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

Painting of Napoleon Bonaparte when he was First Consul. Atop a horse and garbed in military finery, he heroically points the way forward for his men to cross the Alps.
Painting of First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte (1801-1805) – Napoleon Crossing the Alps, painted by Jacques-Louis David.
Portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte as Emperor. He is clothed in elaborate and lush red and white robes, and holds a golden scepter.
Portrait of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte (1807), painted by Alexandre Benoit Jean Dufay.

The title page of the manuscript to Beethoven’s Third Symphony (the Eroica). The dedication to Napoleon near the top of the symphony has been violently scratched out.
Title page of the manuscript to the Eroica, with the dedication to Napoleon violently struck out.

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.

video preview image of Franz Welser-Möst

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.

Beethoven: Symphony No. 3, II. Marcia funebre
The Cleveland Orchestra, Severance Hall, George Szell
Archival Recording (0:00 to 1:58): Severance Hall, October 17, 1946
Archival Recording (1:59 to End): Severance Hall, May 7, 1970
George Szell in a dramatic pose as he conducts the Orchestra. George Szell as an old man. Hunched over while sitting on an airplane, but smiling for the camera.
George Szell became the Orchestra’s fourth music director in 1946, only leaving the post upon his death in 1970. Like Artur Rodzinski before him, Szell raised the profile of the Orchestra in the musical world and helped the Orchestra achieve the distinction of being one of the “Big Five” American orchestras. This audio example blends two archival recordings of Szell’s and the Orchestra’s from the first and last years of his tenure as music director. The photo on the left is taken from a 1955 recording session with the Orchestra in the Masonic Auditorium, while the one on the right is Szell on a plane returning to Cleveland from the last leg of the Orchestra’s 1970 Japan tour, his last. Photograph (left) by Dan Weiner, November 1955. Photograph (right) by Peter Hastings, May 30, 1970. Both photographs courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra Archives.

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.

Beethoven: Symphony No. 3, IV. Allegro Molto
The Cleveland Orchestra, Severance Hall, October 20, 1983, Christoph von Dohnányi
Archival Recording: Severance Hall, October 20, 1983.

Photograph focused closely on Christoph von Dohnányi. He is conducting, and is in the middle of a cue.
Christoph von Dohnányi, the Orchestra’s sixth music director (1984-2002), first appeared with the Orchestra in 1981. He was chosen as the replacement for departing Lorin Maazel in 1982, serving as music director designate from 1982-1984. This recording comes from this transitional period and is the first performance he conducted of the Eroica with the Orchestra. Photographer unknown, date unknown. Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra Archives.

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
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).

prometheus project preview image

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.

Read more >

creatures of prometheus preview image

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.

Read more >

symphony no 1 preview image

Symphony No 1

In the mainstream history of Beethoven, his early works are more classical in style, hewing close to Mozart and (especially) Haydn.

Read more >