Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
Piano arrangement: Hess 90
Even as a young man, Beethoven had written music for a ballet, the "Ritterballet" ("Knight's Ballet") WoO 1 for the Bonn carnival in 1791. Ten years later his situation had obviously completely changed: he was no longer the young protege who composed music for a count's pleasure and then was not even mentioned in the concert programme. When the ballet master at the Vienna Hoftheater, Salvatore Vigano, came to Beethoven in 1800, asking him to compose the music for his new ballet "Gli uomini di Prometeo" ("The men of Prometheus"), the composer was already famous. The premiere took place on 28 March 1801 at the Vienna Hofburgtheater. The ballet was performed a total of 29 times in the season 1801/1802 - a great success for a production of the time. Sadly both Vigano's choreography and the original libretto have gone missing; apart from Beethoven's music nothing has remained of the rest of the ballet.
Details about the occasion for the composition as well as about its commission are not known. Already in the mid 1790s Beethoven had written Piano Variations on a "Menuett a la Vigano" (WoO 68) and thus taken sides in a heated dispute between the ballet masters Vigano and his rival Muzzarelli in Vienna. In so doing he might have attracted Vigano's attention or even his sympathies. The young, rising and extraordinarily talented composer was certainly also an excellent musical choice on the part of the choreographer, who was simply looking for the best music for his new ballet. Usually Vigano put together music by different composers for his ballets. "Prometheus" is the only ballet which he intentionally commissioned one single composer to write.
As often occurred when Beethoven dealt with stage works the subjects (here Prometheus) mirrored his own view of the world. In Greek mythology Prometheus is a titan, who goes against the gods' wishes and brings mankind fire. He is bitterly punished for this. An individual's stand against an existing ruling system for the good of mankind is surely one of the myths which reflected Beethoven's enlightened ideals.
Beethoven's ballet score Die Geschopfe des Prometheus (The Creatures of Prometheus) was created in collaboration with choreographer Salvatore Vigano. Commissioned in 1800, the ballet was the composer's first major work for the stage. Premiered in Vienna's Burgtheater on March 28, 1801, Prometheus was initially a great success, and within a few years it had been peformed dozens of times. Still, it was criticized by a contemporary as "fragmentary" and "too learned for a ballet," and the score, save for the overture, has since been generally neglected as little more than an historical curiosity. The work's opus number is somewhat problematic. In June 1801, Artaria published Beethoven's piano arrangement of the score, dedicated to Prince Lichnowsky, as Opus 24. In the same year, the firm of Mollo intended to publish a pair of violin sonatas as Opus 23; likely because of a printing error, the second of these, now familiar as the "Spring" Sonata, was issued separately as Opus 24, necessitating a change in opus number for Prometheus. Three years later, Hoffmeister published the full score of the overture only as Opus 43, lending the false impression that the work was composed some years later than it actually was.
Aside from a few interesting aspects of its orchestration, the most important part of the ballet, musically speaking, is the 16th and final number. This section shares its key, main theme, and bass line with the seventh of the Twelve Contredanses, WoO 14, composed at intervals between 1791 and 1802. It is certain that the material of this particular dance dates from about the time of the ballet, though scholars disagree on which work was the first to take shape; considering the composer's working method, it is entirely possible that the two developed simultaneously. In any event, this workhorse of a theme came to even greater prominence through its use in Beethoven's 15 Variations and Fugue for piano, Op. 35, and in the finale of his epochal Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, "Eroica," Op. 55.
(All Music Guide)