Sakura Salon 8/3/14 – Beethoven Symphony #3 “Eroica”

Beethoven’s Third Symphony pushed the art of symphonic writing into a new realm. Consider what the first audience experienced at the premiere of Beethoven’s Third: a work nearly twice as long as symphonies written before it, orchestral writing that pushed the players to the limits of their virtuosic abilities, and a harmonic language that was utterly foreign and complex. Given the context, one can understand why the critical response to the premiere was so mixed. One critic wrote in Leipzig’s Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung: “The reviewer belongs to Herr van Beethoven’s sincerest admirers, but in this composition he must confess that he finds too much that is glaring and bizarre, which hinders greatly one’s grasp of the whole, and a sense of unity is almost completely lost.” The same critic went on to bemoan that the symphony “lasted an entire hour.” Conversely, another patron wrote rather prophetically: “Here is more than Haydn and Mozart; here the symphony-poem is brought to a higher plateau!”

The story of how the Third Symphony received its title, “Eroica” (Heroic), has become famous lore in and of itself. Beethoven had been enamored with Napoleon Bonaparte and his fight against political tyranny and inequality. However, when Napoleon proceeded to appoint himself Emperor, Beethoven, dismayed by the hypocrisy of Napoleon’s own appointment, scratched out the Symphony’s original inscription of “intitolata Bonaparte” with a knife, leaving a large hole on the title page of the original manuscript.  Beethoven instead decided to title the piece Sinfonia eroica (Heroic Symphony), and eventually subtitled the Third Symphony at the time of publishing in 1806: “Sinfonia eroica, composed to celebrate the life of a great man” (conspicuously leaving out any reference to Napoleon). Beethoven’s resentment towards Napoleon seemed to last. Following Napoleon’s victory at Jena in October of 1806, Beethoven boldy proclaimed: “It’s a pity I do not understand the art of war as well as I do the art of music. I would conquer him!”

Though the published inscription signals an intended dedicatee, the Third Symphony can be viewed as Beethoven’s own declarative statement of independence. Beethoven grabs the listener by the lapels from the opening bars of the Allegro con brio, with two bombastic E-flat major chords played by the entire orchestra. The thematic development of the first movement is fascinating – instead of writing grand, soaring melodies, emphasis is placed on the tension and propulsive characteristics of the melodic material. The great British musicologist Donald Francis Tovey wrote that all the themes “can be recognized by their bare rhythm without quoting any melody at all.” Indeed, the first theme presented in the cellos following the declamatory two chords is a simple oscillation back and forth on an E-flat major triad, which is quickly followed by insistent syncopation in the violins, offering a constant sense of motion. In the first movement, Beethoven offers five different thematic ideas that develop and model loosely a theme and variations paradigm. Although the first movement is expansive, it is tightly crafted. One of the more famous (or infamous) moments is the seemingly “wrong” horn entry, four bars before the recapitulation, prompting several critics at the premiere to call Beethoven on his “mistake,” though it was completely intentional.

The emotional core of the symphony is the Marcia funebre (Funeral March). If the funeral march was intended for a particular person, we have no indication (though there is some unsubstantiated speculation that perhaps it was written for the British General Abercrombie, who died heroically at the Battle of Alexandria in 1801).  The climax of the Adagio rests in the massive double fugue, weighted in grief, though ultimately transformed into a statement of triumph. The contrasting Scherzo is fleet, beginning with a tremendously difficult pianissimo staccato passage in the strings, joined by the oboe and flute. Beethoven uses three horns to great effect in the Trio with a folk-like “hunting” theme.

The Finale begins with frenetic energy, before settling into a slew of variations on a theme that Beethoven had used in previous compositions, most notably in his ballet score to The Creatures of Prometheus. In this final movement, Beethoven transforms the primary theme into a broad array of stylistic variations, featuring a robustly complicated fugue, a virtuosic flute solo, and finally, a return to the emotional weight of the second movement, with a transcendent hymn. The coda of the Finale jolts the listener back to earth, and the Symphony concludes with a barn-burning, uninhibited statement of joy.

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