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Notes on Beethoven's Third Symphony

The "Eroica" Symphony represents a turning point not only in Beethoven's career, but also in the history of music, a stature shared by few other works, such as Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, and Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. The "Eroica" raises fascinating issues: the personal circumstances of its genesis at a crucial juncture in Beethoven's life; its relationship to the political events of the day, specifically to Napoleon; and the ways in which audiences of his time first received what many found to be a "horribly long" and "most difficult" piece of music.

It is striking that early listeners and critics, those writing during the initial 10 years or so of the work's existence, did not talk about the issues most discussed today: the Symphony's relation to Beethoven's life or to Napoleon. They viewed the "Eroica" more as a bizarre but original composition, more sublime than beautiful. Its unprecedented length, technical challenges, and uncompromising aesthetic stance seemed to aim beyond entertainment, forcing Beethoven's contemporaries to rethink what a symphony should be and do.

A Personal Turning Point: The Heiligenstadt Testament

In 1801 Beethoven first began to divulge to close friends the deterioration in his hearing. The next summer, at the suggestion of his doctor, he moved to the suburb of Heiligenstadt to escape the heat and hassles of Vienna. It was there, in early fall 1802, that he penned the remarkable "Heiligenstadt Testament," addressed to his brothers, in which he poured out his heart:

O you men who think or say that I am hostile, peevish, or misanthropic, how greatly you wrong me. You do not know the secret cause that makes me seem so to you. From childhood on, my heart and soul were full of tender feelings of goodwill, and I was always inclined to accomplish great deeds. But just think, for six years now I have had an incurable condition, made worse by incompetent doctors, from year to year deceived with hopes of getting better, finally forced to face the prospect of a lasting infirmity (whose cure will perhaps take years or even be impossible).

Beethoven could not bear the indignity of asking people to "speak louder, shout, for I am deaf," and felt he must retreat from society. He even contemplated suicide: "A little more and I would have ended my life. Only my art held me back. It seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt was within me."

The Heiligenstadt Testament has exerted a tremendous influence on posterity's view of Beethoven. (It quickly became well known, published within months of his death in 1827, and soon translated into English and French.) Nearly all Beethoven biographies, beginning with Ignaz Ritter von Seyfried's study of 1832, present the lengthy document in full. It is important to appreciate how widely these words were disseminated because they rapidly became a powerful tool by which to understand and interpret Beethoven's music, especially a work like the "Eroica," which dates from this time and ushers in a new phase in his career. The "Eroica" seems to express in music the struggles that Beethoven, never a fluent writer, had tried to put in prose.

"A New Path"

The "Heroic" Symphony is the most prominent work at the beginning of the "middle" period of Beethoven's career, usually called his "heroic" phase and lasting roughly from 1803 to 1812. Beethoven was conscious of striking out in a different direction, telling a publisher that some recent piano pieces were written in a "completely new manner." Pianist Carl Czerny relates that he expressed dissatisfaction with early works and wanted to pursue a "new path." These were years of astounding—perhaps we could say, heroic—productivity: "I live only in my notes, and with one work barely finished, the other is already started; the way I write now I often find myself working on three, four things at the same time." His problems were initially hidden, denied, and fought, but by 1806 he wrote in the sketches of one of the Opus 59 string quartets: "Let your deafness no longer be a secret—even in art."

Beethoven began sketching the "Eroica" at the time of the Heiligenstadt Testament, and did his most concentrated work beginning in May 1803, some seven months later. It was the first of his symphonies for which he gave public indications of an extra-musical program, although what he wanted to divulge shifted over time. Originally he planned to dedicate it to Napoleon, whom he had long admired. But Beethoven became disillusioned when Napoleon crowned himself Emperor in 1804. Ferdinand Ries, a student and early biographer related the scene: "I was the first to bring him the news that Bonaparte had proclaimed himself emperor, whereupon he flew into a rage and cried out: 'Is he too, then, nothing more than an ordinary human being? Now he, too, will trample on the rights of man, and indulge only his ambition!' Beethoven went to the table, took hold of the title page by the top, tore it in two, and threw it on the floor. The first page was rewritten and only then did the Symphony receive the title Sinfonia Eroica." Yet in a letter to his publisher not long later Beethoven admitted "the title of the symphony really is 'Bonaparte'."

Even if he changed his mind (and there are later indications of his continued admiration for Napoleon), Ries's story is basically confirmed by the surviving manuscript, in which the title is so vigorously scratched out that Beethoven tore through the paper. In the end, the work was published in 1806 with the title "Sinfonia Eroica … composed to celebrate the memory of a great man." It was first heard in private and semi-private performances, beginning in early August 1804 at the home—the palace actually—of his patron Prince Lobkowitz, to whom the work is dedicated. The public premiere of the Symphony came on April 7, 1805, at the Theater an der Wien.

First Hearings

As is often the case with challenging masterpieces from the past, it is not hard to find negative or perplexed reviews of the first performances. We tend to look at these initial reactions today with a mixture of bewilderment and feeling of superiority. The first reviews of the "Eroica" show that critics wanted to praise the composer and work—some remark on the excellence of his first two symphonies—but they were often simply confused by what Beethoven was trying to do. One comments that general opinion about the Symphony was sharply divided:

One group, Beethoven's very special friends, maintains that precisely this symphony is a masterpiece, that it is in exactly the true style for more elevated music, and that if it does not please at present, it is because the public is not sufficiently educated in art to be able to grasp all of these elevated beauties. After a few thousand years, however, they will not fail to have their effect. The other group utterly denies this work any artistic value and feels that it manifests a completely unbounded striving for distinction and oddity, which, however, has produced neither beauty nor true sublimity and power.

The critic went on to discuss a middle group, who admire its many excellent qualities, but are dismayed at the disjointed surroundings and at the "endless duration of this longest and perhaps most difficult of all symphonies, which exhausts even connoisseurs and becomes unbearable for the mere amateur."

Within a couple of years, however, the critical tone began to change, a consequence, in part, of repeated exposure and also because the score and arrangements were published and could be "studied." This shows how Beethoven was changing the views of what music is and does—as one Leipzig critic remarked before writing a very long and detailed review: "One must not always wish only to be entertained." This was a sentiment echoed by another: "But the connoisseur will only enjoy it as a complete work (and a repeated hearing doubles his spiritual enjoyment) the deeper he penetrates into the technical and aesthetic content of the original work."

It often takes some time before musicians feel comfortable with the demands of the difficult new music. (The Rite of Spring is a particularly famous example.) Ultimately, it is probably much more instrumentalists and conductors, not listeners, critics, and managers who determine what pieces enter the repertory. In the case of the "Eroica," the musicians seem to have gone out of their way to embrace "this most difficult of all symphonies." Concerning a Leipzig performance in 1807, we are informed that "The orchestra had voluntarily gathered for extra rehearsals without recompense, except for the honor and special enjoyment of the work itself." A few years later a critic remarks that the Symphony "was performed by the orchestra with unmistakable enjoyment and love."

A Closer Look

The innovations of the "Eroica" begin with the two striking tonic chords of the first movement (Allegro con brio), ushering in a sweet cello melody that is soon derailed by an unexpected note—C sharp—which does not belong to the "home key." The motivic, metric, and harmonic surprises continue throughout this movement of such extraordinary length, unprecedented for its time. A "new theme" (in fact related to the opening) appears during the development that has elicited comment for two centuries now. There are other unexpected details: The French horn seems to enter prematurely in the recapitulation, an effect that Beethoven’s contemporaries initially thought to be a mistake. Ries recounts that "At the first rehearsal of the Symphony, which was terrible—but at which the horn player made his entry correctly—I stood beside Beethoven and, thinking that a blunder had been made I said: 'Can't the damned hornist count?—it sounds horribly false!' I think I came pretty close to getting a box on the ear. Beethoven did not forgive that little slip for a long time."

The second movement (Adagio assai) is a funeral march and one of the most influential pieces of music Beethoven ever composed. Schubert alluded to it in two late works (his song "Auf dem Strom" and in the second movement of his Piano Trio in E-flat) to honor Beethoven's death, just 20 months before his own. Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Mahler, and others would also write marches, often funereal in character, within their symphonies that can in many ways be traced back to Beethoven. The C-minor opening presents the somber theme in the violins, over a drum-like bass, that is taken up by the oboe. The tone brightens at moments in the movement, notably in sections in major keys, but also becomes more austere with a fugal passage of extraordinary intensity. The opening theme returns at the end, deconstructed so that only fragments remain.

An energetic scherzo (Allegro vivace) changes the tone (confusing some commentators—why the mirth after a funeral?), but not the intensity. Beethoven plays with metric ambiguities—is the movement in duple or triple time?—and also gives the French horns a chance to shine in the middle trio section. (This was the first prominent symphony to use three horns instead of two.)

Beethoven employs another formal innovation for the finale (Allegro molto), which he casts as an unusual set of variations. The theme takes some time to emerge, with initially only its harmonic skeleton given in the bass. For the theme proper Beethoven returned to a melody he had already used in three previous pieces: in one of his 12 contredanses (WoO 14, No. 7), in his ballet music for The Creatures of Prometheus, and as the theme for the Piano Variations in E-flat, Op. 35. Beethoven referred to these as the "Prometheus" Variations and the work is closely related to the last movement of the Symphony. Indeed, as Lewis Lockwood has observed, the finale was conceived of first and became the "springboard" for the entire work. It seems natural that Beethoven would be attracted to, or perhaps we should say, identify with, Prometheus, the rebellious Greek Titan who incurred the wrath of the gods of Mount Olympus by stealing their sacred fire. Prometheus resisted, took risks, and suffered in order to help humanity. The hero's music provides a fitting conclusion for this "Heroic" Symphony.

Program note © 2006. All rights reserved. Program note may not be reprinted without written permission from The Philadelphia Orchestra Association.

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Christopher H. Gibbs