Symphony No. 3 in Eb Major, op. 55 ("Eroica")

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        Beethoven’s first symphony has been called “a fitting farewell to the eighteenth century” and dates to 1800, eight years after his arrival in Vienna as a young composer. His second symphony was completed in 1802, the momentous year of his “Heiligenstadt Testament.” The latter document marked the turning point in Beethoven’s life. It was an anguished letter (never sent, however) to his brothers in which he acknowledged the tragedy and despair of his increasing deafness, but it also revealed his resolution to not end it all, but to live for his art. Both symphonies contain few, if any hints, of not only this personal crisis, but for that matter, of the enormous musical changes in the nature of musical composition that he was about to impose upon the world.

        His third symphony was simply unprecedented; it was a watershed composition whose import to those who followed was similar to that of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. It changed forever what one expected of a symphony—in length, in complexity, in dramatic expression, in creativity, and in thematic treatment. It marks the beginning of the symphony’s place as the highest aspiration of serious instrumental music throughout the nineteenth century and for much of the twentieth. Written during the years 1803-04, it was given its première (private) in 1804 at the palace of his patron, Prince Lobkowitz. Initial critical reaction was favorable, but did acknowledge that the work challenged listeners to abandon simple expectations of entertainment, and to enter the world of critical appreciation. The “Eroica,” following its name, is truly heroic in many dimensions. In terms of the music, itself, it simply essayed more, achieved more, and marked out a bold new path for symphonic composition. It is also a work—although elements of a personal heroic intensity had appeared earlier in his piano sonatas—that became the norm for the spiritual tone of the composer’s mature works--the Beethoven that we know so well. Finally, the “Eroica” is completely the child of its times. The French Revolution only a decade before had changed European history in a cataclysmic upheaval that was both political and philosophic. Change and the expectancy of change had been wrought by heroic action and thought, and Beethoven was keenly reactive to it. In a well-known anecdote, he furiously ripped Napoleon’s name from the dedication page after the latter betrayed his republican ideals and named himself emperor.

        The first movement begins simply with two hammer strokes in the tonic key, and the familiar—and simple--main theme ensues in the ‘cellos, pausing famously and enigmatically on the strange C# in the fifth measure. This note is a harbinger of marvelous things to come, as the composer sets up an adroit manipulation of themes, fragments of themes, and motives. There are not just two main themes in the conventional fashion, but a literal embarrassment of riches. Beethoven cunningly hints at their significance and works them in and out of each other in a fashion that is redolent of a murder mystery in which only at the end are the logical relationships really clear. Powerful climaxes are contrasted with lyrical moments; driving rhythms are punctuated with displaced accents; and the whole is carried by a tight structure that evokes a sense of inevitability to everything that happens. It’s a long movement—longer than most complete, four-movement symphonies up until that time.

        The second movement is unique—it’s not the usual slow movement that often is a placid retreat from the storm of the faster movements. Rather, Beethoven borrows a bit of the heroic spirit of the French composers of the time, and casts this movement as a funeral march. French composers such as Gossec, Mehúl, and Cherubini had often served up these dark marches as requisite patriotic music for the large civic ceremonies of the time, and these works of apotheosis served admirably as models for Beethoven’s creation of tragedy in this movement. The main theme is long, and its generally despairing mood is broken by moments of optimism and hope. Beethoven, being Beethoven, cannot resist a later fugal development of the theme. But the despair is clear at the end, as the movement literally concludes with a halting, fragmentary disintegration of the theme into nothingness. This movement publicly has marked the demise of notables from Toscanini and FDR to that of Adolf Hitler.

        The scherzo of the third movement is a rollicking, good-natured affair. Especially ingratiating are the little overlapping fanfare-like figures played by the horns in the middle section. Most composers before Beethoven had contented themselves with only two French horns, but Beethoven’s ideas needed three of them, so the symphony orchestra’s growth in instrumental forces begins.

        The last movement, as you may imagine, brings on more innovations. For most of symphonies up until that time, final movements had served as a merry cap to the proceedings, with little of the import of the earlier movements. Beethoven writes as a finale for this powerful symphony a series of variations on a simple little tune and its bass line that is a tour-de-force of creativity. We hear the bass line first, probably thinking: “That’s the theme!” The composer gives us a couple of variations on it, and then over the third variation, the “real” theme appears as a melody over the bass line that appeared to be the first theme. More variations ensue, each with its own character, followed by a marvelous fugal development of the bass theme in the eighth variation—Beethoven pulls out every trick as the little bass line is almost “developed out of existence.” Next comes a gentle statement of the melody by the winds in a beautiful, slow iteration that is incomparable. The full orchestra then triumphantly takes the last variation, uniting bass and melody. Beethoven, of course, is not finished, and a coda with more development—it’s Beethoven, remember—takes us to the smashing climax.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan