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    In ‘Ruins of Athens,’ pieces of history, propaganda

    August von Kotzebue
    August von Kotzebue

    Today, March 9, the Boston Civic Symphony performs an all-Beethoven concert including the overture to “The Ruins of Athens,” Op. 113. Though little of it is usually performed today, “The Ruins of Athens” — a one-act singspiel composed for the opening of a new theater in Pest, Hungary — was part of one of Beethoven’s largest theatrical projects after “Fidelio,” his only opera. It was also a carefully crafted piece of propaganda.

    The Pest theater was a deeply political project. It was built under the auspices of Franz I, no longer Holy Roman Emperor (thanks to Napoleon) but still Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary and Bohemia. But the real spur was Franz’s brother Joseph, Palatine of Hungary, who thought a high-profile, German-language theater would solidify Imperial support in Buda and Pest, home to a heavy concentration of German speakers.

    Beethoven and playwright August von Kotzebue — celebrities both — were commissioned to provide entertainment for an opening gala. Kotzebue proposed a trilogy: “King Stephen,” theatrical opportunity for Hungary’s first Christian king to, across the centuries, salute its current one; “Bela’s Flight,” a dramatization of Béla IV’s retreat in the face of a Mongol invasion and subsequent return to rebuild Hungary; and, most fancifully, “The Ruins of Athens,” in which Minerva, awakened after a 2,000-year sleep, is distressed to find Ottomans ruling Athens, but is then whisked away by Mercury to Hungary, where, under Hapsburg leadership, a new, improved Athens is being born.

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    “Bela’s Flight” was deemed unsuitable (Franz, after all, had fled Vienna — twice — ahead of Napoleon’s armies), but the other two scripts were delivered to Beethoven, who scored both while on a doctor-mandated holiday in Teplitz, a Bohemian spa town. The premiere, in February 1812, was well-received; later critical opinion echoed that of Ferdinand Ries, Beethoven’s colleague and friend, that “The Ruins of Athens” was “unworthy” of Beethoven’s talents. The plot’s nominal villains — the Ottomans occupying Athens — elicited by far the most interesting music: the famous “Turkish March” (recycled from an earlier set of piano variations), and a Dervish Chorus of eerie, angular power.

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    Beethoven tried to interest Kotzebue in a full-fledged operatic collaboration (Attila the Hun was suggested as a subject), but the project never came to fruition. Kotzebue, a cheerfully antagonistic conservative provocateur, was assassinated by a student activist in 1819. In 1847 — the year the Palatine Joseph died, a year before revolutions swept across Europe — the Pest theater burned to the ground.

    Matthew Guerrieri

    The Boston Civic Symphony, conducted by Max Hobart, performs Beethoven’s “The Ruins of Athens” Overture, Triple Concerto (with Lucia Lin, Owen Young, and Sergey Schepkin) and Symphony No. 8, March 9 at 2 p.m. at Jordan Hall (tickets $33-$38; csob.org).

    Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.