In July 1811, Ludwig van Beethoven accepted a commission to provide incidental music to two plays that were to be performed at the opening of the new Hungarian Theatre in Pest. Authored by August von Kotzebue, King Stephen: or Hungary’s First Benefactor and The Ruins of Athens were nationalistic dramas in the German singspiel format (combining the spoken word and sung text), the former depicting the efforts of Hungary’s founder to establish a Christian kingdom, and the latter celebrating the country itself as the successor of ancient Greek civilization.

Beethoven composed an overture and ten pieces of music for King Stephen.

  1. Overture
  2. Male chorus: “Resting from his exploits”
  3. Male chorus: “On a false and sombre path in gloomy groves”
  4. Victory march
  5. Female chorus: “Where innocence has strewn flowers”
  6. Melodrama (Stéphan): “You have left your native land”
  7. Chorus: “A new, resplendent sun is breaking”
  8. Melodrama (Stéphan): “Noble Hungarians, Hear me speak!”
  9. Religious March
  10. Melodrama with chorus: “Hail to our king!”
  11. Final chorus: “Hail! Hail to our descendants!”

Near the end of the play, King Stephen, who was canonized in 1083 by Pope Gregory VII, addresses his fellow “noble Hungarians,” intoning:

Brothers, only when the blessed consecration
Of the Christian faith had been pronounced over you,
Did you take your place among the nations,
Now an imposing link in the chain of peoples.
You sally forth no longer to bring devastation;
For justice alone you are always prepared to fight;
With the pious noble-mindedness of Christians
You combine your forefathers’ bravery.

The full text of King Stephen may be found here. Though performances of the complete incidental music are rare today, the powerful and exciting overture is better known, having been recorded often over the last century.

This essay is part of a series commemorating the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven. 

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The featured image, uploaded by Mstyslav Chernov, is a photograph of an equestrian statue of King Stephen in Budapest, Hungary, taken in October 2012. It is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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