The 2011 British film Coriolanus directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes took me back in time. The word “Coriolan” must have first entered my consciousness in the 1970s, while listening to “The Pleasure is Yours”, the BBC World Service’s request programme on short-wave radio, and presented by Gordon Clyde. I must have been around ten years old. That tiny Grundig transistor was my window to the outside world. I remember the first time I heard the Beethoven ‘Coriolan’ overture, it knocked my socks off. My father had a stack of records and spool tapes, but I had gone through them already. This was something new. The sheer intensity and drama of the music spoke directly to me above the pop, crackle and hiss of the static. I even remember the details: it was the 1959 recording of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Fritz Reiner.

The title of the overture made no sense to me then, as I had no access to any reference material. And my childhood exposure to Shakespeare, triggered off by excerpts in the school English syllabus, had led me on to some of his major plays (The Tempest, Merchant of Venice, Othello, Macbeth, Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream) in my father’s library, but not to Coriolanus.

I came to grips with Coriolan again in the 2000s in England, sitting in the violin section of the Corinthian Chamber Orchestra in central London under the baton of Alan Hazeldine. Rehearsal sessions with him at the BMA (the British Medical Association headquarters, literally yards away from where the bus bomb was detonated in July 2007) were like masterclasses, the music education I had always wanted to have, but which somehow had eluded me due to the circumstances of my life. I hung on to every word he uttered in his Scottish burr-accented English, always generously peppered with sparkling wit and sometimes a little playful, wicked humour as well. He told us the context of the overture which helped us to ‘get under its skin.’

So, briefly, who was Coriolanus, and what’s the fuss all about? Gaius Marcius Coriolanus was a Roman general who is believed to have lived around the fifth century BC. He was bestowed the toponymic cognomen (place name added as a third name according to ancient Roman convention) of “Coriolanus” in recognition of exceptional valour shown by him in the Roman siege of the Volscian city Corioli. He soon fell from grace and was exiled because his overweening pride prevented him from accepting a consulship, as it would mean humbling himself before the plebeians. In revenge he joined hands against Rome with the very Volscians he had defeated. Only the entreaty of his mother, wife and children to spare the city dissuaded him from sacking Rome. The Volscians, enraged by this betrayal, had Coriolanus killed.

coriolanus painting

True or not, the story has captured the imagination of writers and thinkers through history. It was documented by Plutarch, translated into English in 1579, and formed the basis of Shakespeare’s eponymous play. Heinrich Joseph von Collin’s 1804 play Coriolan portrayed him in the context of the German romantic ideas of the tragic hero.

Beethoven must have seen similarities between himself and this haughty hero. Furthermore, he wished von Collin (who had influence at Vienna’s Imperial Theatre) would collaborate as his librettist to produce operas annually there. This ambition was never realised, but the overture introduced Collin’s play at a performance in 1807.

It is an eight-minute stroke of genius, encapsulating the whole tragic story in this short span. The choice of key is striking: C minor, the same ‘tragic’ tonality used in his Third Piano Concerto and his Fifth Symphony. Beethoven dispenses with any perfunctory introduction and launches headlong into the drama of it all: three energetic Cs build up and erupt with great malevolence into thunderclap chords. The main C minor theme with its strategic pauses, the inexorable crescendos beginning from virtually nothing to full-blown fortes in sometimes just two measures, only to drop off the precipice in subito pianos brilliantly portray a man wronged and about to unleash vengeance on a titanic scale; this is offset by a sublime theme in E flat major representing his mother intervening on behalf of Rome, of peace, and of sanity. The lurching forward propulsion in the lower strings borders on the methodically manic, almost sweeping aside the ‘mother’ theme until it ‘runs out of steam’, depicting Coriolanus’ anger dissipating as he listens to reason, but simultaneously sealing his own fate.

If this description has tempted you to listen to the real thing, then go to YouTube and type in ‘Coriolan’. You’ll have several options to choose from: Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic, Nikolas Harnoncourt and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Take your pick; they’re each of them marvellous in their own way. Find a quiet time and place, kill the phones, and let Coriolanus come to life again.

(An edited version of this article was published on 23 February 2014 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)