in for this moment of truth when Beethoven had to decide to continue composing no matter what happened.

Although Beethoven did not literally steal fire from the gods, he demonstrated Promethean ingenuity and innovation, and like the hero of his ballet, gave us mere mortals the gifts of his art, his creativity, and his will.

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