Symphony No. 3 Eroica, op. 55
2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 3 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings
notes by James Keays
I. Allegro con brio
II. Marcia funebre: Adagio assai
III. Scherzo: Allegro vivace
IV. Finale: Allegro molto
Composed 1803-04. First performance: 1804, Castle Eisenberg, Bohemia. Ludwig van Beethoven, conductor.
As the French Revolution spilled over the borders of France, it quite naturally began to affect the lives of virtually all European citizens. Ludwig van Beethoven, who was at that time a poor, lower-middle class musician living in Bonn, Germany, was no exception. The tents of the revolution—liberty, equality, and fraternity—became the basis for his own personal artistic credo. He became the first great musician to be totally free of patronage, to be considered the equal of princes, and to foster the ideal of universal brotherhood in his works.
According to Beethoven’s biographer, Schindler, the idea of composing a heroic symphony to honor Napoleon was first suggested in 1798 by Bernadotte, the French envoy to Vienna during the uneasy peace that preceded the invasion of 1805. Despite the fact that Beethoven began to experience a growing dissatisfaction with the course of the Revolution, he pressed ahead with the composition of the symphony. It evolved into a work not about the heroism of Napoleon, but about heroism in a Promethean sense. The symphony was composed mainly between May and November 1803 and was completed in April 1804. At that time, he still intended to dedicate it to Napoleon. A close friend, Ferdinand Ries, wrote that “he had Bonaparte in his mind as he was when he was First Consul. Beethoven esteemed him greatly at that time and likened him to the greatest Roman Consuls. I saw a copy of the score lying on his table with the word ‘Buonaparte’ at the extreme top of the title page, and at the very bottom ‘Luigi van Beethoven’, but not another word…”
On May 18, 1804, Napoleon crowned himself Emperor. A few days later, Ries brought the news to Beethoven and reported that the composer “flew into a rage and cried out: ‘Is he then too nothing more than an ordinary human being? Now he, too, will trample on the rights of man and indulge only his ambition. He will exalt himself above all others and become a tyrant!’ Beethoven then 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. The published first edition bears the title “to the memory of a great man.”
The Symphony No. 3 in E-flat, op. 55, was performed for the first time in February 1805. The players, critics, and listeners all found the work extraordinarily difficult. It was clear from the beginning that this was no ordinary symphony. The exposition of the first movement was more than twice as long as any previous symphony. In classical symphonies, it was unusual to find a funeral march in the place of a song-like slow movement. The third movement was no longer the traditional minuet and trio, but a relentlessly driving scherzo with a contrasting trio for hunting horns. The last movement was a set of variations on a theme from Beethoven’s ballet The Creatures of Prometheus.
The symphony begins with two fortissimo E-flat major chords followed immediately by a simple theme constructed out of the notes from the chord. Virtually all of the melodic material in the work is built from this single chord. Additionally, there are many striking harmonic details, such as the exploration of distantly related keys and the use of dissonant chords. Underlying the entire work, and adding one more layer of complexity, is a continual conflict between duple and triple meter. The first movement, in particular, frequently places accents every two beats even though the music is notated three beats to the measure.
Never before in the history of music had a composer produced such a revolutionary work. Although volumes have been written about the Eroica, words cannot adequately describe its greatness. What Nietzche said about Beethoven’s music most certainly holds true in the case of the Eroica: “Beethoven’s music is music about music.” Fourteen years after the work was premiered, a close friend of Beethoven asked which of the symphonies (eight at the time) was his favorite. The composer unhesitatingly replied, “The Eroica.”