Beethoven Symphony No. 3 in Eb, op. 55, Eroica

performed by Nicolaus Harnoncourt and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (which seems not to be available online, so we will go with a slightly less favorite but almost equally as wonderful interpretation, and very much along the same lines, our old Beethoven friends Riccardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus, but I must say… The Philharmonia under Esa-Pekka Salonen did an amazing job with it back in February)

Mini-German: Part 1

This has to be one of the most famous symphonies ever EVER EVER. Why? And what’s so amazing about it? Let’s talk.
I feel like this could perhaps be a real gateway piece for people… Like I said in last month’s post about Beethoven’s first piano concerto, I’m a bit late to the party; I’ll admit that. Either it was all the constant talk of Beethoven and his omnipresence in classical discussions and performances that makes some people think… he’s like the white bread of the concert hall, and I kind of felt that way too. Like “I get it: Beethoven’s great, the fifth symphony, the deafness, etc.” but really, people.
Really.
There’s so much more to this guy’s music than most of the people who throw around his name even realize. I really really came to like his first two symphonies, especially the second. I didn’t use the word love, because they don’t bowl me over with emotion and passion and contemplation of the human experience, but they are (literally) breathtaking, give me goosebumps in places, and have to be some of the best mood-enhancers in all of music; they’re just wonderful works. But I don’t love them.
This piece, though… I know he wrote some wonderful things before this, but let’s use just his symphonies as an example. This piece is the one that really made an impression. It’s an enormous leap forward from his previous two symphonies. In a previously-linked talk that I may or may not decide to link from a previous article (I included the video below), this quite shocking nontraditional statement is obvious from the first two notes.
The piece is important; it’s not only a pinnacle of the classical era (perhaps the pinnacle), but a milestone in the annals of classical music as a whole, and arguably the first steps toward the Romantic era. It shows a depth and maturity and sheer genius that has lasted 210 years and is still one of the greatest symphonies ever written.
It’s often mentioned alongside Beethoven’s other famous symphonies (the fifth and ninth, and others depending on how thorough a list you’re looking at), as well as Dvorak’s ninth and others as standards of the repertoire. They may risk overplay with this kind of attention, and Dvorak’s ninth is one that I think should be scaled back and enjoyed slightly less so its beauty doesn’t get sickeningly sweet. But that’s beside the point.
We’ll talk in a bit about what exactly it is that makes this symphony such a critical point in classical music history, but suffice it to say, it is, and aside from that, it’s just so unbelievably beautiful.
Composition of the third symphony began not long after completion of the second, and marks the beginning of the composer’s “creative middle period.” As many people know, it was originally dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte, whom the composer greatly admired for his values or views or whatever and saw him as a European hero. Beethoven’s secretary, Ferdinand Ries, explained how that all changed:

In writing this symphony, Beethoven had been thinking of Buonaparte, but Buonaparte while he was First Consul. At that time Beethoven had the highest esteem for him, and compared him to the greatest consuls of Ancient Rome. Not only I, but many of Beethoven’s closer friends, saw this symphony on his table, beautifully copied in manuscript, with the word “Buonaparte” inscribed at the very top of the title-page and “Ludwig van Beethoven” at the very bottom …
I was the first to tell him the news that Buonaparte had declared himself Emperor, whereupon he broke into a rage and exclaimed, “So he is no more than a common mortal! 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!” Beethoven went to the table, seized the top of the title-page, tore it in half and threw it on the floor. The page had to be recopied, and it was only now that the symphony received the title Sinfonia eroica.

So the symphony became not Buonaparte, but Eroica. It certainly is of an epic enough scale and content matter to seem fitting for the former, but stands alone perfectly by itself without any program or famous dedication.
The piece was premiered on April 7, 1805 in Vienna. That makes it 210 years and two days old as of the time of this posting.
I mentioned earlier that this symphony is a pillar/milestone/pinnacle of the Classical
era repertoire, but depending on who you ask, (and I usually ask Wikipedia), it marks the beginning of the Romantic era. While it’s hard to set a definite demarcation between the Classical and Romantic eras, this is quite a good place to do it. While there were pieces to come after this one that were certainly quite classical in nature, Eroica is at the very least the impetus, the ground breaking first step in that direction, even if some music after it still hung on to Classical traditions. Why can this be said?
Well, for a few reasons:

  1. It’s long. The symphony is about twice as long as any symphony of Haydn or Mozart, and the first movement alone is longer than some large portion of classical symphonies in their entirety, with the repeat of the exposition.
  2. It’s emotional. Not only is it large in duration, but it is also unique in the material it covers, its range of expression. This isn’t to say that Haydn or Mozart weren’t emotional, but I ran this by a few friends a while back without any musical preface. I gave them a few of Mozart’s late symphonies, Beethoven’s first two symphonies, and like… Schubert’s first two to listen to, and a few weeks later asked them to compare with Eroica. At least one (none of whom were at all musically… trained) said she couldn’t quite put her finger on it, but this one seemed…. somehow different. It’s much more expressive, personal, and kind of blatantly emotional. The first movement admittedly is, but so is the second in the range of emotions it expresses. The fourth is also lengthy and more… full-bodied than most previous finales. This was all new for music.
A good example of the newness of this piece comes from this talk I’ll include below; it’s the one I referenced earlier from our article How to Listen to Classical Music
I was going to try to go back and find where exactly in this (wonderful) presentation he talks about Beethoven’s third, but really… if you want to fall in love with this piece, you should just watch the whole talk. I know it’s 80 minutes, and I know the sound quality leaves a lot to be desired, but Mr. Guerrero does a fantastic job with this topic.
The point that he makes, in short, is that the symphony stems from a collection of dances or short pieces that would be played at ‘parties’ or events for royalty, and that the first movement or first piece to be played, as an overture of sorts, was to get everyone’s attention, focus them on the guest of honor, the king, whoever was arriving and that the party was getting started. Most symphonies of the classical era have this stately, quieter, polite “excuse me…” beginning, and Beethoven’s first two symphonies do. While the first one may seem to begin strangely, with weird out-of-place chords, it’s generally polite. The second begins slightly more boldly, but only slightly. The third, though, thunders out from the very beginning with a jolting entrance. Guerrero makes the point that after this bold move, he came off it a bit with the opening of his fourth. That was perhaps a very long tangent to make a small point, but even here, in a wonderful little speech from a very charming man (it’s the Italian accent), Riccardo Chailly, whose Beethoven we’ve featured before, talks about getting that opening right:
He talks about the third symphony (obviously) toward the end, but the whole video is worth watching because he chats a little about the first two symphonies leading up to Eroica.
He says of the beginning that, for a conductor, it is “difficult to realize in the spirit, in the speed, in the weight, to be said with only two chords…” and that is how the piece begins.
After all that, we can finally begin talking about the music. The opening is obviously exciting, and the entire first movement is, really. While there isn’t breathtaking action and velocity at every turn, the changes in material and the use of the content in this single movement is fascinating.
The second movement is the funeral march, and is it ever beautiful. I remember listening specifically to this movement after listening to the funeral march from Mahler’s first symphony (and being almost haunted by its beauty) and thinking… that this isn’t nearly as crushingly sad as what Mahler had written, but it’s of an entirely different… emotional palate, to me. This movement also has a great range of expression, and there are major-key moments of restful beauty and glimmers of hope. In contrast with that, though, is the actual funereal bit, and while it isn’t as darkly, grimly desperately-melancholy as Mahler’s, in a refined, understated, implied, again ‘spiritual’ sort of way, it is just as powerful. It’s not the sob-story march that Mahler’s is, and while they both work, there’s something almost all the more heart wrenching about it because of it’s stately, mannerly beauty in the face of such despair, as Beethoven (and all of Europe, perhaps) was in the climate of this writing.
The third movement is the scherzo, very lively, and by far the shortest movement of the piece. The theme jumps around the orchestra and changes its rhythms a bit, so it’s a fun section and quite a welcome change of pace from the previous movement. And there are horn calls, which the Philharmonia’s horns nailed (obviously). They’re the kind of thing that sound very difficult to do well, but they were perfect and very memorable. This is the kind of movement that you really don’t even need to think about or pay attention to enjoy, but when you do pay attention, you begin to appreciate it in a different way, because it’s in these small details where you see Beethoven’s genius in taking a simple idea and wringing every ounce of possibility out of it. But those horn calls… they’re kind of the gem of the piece. They come in important parts in the little movement, and are regal and bucolic and lyrical. They’re in the middle section, before the real jumpy bit comes back.
The fourth movement exists. It is a substantial, wonderful, significant section of this symphony. I say it exists because it seems there may not be any more room in this symphony for new, independent, big themes, but there is. The scherzo, granted, was quite small, but this final movement is big. It’s a set of variations that begins boldly, but has a quite cute passage that follows. Just settle in and enjoy it. I’m not going to describe every section of this movement, but it has its breathtaking contrapuntal, textural, moving complex, beautiful passages… the genius just keeps coming. It’s really almost kind of unbelievable that all of this amazing content is in one symphony. This really is a piece that stands up to lots and lots of listening. Why?
The word ‘catchy’ can sometimes be negative, but it’s often used to describe a melody or ‘riff’ or ‘hook’ or ‘beat’ in pop music that really kind of gets into the listener, something that sticks with you. But sometimes that same term also implies that that is perhaps the only musical value something has, that it’s just catchy, all sugar and no real content.
The word to use in classical music would be ‘gripping’ or ‘captivating,’ something that has so much depth, such interest, that each time you listen to it, it’s from a different angle; there is inevitably something else to appreciate, but not necessarily that you didn’t notice before. And if not, it’s mesmerizing enough just to relish in. It really speaks to the…. genius of a piece like this that it’s still captivating audiences 210 years after its premiere, as of Tuesday. I am not necessarily one to accept that just because everyone likes it, it’s a hit, or to give much credence to popular opinion, but sometimes that popular opinion is solidly accurate because of the irrefutable genius of a piece like this.
I could spend so much more time talking about (but first researching the following because I can’t talk about it authoritatively) the intricacies and musical reasons for why this piece is an absolute gem of the classical music repertoire, one of the greatest things ever written, but I can’t. Suffice it to say, personally, I feel this piece is an even greater accomplishment than his ever-so-famous fifth, which we will get to in due time, for a few reasons. The fifth is the one everyone knows, but as far as pure, genius stunning accomplishments and historical value goes, this one takes the cake.
I should also say at this point that the following three symphonies we will address this month (in this series) aren’t really necessarily related to this one in as tight and logical a manner as the previous German(ic) Symphony series, but they will still be presented in chronological order.
The connection between this weeks’ piece and the composer of the works for the next two weeks is at first tenuous, but was actually very strong even before they met. It’s a fascinating, endearing, and wonderful story that we will begin next week.
So, listen to this piece fifteen or twenty more times, come to love it, and I will see you all soon.
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