Walpurgisnacht at the open-air theatre in Heidelberg. By Andreas Fink ( at de.wikipedia - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.0 de,

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) was, as the late Philip Weller notes in the Grove Dictionary of Music, “[O]ne of the most important literary and cultural figures of his age…recognized during his lifetime for his accomplishments of almost universal breadth.” This weekend (Friday and Saturday, March 10 and 11) Nicholas McGegan will conduct the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Chorus, and vocal soloists in a pair of big, dramatic works inspired by Goethe.

[Preview the music with my Spotify playlist.]

Goethe age 38 by Angelica Kauffmann

The works in question are the overture and incidental music Beethoven composed on commission for an 1810 revival of Goethe’s 1788 tragedy “Egmont” and Mendelssohn’s 1843 revision of his setting for chorus and orchestra of the 1799 dramatic poem “Die Erste Walpurgisnacht” (“The First Walpurgis Night”). The two works have much in common, including the fact that they both deal with the issues of political and religious freedom. Which makes them rather relevant right now.

The protagonist of Goethe’s play is the historical Lamoral, Count of Egmont, Prince of Gavere (1522–1568), who was beheaded for resisting Spanish rule and the imposition of the Inquisition on the Netherlands. In Goethe’s fictionalized version of events, Egmont becomes a heroic defender of individual freedom who, before his execution, delivers a rousing speech demanding national independence.  

The story appealed tremendously to Beethoven, a dedicated republican (in the classical sense of “anti-monarchist”) who was chafing at the occupation of Vienna by the French in 1809. That appeal and Beethoven’s great admiration for Goethe combined to produce a noble and emotionally charged overture along with two songs (for the fictional character of Klärchen, Egmont’s love interest), four entr’actes (scene change music), two bits of underscoring, and a final “Victory Symphony.” That last bit is essentially a repeat of the final 90 seconds of the overture and follows Egmont’s call for independence.

In an interview on my YouTube channel, McGegan described the entire score as “top-rate Beethoven…right up there in the vintage period of middle Beethoven.” Chronologically it falls between the Sixth (“Pastoral”) Symphony and the exuberant Seventh, which the authors of the Grove entry on Beethoven describe as time of “ever-increasing technical virtuosity.” Certainly the combination of high drama, lyricism, and tragedy in these ten short movements is immensely appealing even if you’re not familiar with the play. Which, of course, most of us are not.

Goethe loved the music but was less impressed by Beethoven himself when they finally met in the summer of 1812 at Teplitz. McGegan notes that he found the composer “a little bit feral,” while Beethoven, for his part, found the elegant writer “too much of a toady…too courtly for his taste.” It’s a reminder, I suppose, that it’s not always wise to meet one’s heroes in person.

Beethoven in 1803
Painted by Christian Horneman

After intermission the full chorus joins the band for the local premiere of the English language version of “The First Walpurgis Night." Once again the issue is freedom in general and freedom from religious persecution in particular.

But first a bit of history. “Walpurgis Night” refers to the evening of the feast day of Saint Walpurga, a British healer who (to quote McGegan) “ended up in Germany as a sort of missionary to the Goths and all those tribes who wore horns on their heads.” After her canonization her name was tacked on to the ancient Celtic festival of Beltane, traditionally celebrated on May 1st. It’s one of the old cross-quarter days, so called because they fall between the equinoxes and solstices. Beltane comes between the Vernal Equinox and the Summer Solstice.

The business of rebranding the old pagan holidays was common as the early Church went about the business of “Christianizing” the heathens. As marketing decisions go it was pretty smart. It’s much easier to convert folks if you don’t mess with their holidays. As the Encyclopedia Britannica relates:

Walburga [sic] is traditionally associated with May 1 because of a medieval account of her being canonized upon the translation of her remains from their place of burial to a church circa 870. Although it is likely that the date of her canonization is purely coincidental to the date of the pagan celebrations of spring, people were able to celebrate both events under church law without fear of reprisal.

“The First Walpurgis Night” deals with a group of German Druids who prefer to celebrate Beltane eve in the old-fashioned way, without interference from Christian authorities. Their solution is to scare the Christian forces away by disguising themselves as assorted imps, devils, and demons. “Help, my comrades,” sings a Christian guard (naturally, he’s a tenor), “see a legion / Yonder comes from Satan’s region!” Thrown into panic by the combination of the Druid’s costumes and their own imaginations, the would-be persecutors take it on the lam, leaving the Druids free to celebrate spring in their own way, thanks very much.

All this unfurls in nine scenes plus an overture that sets the scene. There are parts for solo alto, tenor, and bass-baritone, but for the most part the story of “The First Walpurgis Night” is told by the chorus. “It’s a really good sing for the choir,” observes McGegan. “It’s very high energy music…Mendelssohn lives in the era before decaf.” It’s also quite an entertaining and highly theatrical work, so it will be good to hear it sung in English.  Projected translations are great, but they can create a slight distance between the music and the audience.

Portrait of Mendelssohn by
James Warren Childe, 1839

About the English translation: it's not clear whether the chorus will be singing the one the multilingual Mendelssohn had prepared when he composed the work or the one William Bartholomew did in 1899. Either way, it will make the work that much more accessible.

The guest choral conductor this weekend is Trent Patterson, Director of Choral Studies and Music Education at the Webster University Department of Music.  Patterson is also the choral director at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Webster Groves, where four Webster music students serve as Scholar Singers in the Emmanuel Choir.

The Essentials: Nicholas McGegan conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Beethoven’s overture and incidental music to “Egmont” and Mendelssohn’s “The First Walpurgis Night.” Soloists in the Beethoven are sopranos Sarah Price and Danielle Yilmaz. For the Mendelssohn the solo singers are alto Victoria Carmichael, tenor Thomas Cooley, and bass-baritone Enrico Lagasca. Performances are Friday at 7:30 pm and Saturday at 8 pm, March 10 and 11 at Powell Symphony Hall in Grand Center. The Saturday concert will be broadcast live on St. Louis Public Radio and Classic 107.3.

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