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The Eroica Symphony - Beethoven

Historical Notes on Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 3, Op. 55

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The Eroica Symphony was first performed privately in early August, 1804. Two possible performances followed, including one at the Lobkowitz Palace on January 23, 1805 (Maynard Solomon). We know from discovered writings of Lobkowitz, one of Beethoven’s patrons, that the first public performance was on April 7, 1805 at the Theater-an-der-Wien in Vienna, Austria. It is clear that the performance was not as well accepted or understood as the composer would have liked. “Even Beethoven’s pupil Ferdinand Ries was misled by the ‘false’ horn entry halfway through the first movement and was reprimanded for saying that the player had come in wrongly.” (Denis Matthew). Harold Schonberg tells us that, “Musical Vienna was divided on the merits of the Eroica. Some called it Beethoven’s masterpiece. Others said that the work merely illustrated a striving for originality that did not come off.”

Nevertheless, it was clear that Ludwig had consciously planned to compose a work of unequaled breadth and scope. Three years before he wrote the Eroica, Beethoven had declared he was discontent with the quality of his compositions thus far and “Henceforth [he] shall take a new path.”

Key and Structure of the Eroica Symphony

The work was composed in E flat major and the orchestration called for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, three horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings. Hector Berlioz discussed Beethoven’s use of the horn (measures 166-260 during the third movement) and the oboe (measures 348-372 during the fourth movement) in his Treatise on Orchestration. The symphony itself is Beethoven’s third (op. 55) and consists of four movements:

1. Allegro con brio
2. Marcia funebre. Adagio assai
3. Scherzo-Allegro vivace
4. Finale-Allegro molto

The Eroica Symphony and Napoleon Bonaparte

Originally the work was to be titled the “Bonaparte Symphony” (New Groves), as a tribute to Napoleon Bonaparte, the French Consul who had begun to radically reform Europe after conducting sweeping military campaigns across the continent. In 1804, Napoleon crowned himself emperor, a move which angered Beethoven. As legend has it, the composer ripped through the title page and later renamed the symphony the Eroica because he refused to dedicate one of his pieces to the man he now considered a “tyrant”. Nevertheless, he still allowed the published manuscript to carry the inscription, “composed to celebrate the memory of a great man,” despite dedicating the work to Lobkowitz. This has led historians and biographers to speculate on Beethoven’s feelings towards Napoleon ever since.

The Eroica Symphony and Pop Culture

The Eroica-Napoleon link is recognized even today. Peter Conrad discussed Alfred Hitchcock’s subconscious use of the symphony in his movie Psycho:

“In Hitchcock's films, the most innocuous object can rear up threateningly. What could possibly be sinister about the record of Beethoven's Eroica, which Vera Miles finds on a gramophone turntable during her investigation of the Bates house? At the age of 13, I had no idea - though I felt an unmistakable chill when the camera peered into the gaping box to read the label of the silent disc. Now I think I know the answer. The symphony summarizes [sic] one abiding undercurrent of Hitchcock's work. It is about Napoleon, a man who - like many of Hitchcock's psychopaths - set himself up as a god, and it includes a funeral march for the toppled idol. It first rejoices in the hero's freedom from moral inhibitions, then recoils in dismay. Truffaut, detecting unease beneath the joviality of The Trouble with Harry, suggested that Hitchcock's films were afflicted by the mood Blaise Pascal analyzed [sic] - "the sadness of a world deprived of God".

The Birth of the Heroic Style

The influence of Bonaparte, the French Revolution, and the German enlightenment on Beethoven were considerable factors in explaining the development of the so-called “Heroic” style that came to dominate his middle period. Traits of the Heroic include driving rhythms (often, the works of the period could be identified as much by rhythm as melody / harmony), drastic dynamic changes, and in some cases, the use of martial instruments. The Heroic contains drama, death, rebirth, strife, and resistance. It can be summed up as “overcoming”. The Eroica is one of the major milestones in the development of this trademark Beethoven style. It is here that we first see the breadth, depth, orchestration, and spirit that mark a breaking away from the pretty, melodically pleasing melodies of earlier periods.
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