Eroica Symphony (Beethoven)

Program note

With the Eroica the symphony as a genre ceased to be a diversion, it demanded serious attention of its listeners and became the focal point of the concert program.
Symphony No. 3 in E-flat, op. 55 ‘Eroica’

Allegro con brio
Marcia funebre (Adagio assai)
Scherzo (Allegro vivace)
Finale (Allegro molto)

It can be misleading to read too much of the personal circumstances of a composer into the character of his music. (Does Beethoven’s Second Symphony convey the feelings of a man struggling with encroaching deafness and despair?) Even so, it is a characteristic of the ‘heroic’ works of Beethoven’s middle period that they contain more than a little of Beethoven the man, or at least our conception of Beethoven as hero. From that viewpoint, who can the hero of the Eroica Symphony be but the composer himself?

At face value Beethoven was an unlikely hero – unattractive, quarrelsome and uncompromising – but he was embraced by the Viennese aristocracy who recognised his musical genius. Beethoven’s various patrons encouraged him to disregard the more conservative criticism he encountered and to foster the novel character and technical difficulties of his music. This he had done to varying degrees and, on the whole, he had been well-received even in his more eccentric moments. But the Eroica Symphony of 1803 represented a rapid development in style and a serious challenge.

The dedicatee of the Eroica, Prince Lobkowitz, actually purchased the rights to the symphony for his own use prior to publication and presented several performances before its public premiere on 7 April 1805. Even then, reception was polarised – on the one hand were listeners who judged the symphony a masterpiece and considered those it didn’t please insufficiently cultivated, on the other listeners who heard only a wilful and unnecessary departure from the style that had pleased them so much in the first two symphonies.

With the Eroica the symphony as a genre ceased to be a diversion, it demanded serious attention of its listeners and became the focal point of the concert program. No longer was its motivation entirely musical, or even representational, despite the title. The extra-musical association was not entirely new, but the subjective outlook of the work was. The symphony was now considered capable of expressing ideals, of speaking for as well as to humanity.

In this alone the Eroica was critical in the history of the symphony, matched in impact only by Beethoven’s Ninth. In purely musical terms it was equally revolutionary. It was ‘purposely written much longer than is usual’ and is twice as long as any of the symphonies composed by Haydn or Mozart. It expands the classical forms to monumental proportions, filling them with an abundance of thematic ideas and subjecting them to an unprecedented complexity and density of working out.

This was the first of Beethoven’s symphonies to carry an extra-musical association and an evocative title, ‘Sinfonia eroica’. The inspiration was Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt, and Beethoven saw in the First Consul of the Republic an apostle of new ideas and perhaps a little of his own uncompromising will.

But when Beethoven heard that Napoleon had crowned himself Emperor the words ‘intitolato Bonaparte’ were scratched out and replaced by ‘Heroic Symphony, composed to celebrate the memory of a great man’.

With this gesture the symphony was freed from any risk of petty pictorialism, in much the same way that the symphony itself ‘freed music’. The conflicts of the symphony became idealised; the Funeral March, supposedly prompted by the rumour of Nelson’s death in the Battle of Aboukir, grew in significance, ‘too big to lead to the tomb of a single man’. The hero is not Napoleon – he had shown himself to be ‘nothing but an ordinary man’ – or any other individual, and no identifiable nations are party to the struggle (that must wait for Napoleon’s downfall in Wellington’s Victory).

In one sense the Eroica’s battles are entirely musical and music is the hero. When asked what the Eroica ‘meant’ Beethoven went to the piano and played, by way of an answer, the first eight notes of the symphony’s main theme. It is a simple motif, outlining the key of the symphony by tracing the notes of an E flat major chord, and Beethoven introduces it not with his customary disorienting introduction but with two authoritative thunderclaps from the orchestra. This apparently meagre material is all the more powerful for its directness and Beethoven develops it into a vast but detailed movement.

The second movement, a funeral march, draws on the rhetoric of the revolutionary music and seemed to speak most directly to the first audiences. One contemporary reviewer declared it a triumph of invention and design of which only a true genius was capable.

Following this expression of intense grief, the third movement is blessedly playful and humorous, a Scherzo by name as well as by nature. For the first time the contrasting trio section – with its connotations of the hunt – is integrated into the movement. The monumental scale of the symphony demands an adaptation of Classical forms and suddenly a simple pair of alternating dances is insufficient to the weight of material and expression.

The Finale is based on a passacaglia-like theme from Beethoven’s ballet The Creatures of Prometheus (1801) and the connection with another hero cannot be accidental. The theme had turned up again in a set of contredanses and, more significantly, is the theme of the Piano Variations Op.35, completed in 1802. The theme is simple and impulsive, as befits its terpsichorean origins, but in this final, symphonic embodiment Beethoven transforms it into a hymn to the generous sentiments of the Revolution: freedom and equality.

The early reviews of the Eroica emphasised its unity of structure and material, a marked shift from the prevailing assessment of Beethoven’s music as fantastic, wild and unconstrained. It has been suggested that the Prometheus theme was also the primary source for the material of the other three movements, demonstrating how quickly Beethoven had shifted the focus and weight of his symphonic thinking from the first movement to the last. This shift was inevitable in a composer for whom beauty, purpose and truth could only be won through a struggle, and whose music is an expression of human experience.

© Yvonne Frindle, 2001

Republished with the permission of Symphony Services Australia

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