Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Symphony No 3 in Eb Major Op 55 - Eroica (1804)


1. Allegro con brio
2. Marchia funebre: Adagio Assai
3. Scherzo
4. Finale: Allegro molto; Poco Andante; Presto

The Eroica is a remarkable symphony even within the canon of Beethoven's work. It has been called a revolutionary work, and there are two distinct senses in which it deserves that name.

The final title given by Beethoven to the work is "Heroic symphony to celebrate the memory of a great man" and it is well known that the "great man" is Napoleon Bonaparte. The idea of writing a symphony in honour of Napoleon seems to have originated from a suggestion of General Bernadotte, the French ambassador in Vienna, as early as 1798. At that time Napoleon was held in high regard as a great leader and a champion of freedom and equality. Beethoven was a strong supporter of revolutionary ideals and at the time a great admirer of Napoleon. The composition of Eroica began in the summer of of 1803, and progressed remarkably quickly. By the spring of 1804 it was complete, and according to Ferdinand Reis (Beethoven's pupil and later biographer) had a cover page with Buonaparte written at the top and Luigi van Beethoven written at the bottom. One can only speculate what Beethoven intended to write in the middle, but the anecdote gives weight to the theory that the symphony is as much about Beethoven as it is about Bonaparte. At the time of composition Napoleon's reputation was changing. He was becoming recognised as a mean and selfish despot bent on world domination. A turning point for Beethoven came on the 18th May 1804 when Napoleon took the title of Emperor. Reis broke the news to him, and in a passionate outburst Beethoven exclaimed "He will trample all the rights of men under foot to indulge his ambition, and become a greater tyrant than any one!" So saying he tore the title page of Eroica in two and threw it on the ground. He did not mention the connection between the symphony and Napoleon again until the latter's death in 1821 when he reportedly said "I have already composed the proper music for that catastrophe".

The first edition contains an unusual note, written presumably by Beethoven. It says "This symphony, being purposely written at greater length than usual, should be played nearer the beginning than the end of a concert . . . lest if it is heard too late when the audience are fatigued by the previous pieces, it should lose its proper and intended effect." The Eroica was nearly 15 mins longer than the previously longest symphony (Beethoven's Second) and twice the length that the Viennese audiences would have expected. This "scaling up" characterised the transition between the early works of Beethoven, which show a distinct influence of Haydn and Mozart, and his great middle period works. Eroica was the biggest and most audacious step in this transition. The orchestra however is not of an unusual size. Apart from the addition of a third horn, it uses the conventional instrumentation of the time.

In writing a symphony of this length Beethoven shows remarkable originality in his compositional technique. The formal outline of each movement is surprisingly conventional, but in each there is a much greater emphasis on development of ideas than on the simple use of melody. For example, the first musical idea of the work, played by the cellos after the two opening chords, does nothing more than outline the common chord of Eb. This simple, immediately recognisable musical idea is used extensively throughout the movement in changing contexts, and never in the same form twice. It suggests heroism through its evocation of a hunting horn or perhaps a martial trumpet call and behaves more like a leitmotif of Wagner than the first subject of a classical symphony. At its first appearance it is immediately contradicted by an enigmatic C#, expressing doubt. Later on it is used to convey a variety of ideas - determination, conflict and triumph - but always remaining clearly recognisable and giving the movement it's unity. There are many more thematic ideas woven into the symphony, and many more examples of brilliant musical development. Perhaps the most striking is found in the fourth movement, which is in variation form, and starts with a brilliant virtuosic flourish on the strings. After this introduction, instead of presenting the theme immediately, Beethoven gives us first just its base line, played in pizzicato octaves by the strings. In common with the opening motif of the first movement this line has a fundamental simplicity, outlining Eb major and then moving to the dominant. Like its counterpart in the first movement it is immediately recognisable and we will hear it in a wide variety of contexts, sometimes as a bass line, sometimes in long notes with detailed decoration and most strikingly in fugal passages. After introducing the bass line, Beethoven constructs the theme in front of our eyes in four variations, and it is a theme that he used in two major earlier works - the ballet "The creatures of Prometheus" and a set of variations for piano. The piano variations are quite different from the Eroica, but also feature the construction of the theme from its base line. Many authors have linked the theme to the creative fire given by Prometheus to the mortals, and gone on to suggest that, in this movement at least, the real hero is Beethoven, and the real heroic achievement is artistic creation. However, as George Grove astutely points out, it could be plausibly argued that Beethoven himself is the subject of each of his symphonies.

So we see that the symphony is indeed revolutionary in two senses. Firstly because it was fired by Beethoven's idealistic enthusiasm for revolution resulting in the liberation of man, and secondly because it departed quite radically from previous models and paved the way for new methods of musical construction based on continuous development of musical ideas.

The first performance of the Eroica symphony was given in private at the Vienna home of the symphony's dedicatee, Prince Lobkowitz, in December of 1804. The first public performance was at the Theater an der Wien on April 7, 1805.

The Eroica symphony was performed by the Portobello orchestra on the 27th March 2010, conducted by Anthony Weeden.

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