Symphony No 3

in E-Flat Major, Op. 55 ("Eroica"), Ludwig Van Beethoven

In 1801, Beethoven wrote in his diary “I am not satisfied with my works up to the present time.  From today I mean to take a new road.”  This decision was realized in his Third Symphony.  Intimations of a new orientation were hinted at in his preceding symphonies but now the revolution became overt.

Sir George Grove has explained, “The Eroica first shows us the methods which were so completely to revolutionize (symphonic) music—the continuous and organic mode of connecting the second subject with the first, the introduction of episodes into the working-out the extraordinary importance of the coda.”  Grove continues to cite more significant innovations: a Funeral March for the second movement, the title of “Scherzo” appearing for the first time in the symphonies (a replacement of the standard Minuet) and the rip-roaring Finale, which he calls “a daring romance.”

The music’s impact was massive on subsequent composers. Jonathan Kramer has written “Once the ‘Eroica’ existed, no subsequent composer could ignore it. The development of nineteenth-century symphonic music is traceable more to the ‘Eroica’ than to any other single work, and it took composers more than a century to exhaust its implications.” Paul Henry Lang wrote, “The ‘Eroica’ is the greatest single step made by an individual composer in the history of the symphony and the history of music in general.”

The naming of this symphony as “Eroica” had a twisted and violent history. In 1798, General Bernadotte, Ambassador from France to Vienna, suggested that a symphony should be written to honor Napoleon Bonaparte.  Beethoven found the idea a good one at that time.  Napoleon seemed to be a harbinger of the future, a passionate champion of the values Beethoven cherished, and an embodiment of revolutionary ideals, a living Prometheus. Beethoven personally identified with the defiance of established mores which Napoleon, at that time represented. In addition, Beethoven was also contemplating a move to Paris, and perhaps he thought that such a work would provide a passport into French elite social circles. With all these issues in mind, Beethoven dedicated the work to the great warrior. A dedication that was short-lived.

On May 2, 1804, when Napoleon assumed the title Emperor, Beethoven flew into a rage saying “He is nothing but an ordinary mortal! He will trample all the rights of men under foot to indulge his ambition….” After his screams, Beethoven tore the title page in half and threw it on the ground. Napoleon’s name was thus forever deleted from the original dedication.

The dedication evolved into “Sinfonia Eroica, Composed to Celebrate the Memory of a Great Man.”  Beethoven’s anger against Napoleon was enduring.  When he heard of a later Napoleonic victory he declared “It is a pity that I do not understand the art of war as well as I do the art of music.  Then I would conquer him!”

The “new road” Beethoven contemplated in his music begins at once when the first movement plunges headlong into the substance of the music, eliminating a customary introduction.  Two sharp staccato chords roar from the orchestra, followed by the first rocking theme, outlining the E-flat triad. Its simplicity is momentary; quickly the theme coils into increasing tension through tight repetitions, seeking a resolution from its first strange landing point on a C sharp. Our sense of tonal security is immediately at risk. Additional agitation is added when syncopated accents interrupt a lush cello melody. Only small respites are granted as the music insists on its turbulent course, shrieking with large discords before the huge development section.

Emotions run high; many modulations occur; Beethoven is fearless, confident of his vision. In 1801, he had told friends about his hearing loss; he moved to Heiligenstadt to escape the summer heat, and while there, in the fall of 1802 he wrote his Heiligenstadt Testament. Herein he confessed the toll his hearing loss was taking on him, his helplessness with doctors, his flirtation with suicide. “Only my art held me back. It seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had produced what was within me.” The turmoil within the Eroica reflects those life experiences which he endured. This was his state of mind as he turned to write the Third symphony.

A huge development section lasts for 250 measures (the size of entire single first movements of certain classical symphonies). It continues the exposition’s behavior of harmonic shocks and rhythmic syncopations. A recapitulation (hinted at by a horn in another key before beginning proper in the violins) not only repeats the exposition but introduces even more ideas and more harmonic adventures. To many contemporaries the traditional symphonic form seemed to be growing wildly out of control, but Beethoven was relentless. Finally, a massive coda (140 measures) brings the first movement to a close.

The second movement is titled “Funeral March.”  Heroic grief is held in tight control.  “There is no pessimistic whining; no luxury of self-pity. It is an epic lamentation over heroes slain in the defense of everyone’s freedom.” (Edward Downes) The march begins in the violins.  An oboe repeats the theme, and a melancholy tune emerges again from the strings. A trio led by oboe and flute prepares us for the stunning conclusion: a giant, dense fugue built on the march theme.

Its third movement is marked Scherzo: allegro vivace. The music is bursting with optimism, energy, and certain madness. The trio offers extensive opportunities for three French horns to take the spotlight. Then the madness is revived, ending in a small coda, which leads quickly into the last movement.

The fourth movement Finale: allegro molto continues the liveliness of the preceding music. But it also marks new ground. Michael Steinberg has observed “A final and startling newness in the ‘Eroica’ is the way the center of gravity is shifted from the first movement to the last.” First and second violins pluck a soft angular tune which later is combined with the presentation of Beethoven’s “Prometheus” theme. (This theme had been used three times previously by the composer; in a group of contradances, in the finale of the ballet, and in the “Eroica Piano Variations.”) In the final movement, variations are exquisitely crafted on this theme ending with a tight fugato (imitative passage). The music rushes powerfully to its close, a series of heavy, crunching and affirming chords.

The newness of Eroica was baffling to early audiences, especially at the premiere on April 7, 1805 at Theater an der Wien.  “I’ll pay another kreuzer if the thing will only stop,” a gallery wit called out on that night. A contemporary critic noted Beethoven’s “undesirable originality…” and concluded that the new symphony was “unendurable to the mere music-lover.” Others felt that the work “lost itself in lawlessness.” It cannot be denied that Beethoven succeeded in giving his audiences a giant shock. To many it seemed bizarre and rather frightening. t was twice as long as his proceeding symphonies. There was to be no turning back for the composer.

The Third Symphony always remained dear to Beethoven. After completing eight symphonies, he was asked by his friend and poet Christoff Kuffner which symphony was his favorite and he answered simply and without hesitation, “The Eroica.”

© Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2017

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