Beethoven – Symphony No. 3 in E flat Op. 55 Eroica

Symphony No. 3 in  E flat Op. 55 Eroica (1804)

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

  1. Allegro con brio
  2. March Funebre – Adagio assai
  3. Scherzo – Allegro vivace
  4. Finale – Allegro molto

Beethoven’s Eroica symphony marks a step change in the development of the symphony and music in general. No longer is music primarily “entertainment” but instead can plumb the greatest depths of human emotion. Sketched just after completion in 1801 of the Heiligenstadt Testament in which Beethoven admits to his growing deafness and his near-suicidal despair, the Eroica marks the start of Beethoven’s highly productive “heroic” mid period. His compositions then took on a totally new path, deviating from the direct evolutionary line from Haydn and Mozart.

Beethoven’s ballet The Creatures of  Prometheus, premiered in 1801, gave expression to his admiration of the democratic ideals of ancient Greece. Beethoven saw the Jacobite aspirations of post-revolutionary France as reflecting similar ideals. The future King of Sweden encouraged Beethoven to honour in music the head of the Jacobins, Napoleon Bonaparte, who Beethoven viewed as a sort of modern Prometheus. So Beethoven resolved to name his emerging symphony the Bonaparte Symphony. However, just as Beethoven penned the last notes, Napoleon crowned himself emperor. Beethoven heard the news from his pupil Ferdinand Ries, and immediately flew into a rage, tearing in two the title page. The symphony was promptly rededicated to his patron Prince Lobkowitz and retitled Sinfoniua eroica.

The longest and most difficult symphony to date, its initial performance confounded critics. Admiring of his craftsmanship, but perplexed by Beethoven’s intentions, critics took some time to adapt to this new “purpose” in music. On the other hand it appears that, despite its difficulty, the musicians admired it from the start. In 1807 we are told: “The orchestra had voluntarily gathered for extra rehearsals without recompense, except for the honour and special enjoyment of the work itself”.

The introduction to the very long first movement  is startlingly short – two tonic chords! Within a few bars a C# from a totally foreign key intrudes and sets the scene for the harmonic unrest characteristic of the whole symphony. The slow, relentless funeral march of the second movement influenced many later composers. The minor-key gloom is relieved by a more upbeat major-key section, soon eclipsed by an intense fugal passage. The bright Scherzo that follows has an enigmatic rhythm (is it in 3 or in 2?) with a standout section for the three horns (this was the first symphony with more than two). The whole symphony leads emotionally towards resolution in the Finale. Twenty variations on an initially disguised theme from Creatures from Prometheus, lead eventually to the triumphal but breakneck restatement of the hero’s theme.

Performed: 23/3/2014, 30/3/2014

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