Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, “Eroica”

Ludwig van Beethoven 

Born in Bonn, Germany, December 16, 1770; died in Vienna, Austria, March 26, 1827

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Although the responses to Beethoven's music are as varied as the individuals who listen to it, virtually everyone seems to agree that it often embodies an ethical or spiritual quest: the drama, in Scott Burnam's words, “of a self struggling to create and fulfill its own destiny.” And this epic quest is most forcefully expressed in the works Beethoven wrote during the first decade of the 19th century — what we now call his “Heroic Period.”

Historically, this was also an era of heroism and aspiration. The American and French revolutions had recently acted out humankind's desire for freedom and self-determination and thrust forward leaders such as Washington and Bonaparte. Beethoven translated this aspiring spirit into music. Living in Vienna under the autocratic Hapsburg regime, he acted out his dream of individual liberty in his daily life. His career revolved around two heroic quests: his struggle against encroaching deafness and his creative battle to forge a new musical language within a conservative and often hostile environment.

Beethoven launched his Heroic Period with his Third Symphony, a work he subtitled “Sinfonia eroica, composed to celebrate the memory of a great man.” That man was originally intended to be Napoleon Bonaparte, whom Beethoven initially admired as a liberalizing leader embodying the Enlightenment principles he revered. However, when in 1804 he heard that Napoleon had crowned himself emperor, he tore the title page containing the name “Bonaparte” from the score in a fit of rage. “So he too is nothing more than an ordinary man!” he reportedly cried. “Now he also will trample all human rights underfoot and only pander to his own ambition.” The hero thereafter celebrated in the “Eroica” became an ideal rather than an actual human being.

Indeed, the Symphony itself was a heroic act: shocking its first audiences and setting a new symphonic template for future composers to emulate. In a work twice the length of previous symphonies, Beethoven had expanded 18th-century symphonic structures beyond his contemporaries' powers of comprehension. Even more challenging was the “Eroica's” harmonic daring and overall tone of aggression. It did not seek to please and amuse its listeners but to challenge and provoke them.

We hear the challenge in the two loud E-flat chords that open the first movement. More than introductory gestures, they are the germinal motive of the symphony. From them Beethoven builds the repeated sforzando chords, with their arresting dislocation of the beat, that we hear a few moments later. Just before the end of the exposition section, he adds teeth-grinding dissonance to this mix, and in the development section, this concoction explodes in a shattering crisis.

The movement's principal theme is a simple swinging between the notes of an E-flat-Major chord that quickly stumbles on a dissonant C-sharp. It will take the rest of this giant movement, with its expanded development and coda sections, to resolve this stumble. So intense is Beethoven's forward propulsion that his themes never have time to blossom into melody. In fact, the most compelling theme waits until the development, when oboes and cellos introduce it as part of the recovery from the hammering dissonant chords.

The second-movement funeral march in C minor is one of Beethoven’s most imposing and profound movements. In his superb new biography, Jan Swafford tells us the musical style here was inspired by the grand funeral marches composed for public occasions during the French Revolution. Over imitation drum rolls in the strings, the famous threnody unfolds its majestic course. It is succeeded by an episode in C Major that injects rays of sunshine and hope, with fanfares proclaiming the greatness of the fallen hero. Then the dirge melody returns and swiftly becomes an imposing fugue: counterpoint intensifying emotion. In the movement's remarkable closing measures, the march theme disintegrates into sobbing fragments.

The third-movement scherzo provides light-hearted relief after the weight and drama of the opening movements. Yet it too retains intensity as its music, in Lewis Lockwood’s words, repeatedly traces a “pattern of rapid growth from a mysterious pianissimo to a rousing fortissimo.”  Beethoven re-introduces a gentler variant of the off-the-downbeat hammer blows from the first movement; eventually, they briefly push the three-beat meter into two beats.

After struggle, the finale brings joy in the form of sublime musical play. It is an imposing set of variations on a theme Beethoven had used three times before: in an early set of contredances, in the Creatures of Prometheus, and for the piano variations now known as the “Eroica” Variations. Beethoven first isolates the bass line of his theme as a witty little tune in its own right, only later giving us the theme itself in the woodwinds. In Swafford’s words, “he has shaped the finale as a steady intensification from the light style of a dance to a heroic voice.” Elaborate fugal passages and a grandly martial episode culminate in a sublime apotheosis: a group of variations in a slower tempo that proclaims the hero's immortality. The Presto climax is capped by the symphony's opening E-flat hammer blows, now triumphant rather than tragic.

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Notes by Janet E. Bedell copyright 2018