A Symphonic Revolution
Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, the Eroica (1804)
Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the Eroica, or “Heroic,” is one of the most influential pieces of music in history. Often considered the beginning point for the romantic era of music and Beethoven’s influential “Middle Period,” this symphony cast a long shadow over European musical and philosophical life in the first half of the 19th century. The longest, largest, and loudest symphony written to that date, it also carries immense cultural baggage attached to it in the form of its title and its dedication (and subsequent retraction) to Napoleon Bonaparte. The story behind this retraction is that upon hearing from Ferdinand Ries, Beethoven’s secretary, that Napoleon had forsaken the title of First Consul for that of Emperor, Beethoven went into a rage, denounced Napoleon as “nothing but an ordinary mortal” who had only “become a greater tyrant,” and ripped the title page in half.1 Although quite likely exaggerated, the violent obliteration of Napoleon’s name on the title page of the manuscript seems to support the story’s central truth – that until that point, Beethoven held Napoleon in great esteem and had considered him an important model in the composition of the Eroica.2
For Beethoven, Napoleon was a promethean figure much like himself: a man of low status who rose through intellect and skill to become the highest power in his field and who then sought to use that power to guide the nation and elevate its people toward an enlightened future. Until he declared himself emperor, Napoleon was the guardian of the revolution and the keeper of liberty’s flame. A promethean hero can exemplify many virtues, and the one Napoleon possessed was heroism – hence, the Eroica. Although many commentators have read the symphony as overtly representing Napoleon and his exploits, at its core, the symphony and its former dedicatee share promethean heroism. Prometheus was a hero for defying the gods and granting fire to humanity; Napoleon was a hero for defying the crowned heads of Europe and protecting the fire of freedom granted to the French people by the Revolution. Similarily, Beethoven was a hero for defying musical orthodoxy in search of new ways to express complex philosophical truths and ideas through music to uplift his listeners.
To express something as vast as heroism, Beethoven began in earnest in the Eroica, in the words of Music Director Franz Welser-Möst, to “condense the message.” To that end, below is a consideration of a few moments from the symphony and how they condense and express the idea of heroism.
Beethoven encapsulated his views on heroism into just the opening eight seconds of the first movement. As you can hear in the video above, Beethoven uses two orchestral hammer blows to firmly establish the key and mood for the symphony, which the cellos, entering on the first theme seem to reinforce. However, this stability of self is quickly undercut by the descent of the cellos to a dissonant note foreign to the movement’s key of E-flat major. This sets up a conflict that spans the entire movement; this initial theme continuously seeks to establish itself securely and overcome the difficulties presented by this dissonance. Perhaps this was a statement on the nature of heroism as Beethoven saw it: that heroism was a consequence of what one does and not what one was; the theme itself is not heroic, but attains it through displays of musical heroism in the first movement as it overcomes seemingly endless obstacles on its path to finding a higher and more enlightened state.
The second movement is a funeral march, which serves as a darker side to the triumph of the first movement – a connection heightened by their shared length and closely related keys. How Beethoven condenses the message here is through the frequent return to, and expansion of, the dirge-like opening theme. Through this, Beethoven takes the funeral march’s typical ternary form (two identical or similar sections with a contrasting section in the middle) and transforms it into what is essentially a rondo (a form in which a theme or section of music alternates with contrasting episodes). This focuses attention on this first theme and allows Beethoven to pair it with musical episodes of different affect in order to give the audience an opportunity to reflect upon the different ways in which the sorrow and pain of loss, the consequences of heroic struggle, can be felt: remembrance, despair, hope, and acceptance.
The fourth and final movement of the symphony is an elaborate set of variations on a theme, another way which Beethoven often capitalized on forms and techniques that could turn a single short musical motif into an entire composition. The theme (which can be heard in the opening of the above audio example) is taken from Beethoven’s previous ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus, further connecting the symphony with the idea of Prometheus. The movement’s generally celebratory mood, and the contrasting presence of stormy and pensive movements, allow the movement to be heard as a series of unfolding thoughts and reflections brought on by victory.
1 Sir George Grove, Beethoven and His Nine Symphonies (London: Novello and Company, 1896), 54.
2 Nicholas Matthew, Political Beethoven (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 19.
You can get a sneak peek of the Prometheus Festival at the all-Beethoven January 19 Fridays@7 performance, featuring his Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus as well as the First and Third Symphonies. Tickets can be purchased via the phone 216-231-1111 and online.
Alexander Lawler is a Historical Musicology PhD student at Case Western Reserve University. This is his third year working in the Orchestra’s Archives, having previously written “From the Archives” online essays (2015-2016) and designed a photo digitization and metadata project (2016-2017).
The Prometheus Project
As part of the Centennial Season’s celebration, Franz Welser-Möst has created “The Prometheus Festival,” examining Beethoven’s music through the metaphor of Prometheus.
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Overture to the Creatures of Prometheus
Perhaps the most overt example of Beethoven’s interaction with the idea of Prometheus was his only published ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus.
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Symphony No 1
In the mainstream history of Beethoven, his early works are more classical in style, hewing close to Mozart and (especially) Haydn.
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