In May 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte, whom Beethoven had admired as the embodiment of the ideals of the French Revolution, crowned himself Emperor. “So he is no more than a common mortal!” an outraged Beethoven exclaimed to his confidant Ferdinand Ries. “Now, too, he will tread under foot all the rights of man, indulge only his ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men, become a tyrant!” On the composer’s desk lay the manuscript to his recently completed Third Symphony, “intitolata Bonaparte;” Beethoven angrily scratched out the dedication with a knife, tearing a hole in the paper. When the grand symphony was published in 1806, it appeared as Sinfonia Eroica, “…composta per festeggiare il sovvenire di un grand Uomo” (heroic symphony…composed to celebrate the memory of a great man).
Befitting the grandeur of the composer’s inspiration before his eventual disillusionment, the Eroica Symphony loudly broke new ground for the symphonic form; it is not hyperbolic to credit the Eroica with changing the course Western music at large. Indeed, for Beethoven, where Napoleon disappointed, his musical vision would soar. The Eroica is one of the first works to distance Beethoven from the influence of Haydn and Mozart, as evidenced by the baffled critical responses it elicited. One reviewer wished that “Herr van B. would employ his admittedly great talents in giving us works like his symphonies in C and D, his ingratiating Septet in E-flat, the ingenious Quintet in C, and others of his early works that have placed him forever in the ranks of the foremost instrumental composers”—works, in other words, that continued the tradition of eighteenth-century Classicism. Beethoven had something else in mind: in 1803, he had declared to a friend, “I am not satisfied with what I have composed up to now. From now on I intend to embark on a new path.”
With the Eroica, Beethoven realized his intention. Among the symphonic repertoire, it is without precedent in magnitude and in the degree of virtuosity required of the orchestra. Each of its four movements is an individually colossal statement; together, they form a work twice as long as many early symphonies of Haydn and Mozart. Surrounded by similarly epic works in various genres, including the Waldstein and Appassionata Sonatas, the Razumovsky Quartets, the Fourth Piano Concerto, and the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, the Eroica is the signature work of what has become known as Beethoven’s “heroic” period.
The symphony’s iconic opening gesture of two forceful E-flat major chords sets the tone for the monumental opus that ensues. The cellos introduce the first theme: a seemingly innocuous melodic arpeggiation of the same E-flat major chord—but, agitated by urgent syncopations in the first violins, the melody dips strangely to C-sharp, placing the listener immediately on notice that convention will not contain Beethoven’s imagination.
What strikes the listener as the Allegro con brio unfolds is the combination of its majestic sonority and thematic coherence with the constant, jarring defiance of melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic expectations. A propulsive sequence of two-beat chords over the movement’s triple-meter tempo (with the true downbeat never accented) sets up a grand restatement of the theme by the full orchestra; this passage is outdone at the end of the exposition with an utterly disorienting series of dissonant sforzando chords. The development section is equally bewildering, not least of all for the notorious “wrong” entrance by the first horn, which quietly anticipates the recapitulation two measures before the rest of the orchestra. (In intended commiseration with Beethoven, Ries asked during a rehearsal, “Can’t that damned horn player count?”—nearly earning him a box on the ears from the temperamental composer.)
The second movement is a funeral march for the mythical hero at the center of the symphony. The theme appears first in the violins, pianissimo e sotto voce, and then is taken over with especial poignancy by the oboe, accompanied by somber triplet drumbeats in the strings. The sobriety of this music is only modestly relieved by a gentle secondary theme.
A contrasting middle section in C major takes a moment of lyrical respite to an exultant climax of trumpets and timpani. The march returns, quickly giving way to a contemplative fugue on an inversion of the earlier secondary theme.
After further drama, marked by numerous harmonic twists and turns, the movement ends quietly defeated. Hector Berlioz would later write of this affecting Adagio assai, “I know few examples in music of a style in which grief has been so consistently able to retain such pure form and such nobility of expression.”
The caffeinated energy of the scherzo draws a measure of anxious expectancy from the whispered staccato of its opening measures. Its eventual fortissimo outburst is resplendent, leading some commentators to hear it as the hero’s resurrection. Indeed, the horn chorale in the trio section is a triumphant transfiguration of the second movement funeral march theme.
The finale provides the culmination of the Eroica’s magnificent scope, solidifying the symphony’s spirit of heroism that would come to define this period of Beethoven’s career. It is a set of variations on a theme Beethoven had previously used in The Creatures of Prometheus and in his Fifteen Variations and a Fugue for Piano, op. 35 (henceforth often called the Eroica Variations). The theme itself—whose melody and bass line Beethoven extensively works over throughout the movement—is not only repurposed material but, considered on its own, frankly unremarkable.
But in the theme’s straightforwardness lies its potential, and especially so given the breadth of Beethoven’s imagination: for, just as in such works as the Fifth and Ninth Symphonies—whose melodic ideas cannot themselves be called inspired, while Beethoven’s treatment of them is transcendent—the magic resides not in the bricks and mortar but in the monument. How fitting a conclusion indeed do these variations provide—an obvious melody, put through the paces of a traditional Classical form but thereby transfigured beyond what any but a visionary on the order of Beethoven could have foreseen—for a landmark symphony conceived on the premise of heroism and revolution and whose mammoth compass would chart a new horizon in Western music history.
Patrick Castillo ©2012