Beethoven’s Eroica: the Symphony that Changed Music Forever

“What a humiliation for me when someone standing next to me heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone standing next to me heard a shepherd singing and again I heard nothing. Such incidents drove me almost to despair; a little more of that and I would have ended my life. It was only my art that held me back”

                                                                                                        Ludwig van Beethoven
                                                                                                        October 6th, 1802


Ludwig van Beethoven

Beethoven’s Third Symphony in E flat, Opus #55, was originally dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte. He admired Napoleon’s new constitution founded upon “the true principles of representative government, on the sacred rights of property, equality, and liberty.” But when the news came that Napoleon had declared himself Emperor (May 1804), Beethoven flew into a rage declaring “So he too is nothing more than an ordinary man. Now he will also trample all human rights underfoot, and only pander to his ambition; he will place himself above everyone else and become a tyrant!”

Beethoven then ripped up the title page upon which he had written the dedication “Buonaparte” and produced another giving it the new title Sinfonia Eroica— the “Heroic Symphony”, a title with a whole new set of resonances.

Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament (Oct. 6, 1802) shows the depth of his despair on the verge of suicide. The love of his music and dedication to his art saved him. In his letter to Krumpholz (1802), Beethoven writes, “From today on I will take a new path.”

According to Whitmer (Musical Quarterly, 1916), “Beethoven reconstructed for his time and for us the idea of beauty in music. Beauty to Beethoven is the most expressive embodiment of the inner life.” Beethoven was able to share with us the joys and suffering of his inner life in his music. His Eroica was a new outburst of creative energy that changed symphonic music.

This “Heroic Symphony” might as well be dedicated to Beethoven himself, for he has shown us how one who is in the valley of despair can rise to heavenly heights if one is dedicated to his art and love his work.

Beethoven 3rd Symphony, Opus 55, “Eroica” in E flat.
Allegro con brio— Marcia funèbre— Scherzo & Trio— Finale.

Romain Rolland

This is one of the grandest and most powerful of the works in the Second Period style. It is noteworthy that all the principal themes are based on the intervals of the common chord, or on the little pendant of the diminished third which forms the tail of the first subject. The work opens in medias res with two strong chords, the chief subject entering on the cellos.

There is some lovely responsive work between the wood-wind and the string bands for the second subject. The development is masterly and embraces a wonderful new subject, first entering on the oboes in the strange key of E minor. The recapitulation is approached in a marvellous way— the climax of the development being reached with a chord in C flat, the echoing reflections of which gradually die away until they reach a mere shimmering of violins, into which is suddenly thrown an unexpected entrance of the horn with the chief theme in the tonic key. Was it a slip? Of course not. Rather a stroke of genius. The movement has an immense coda, which with Beethoven at this period amounts to a second development. The first movement is the longest movement of any symphony to date.
The Funeral March is one of the grandest things in music. It is a pageant of a great world tribulation rather than an elegy for Napoleon, who was certainly not dead at that time. More probably Beethoven’s mind was occupied with the misery and wretchedness caused by war than with the single hero of that period who reaped both glory and dishonor at one blow.

The oboe counterstatement in the Trio portion is only one of many wonderful passages in this piece. The speaking bass melodies, the majestic second subject that provides the emotional climax with the strings almost bursting with eloquence, and the wonderful coda, not broken-hearted that buoyed up by the rhythm of things viewed broadly.

Any attempt to connect the Scherzo and Finale with Napoleon must fail ludicrously. The Scherzo is simply one of Beethoven’s finest productions in one of his bubbling, vivacious mood. The three horns have a subject which appears to be a genuine hunting call.
It is a seven-bar phrase, the echoes to which are enchantingly colored. The common chordal formation of the duple time interjection near the end suggests something more massive, and the little coda figure, E flat, E natural, F, comes from the opening theme of the Symphony.

The Finale is an amazing set of variations, the bass of the eight-bar theme being displayed and varied many times before the melody itself enters at the eightieth bar; and even then we continually hark back to the bass. It is not until the close, after the melody has been given at a slow rate on the wood-wind in its proper setting, that it is taken up triumphantly and carried victoriously into the coda.

The Eroica, written in 1803, was the single most important work Beethoven had composed to date. It revolutionised not just the symphony, but music itself, moving it into a new century. It is like a novel in the form of notes. Years later Beethoven was asked which of his symphonies was his favourite: Eh! Eh! the Eroica. And yes, it is my favourite of the nine.

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