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Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus
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Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus
(First English translation of Salvatore Vigano’s Libretto)
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To Beethoven’s Die Geschoepfe Des Prometheus
As produced at La Scala, in the spring of 1813
Unlike the ballet Vigano put up at the Vienna Hoftheater on March 28th 1801, the music of which was entirely composed by Beethoven, this Version appears to have included incidental music composed by Vigano as well.
The translation may in fact be the first into English ever. It is based on the text in Prof. Stefano Tomassini’s Prometeo, libretto del ballo - con i testi della polemica, published at Turin in 1999 (Ed. Legenda). The translator is most grateful to Professor Tomassini for kindly, and very swiftly, forwarding a copy of his book, that is now out of print. The original libretto is in the Cia Fornaroli Collection at the New York Public Library ; Professor Tomassini used the microfiches held at the British Museum. The French pianist Cyprien Katsaris has recorded the piano reduction of the 1801 score, the reduction being from Beethoven’s own hand.
Before we begin, a few lines from Carlo Ritorni’s Comments on the life and choreodramatic works of Salvatore Vigano, and on choreography and coryphées (1838) held in the Library of the Paris Opera, are worth pondering.
Ritorni’s work on Vigano was intended, it seems, as a defence and illustration of Vigano’s concept of the ballet as a dramatic art form, in the direct line of Noverre. He spars with his contemporaries who contended that the classical dance would never be more than a “divertissement”.
"There are certain theatrical themes, precisely those that deal with the greatest subjects, where not a family, but an entire nation, do appear, the which cannot be enclosed within the usual limits of the drama.
"That intention is better rendered by action without speech (mut’azione), because so many interlocutors cannot all speak at once, for if they all did speak, it would be confusion such that no man could make himself understood, while to let but a few to speak, would be mean-spirited. As for the chorus that speaks, and may the Greeks forgive me, neither does this truly meet with the approval of reason, for never would so many express the self-same notions, in the self-same words."
Ritorni, page 38
There begins Act One
The Scene is a broad Valley in the mountainous Chain of the Colchid, that stretches to the Caspian Sea
Prometheus, the Arts, Human beings,
amongst whom Eon and Linus, Athena
Prometheus contemplates the human race, and seeing how coarse, frail, feeble, lacking in all discernment and reason, lesser even than the brute beasts is Man, he sorrows, groans, and bends his great mind as to how Man may best be raised up above all other living creatures.
As he does so, there appears a straggling throng of men and women in whom nothing save their shape and appearance would suggest that which will, one day, make mortal man approach to the divine nature. Prometheus steps amongst them and ingeniously attempts to draw their attention, but faced with such automatons, his efforts are fruitless : as yet, their mind is capable of nothing. What, then, does Prometheus resolve ? He calls upon the Arts, first and eternal amongst those who teach and uphold society, and implores them to light in the bosom of those wretched beings, their own desire and love. Whereupon, blinded by the fresh and dazzling light of the stately Goddesses, the human cattle flee, frightened out of their wits, into the caves.
Eon, in her haste to escape the Arts, hides behind the first rock she finds. Linus too, would flee, but Prometheus seizes him, being the one who, by delicacy of feature and harmony of form, would seem to be the most apt to his designs. At that moment, he catches sight of beauteous Eon as well, and gently drawing her towards him, presents both savages to the Arts, using flattery and caresses to allay their disquiet, and inspire in them trust and confidence.
Intending to begin his work here, Prometheus observes the chorus of the Arts, and seeing that man will be unable to take in at a single stroke, all their teachings, he chooses those he deems most needful, viz., Agriculture and Architecture, and together with the Arts, sets to teaching his pupils, but all in vain. Linus, espying an apple in Eon’s hand given her by Agriculture, in a fit of jealousy seizes it, while Eon hurls herself upon him. Drawn by their cries, the other humans run up to join the fray, and within instants, fury and bloodshed erupt. In strife one sees the play of passions - the ferocity and bullying of the strong, the cunning of the weak, the fear of the oppressed, the thirst for revenge of the vanquished and the victors’ swollen pride.
And now hear how wretched was Man, who first being
coarse as a child, was by my doing alone
given to possess intellect and reason
(…) Man saw, but perceived not,
He listened, but heard not,
And vainly, like the form of dreams, ever confused all things.
(Translated from the Cesarotti version of Aeschylos’ Prometheus, as it appears in Vigano’s original)
Sisters to tranquillity, the Arts, on seeing so cruel a sight, fly to the mountain tops. Prometheus attempts to dispel the fray, but the madmen will not desist until the weakest are fallen beneath the blows of the stronger, or have fled into the forest, pursued by the most ferocious.
In horror, Prometheus is about to leave off his sublime enterprise, but moved by the groans of the wounded and the suffering of the oppressed strewn about the field, he calls upon Athena, still in hope of attaining his objective.
The Goddess, hearing his fervent prayer, promptly descends from the Gods’ dwelling place, and offers Prometheus everything in Heaven such as may serve to bring man to that state of perfection, that the wonderful arrangement of his constitution would merit.
But the generous Titan, although endowed with sagacity and foresight, never having seen the eternal reign, knows not what to ask of the Goddess in order to attain the objective so devoutly intended, and asks that she carry him to the skies, that he may there examine and choose that most suited to his intent. Athena grants his wish, and bears him heavenward.
End of Act One
A Sea of Clouds
As they float through the clouds, one catches glimpses of Prometheus and Athena on their voyage through the region of the Winds. The Goddess shews the son of Iapetos countless worlds swimming in the vasty heavens, and has him bend his gaze on the boundless grandeur of creation. Athena keeps his spirits steadfast, in the face of prodigies so varied and so infinite, and on reaching the Equator, arrests their journey to shew Prometheus yet other marvels.
In the East rises the Star, messenger of the day : Titon drives away the shadows of the Night, followed by Lucifer "on a steed of dark fire", and soon thereafter the Dawn, casting flowers from her scented basket.
Little by little, the light floods the horizon, and fair Dawn resplendent in her rosy chariot announces the Sun.
Preceded by the Hours, there advances that Divinity who is father to Light, "great Minister of Nature", seated on a shining chariot drawn by prancing steeds.
Hard on the heels of the majestic cortege comes the Year, that soars on wings and knots the ends of a many-coloured arc, itself borne aloft by the Seasons, as the twelve months follow in their train.
As the luminous Divinity approaches, his rays strike Prometheus’ bosom, lighting there a thirst for glory, and an unknown force that makes him greater than himself, and that leads his mind to ever-clearer and grander ideas. Upon which, it comes to him that the precious gift that he must bring mortal man is the celestial fire, through which, man will be raised as much above the beasts, as he now grovels below them. Awaiting the instant that Phoebus’ coach-and-four pass overhead, Prometheus puts out his hand to seize a spark of fire. Springing to his aid in that instant of need, Athena breaks her lance’s stave in two and gives him part, which, having but touched the fiery wheels, bursts into flame from the celestial fire.
Zeus, having seen the great theft, seethes with contempt. A flash of lightning signals the divine revenge : murky darkness swirls about the Sun’s coach, Athena vanishes, while wretched Prometheus is flung to earth amidst howling whirlwind and screeching storm.
End of Act Two
The Scene is a pleasant Grove
Eon, Linus, Prometheus, Cupids, and throngs of mortals
Eon and Linus, dreading the thunderclaps and rushing winds, run to hide beneath the leafy trees. Near lifeless, Prometheus lies upon the ground, but as he fell, the red-hot stave gave off countless sparks that now flicker over the earth. From each there springs up tiny Cupids, and each bears a torch.
The moment the Cupids appear, the warring elements fall silent, and the heavens become serene. The winged infants frolic from one tree to the next, and coming upon the startled Eon, pluck flowers and playfully toss them at her head. In a passion of rage she tramples upon them. Linus finds Prometheus, glances at him with cool indifference, and walks by. Shortly though, as the cheerful Cupids swing their torches through the airs, the two savages become aware of the pounding of their heart, the senses quicken, the mind begins to perceive, and the eye rejoices for the first time in the beauties of nature. Eon gathers up the very flowers that she would have trod upon, brings them to Linus, and both wonder at their beauty and fragrance, and then compare the flowers to each other, whilst in each bosom is born a new longing that brings them closer in a wave of inexplicable delight. But the sight of Prometheus, lying half-dead in the dust, causes them to feel an unknown disquiet, that swiftly turns to pity, and both come now to his aid.
Prometheus recovers consciousness to find the two savages - now rather less savage - tending to him. Beside himself with wonder and contentment, he presses them to his bosom as a father to a child, blessing the happy presentiment that had made him steal the eternal quickening spark.
Linus and Eon, however, gaze on Prometheus’ majestic countenance, and finding themselves abject by comparison, feel shame and fall to the ground before him like supplicants, begging him to defend them and lead them out of their wretched condition. Throngs of mortals, touched themselves by the celestial fire dotted about the forest by the Cupids in their revels, join in their prayer, become aware of the same feelings as Linus and Eon, and for the first time, find that they can make use of reason. Exultant at so unexpected and prodigious an outcome, the far-seeing Titan fondly embraces the mortals, and foresees the future grandeur and nobility of the human race. Thinking only of how to speedily bring his great work to accomplishment, without further delay he leads the regenerated mortals on to acquire Virtue.
End of Act Three
The Scene is Vulcan’s Forge
Vulcan, Cyclops, Cupid, Mercury, Jove
Sospira e suda all’opera Vulcano
Per rinfrescar l’aspre saëtte a Giove
(Vulcan groans and sweats at his labours,
for sharpen Jove’ thunderbolts he must)
Petrarch, sonnet 41,
and as he burnishes the shield, Cupid enters the paternal forge. The lame Deity promptly leaves off his work, and seizes the dear child up in his arms. Frightened by Vulcan’s wiry beard and rough kiss, that leave a sooty trail on his cheek, Cupid tears free and bursts into tears. To quiet him, Vulcan gives him a fine gleaming bow, but Cupid throws it to the ground in disdain, and mocks his father. In his eagerness to placate the boy, Vulcan would do whatever he please. The saucy child asks for one of his father’s sharpest arrows (Oh, wretched mortals ! Beware ! Love goes armed to strike to the heart !)
Vulcan presents him with a sheath of quivering arrows, but the clever archer finds the flaw in each, discarding one after the other. Stung by the child’s mockery, the divine blacksmith selects a finely-tempered arrow, but craves a kiss in exchange. Cupid feigns to grant it, but the moment he grasps the arrow in his hand, he flees. In his haste to escape Vulcan’s pursuit, he leaps into the blazing furnace. The desperate Vulcan seizes his great tongs to pull the child from the flames, but in vain. "Woe is me", cries the loving father, tearing at his hair, "the flames may have devoured him !" "Ah no ! Look here, good old man, for you know not your immortal offspring’s power ; see his soot-streaked face and how, bold and quite unharmed, he makes sport of your terrors and aims at you, the very arrows that you so recklessly placed into his hands !"
As Cupid flies from Etna’s forge, Mercury appears, and orders Vulcan to search for Prometheus and close him in stocks of adamant upon the Caucasus, in punishment for his great crime. Vulcan distrusts the divine messenger, who takes offence. Of a sudden, there appears Jove ; he chides Vulcan for his disobedience and ratifies the irrevocable decree, carved into stone by Mercury with his caduceus, in letters of fire :
The perfidious Titan
Who stole the heavenly fire,
Shall, nailed to the cliff,
Expiate his folly.
Vulcan bows to the supreme command, and sets to forging the instruments for the great torment. Winds howl in the bowels of Etna and gusts of flame rise, the cave rings to the sound of Cyclops’ hammer-on-anvil, until the sooty host, bearing the stocks of Aeolus, the chains of Bellona, and the adamantine nails, set out to slake Jove’ revenge.
End of Act Four
The Scene is the Temple of Virtue
Virtue, Justice, Concord, Prudence etc.
The Genii, the Muses, the Graces,
Mars, Prometheus, Eon, Linus, throngs of mortals, Cupid, and finally, Vulcan with the Cyclops
Prometheus leads the mortals to the holy shrine, and begs the Goddess to shower her gifts upon them. Ever well-disposed to the earnest supplicant, Virtue orders the Muses who favour every noble enterprise, and the Graces who are the source of all refinement, to teach mankind. And soon one finds the happy mortals at the foot of Euterpe, inventor of Music, before Terpsychore, mistress of the dance, before Calliope, Urania or another of the divine sisters, in accordance with the talent peculiar to each man, and that guides his actions.
From afar, Eon is seen at the distaff spinning with her dewy fingers the milky strands of wool. The Graces seek her out, while hidden in their midst, Cupid steals upon Eon, breaks the yarn she has spun, and the moment she stoops to collect the fallen spindle, pierces her with an arrow. Eon cries out in pain at the unexpected hurt ; within an instant, the poison in which the arrowhead is steeped reaches the maid’s heart, there to light an unknown ardour that both sears and delights. But who will be the object of such tender solicitude ? As Linus appears, Cupid points the youth out to Eon, at whose sight the maid feels both pleasure and torment, a presentiment of happiness, and a desire to please. But the cruel youth, enchanted by the harmony created by the cither at his touch, pays no attention to the maid’s doings, intent as he is, on bringing forth new tones from the strings. Eon breaks out weeping ; Cupid surrounds her with the Graces, who gather up her tears in a veil, and cast them on Linus’ heart. What power in the tears of beauty ! The youth puts away the cither, his heart beats faster, he sighs, and throws himself at the feet of the delicate maid, asking that she take pity on his sufferings. Proud of his trick, Cupid shews Prometheus the enamoured pair.
The wise Titan, well aware of the woe that follows in the train of passion, flies into a fury, and, alongside Faith, Modesty, Prudence and the other divine companions, orders Cupid to quit the sacred precinct.
Cupid makes sport of Prometheus’ words, and makes as though to wound him. Upon which Prometheus wrests away Cupid’s arrows, seizes him by the wings, and would maltreat him but Linus and Eon go on bended knee and plead for the boy, while declaring their mutual flame. Hymen appears amongst the Virtues ; Cupid hides beneath the mantle of Concord, and Prometheus, seeing that matrimony will form the most solid base of society, unites the two in the sacred bond. The Graces, the Muses, Mortals, the Virtues, the Genii and the God of valour and courage, celebrate the union with gay dances.
Suddenly, hideous sooty creatures erupt from beneath the earth, and disrupt the joyful proceedings. The Cyclops, led by Vulcan, are come to fulfil Jove’s decree. They throw themselves upon the wretched Prometheus, bind him about in chains, and drag him to the Caucasus. Dismayed at the awful sight, the Mortals beg Mars to lead them to destroy the cruel ruffians, and set their benefactor free. But Virtue inveighs against mad choler, and tells the World that mortals may not rise up against the Divine will, nor are there means to placate the Divinity’s rage other than prayer and sacrifice. In sorrowful submission, the mortals set about the sacred rites, and, in company with the chorus of the Virtues and Muses, walk to the foot of the mountain that is fatal witness to Prometheus’ dreadful torments.
End of Act Five
Being the Sixth and Final, Act
The Scene is Mount Caucasus
Mercury, Vulcan, Cyclops, Prometheus, mortals amongst whom Eon and Linus, the Virtues, the Muses, then Hercules, and finally Minerva, Hygia, Jove, Juno, the other major Gods, and Immortality.
At Mercury’s command, the Cyclops, led by Vulcan, throw the wretched Prometheus upon the slopes of Caucasus, bind him to the rocks, close him hand-and-foot in chains, and cleave his bosom with a great adamantine nail. Thunderclaps herald the eagle, minister to Jove’s fury, who circles slowly downwards to tear at the Titan’s bosom with his great beak, and devour the Titan’s liver as it grows.
To one side, with the Virtues, the Muses and the Genii in their wake, there files by the train of downcast mortals, who offer sacrifice to Almighty Jove ; to the other, appears Hercules, returning triumphant from his celebrated labours. The sorrow expressed by so many halts the Hero in his progress, as the Virtues, the Genii and the Muses crowd about him. Having once learnt of the reason for their grief, he burns to right the wrong, and resolves to free the oppressed Titan, though he counsels the mortals to carry on with their supplications, and to propitiate Jove with libations and sacrifice.
In the twinkling of an eye, Hercules springs to the mountain peak, slays the voracious bird of prey, and breaks the illustrious victim’s chains. The grateful mortals clamber up the slopes to throng about Prometheus and Hercules, rejoicing with the one, and proffering their thanks to the other. The Virtues, the Muses, the Genii all take part in the moving event. All life though, seems to have left Prometheus ; his bosom lacerated, he lies spent by the ferocity of the struggle. Full of pity, the mortals bear him down the slope to the plain ; each tries to tend to him and restore him to his spirits. Death seems certain, and his wandering gaze seeks one last ray of light ...
But Minerva will not abandon him. She descends on a cloud with beneficent Hygia, Goddess of Health, and announces that Jove, for love of his glorious son Hercules, has pardoned the celestial thief Prometheus. With flowering rush and ambrosia, she swiftly brings Prometheus to himself. Hercules leads him to his chariot, the vault of the skies open, and in a flash of brilliant light, Olympus is seen. The son of Iapetos raises his palms heavenwards and gives thanks to the God of Thunder. Alighting from her starry abode, Immortality crowns Prometheus with ever-fresh amaranth, the Numi applaud the reward showered upon the best of the Titans while the mortals express their heart’s boundless joy at Jove’s mercy, and at the reward so richly merited by their benefactor.
End of Act Six
Translated by K.L. Kanter