Explore the Score- Beethoven: Symphony no. 3 in E-flat major, Opus 55, “Sinfonica eroica”

Beethoven's last string quartets are referenced extensively in Shostakovich's Eighth

Beethoven’s Third Symphony is a work of such monumental historic and artistic importance that it’s worth prefacing a discussion of it by reminding the reader that even if Beethoven had died before composing it, he would have already secured his place in the pantheon of the greatest composers who had ever lived. Although it was only the third of his nine symphonies, Beethoven had already written well over half of his total output, and done a great deal to change music forever. His first two symphonies, while less monumental in scale, are every bit as radical as the Third, or, for that matter, any of the symphonies which followed it. Even from his earliest works like the Opus 1 Piano Trios, Opus 9 String Trios, opus 5 Cello Sonatas, and Opus 2 Piano Sonatas, Beethoven’s breadth of spiritual vision, his profundity of emotion, his sky-lifting wit and unconstrained audacity are fully developed.

Nevertheless, there is no doubting that the Third Symphony differs from its predecessors in important ways.  Written mostly in 1803 it was one of two works (the other being the “Waldstein” Sonata for Piano in C major) in which the new “heroic” language of what we now call Beethoven’s “Middle Period” first came to the fore.

Beethoven’s musical relationship to his two most important musical forbears, Mozart and Haydn, is often misunderstood. Too many commentators fall into the trap of describing Beethoven as somehow throwing off the conservative shackles of Mozart and Haydn’s Classical language in favour of a new, more experimental way of composing. Nothing could be further from the truth. Mozart and Haydn were every bit as innovative and radical a pair of composers as ever lived, and neither let himself be constricted by the stylistic expectations of his audience or peers. Haydn toyed with the norms and expectations of Classical style and rhetoric as cat plays with a caught mouse, and the works of thisSturm und Drang period are full of as much raw anger, pathos and anguish as anything Beethoven would ever write. At the end of his life, Mozart had left behind almost all of the gallantry and grace of typical late 18th. C. music. Works like the Requiem, the 40th Symphony and the later chamber works seem to have far more in common with the contrapuntal language of Bach and the existential tensions of Brahms and Bruckner than with the elegance and courtly good manners of Stamitz and Hoffmeister. Mozart’s last symphony, the so-called “Jupiter” begins very much in the safe territory of almost ersatz 18th C. C major “trumpet and drum” music, but in the Finale, he embraces a total liberation of the creative possibilities of pure counterpoint.

No, Beethoven was not freeing himself from the Classical confines of Mozart and Haydn’s language because no such confines existed for either composer. Instead, Beethoven in his Middle period seems to stumble upon a new kind of musical monumentality, expressed with a strangely compelling mix of narrative gift and brute force. Although the Eroica stands at the beginning of Beethoven’s most productive decade, it is also the work which most perfectly embodies the qualities that have made the works of his Middle period the cornerstone of musical life for over 200 years. In these works, and particularly in this work, he reveals himself to be greatest of musical storytellers. For the first time in instrumental music, we see a composer again and again writing movements on the most enormous scale that manage to keep the listener engaged through the most perfectly balanced mixture of expectation and surprise.

The sheer scale of the Eroica was the subject of much controversy when the work was first performed under Beethoven’s baton in 1805. One audience member reportedly offered to double his admission fee if the orchestra would stop playing and let him leave. It was to be Beethoven’s longest instrumental work (although he certainly never intended it to be as long or grandiose as it was often heard in the mid 20th C., as conductors and orchestras gravitated to slower tempi and a more massive sonority than the composer could ever have imagined). It was easily twice as long as almost any symphony heard in Vienna up to that point. Nevertheless, Beethoven’s engagement with tradition is also very much in play, and the openingAllegro con brio is modelled on the first movement of Mozart’s Symphony no. 39 in E flat major. Both the similarities and differences are telling. On the one hand, Beethoven borrows not only Mozart’s key, but also his use of triple meter and a main theme which outlines tonic and dominant triads. Both composers exploit the possibilities of building up forward momentum by starting with a theme mainly in crotchets and minims and then gradually introducing quavers then semiquavers, driving the music forward with more and more intensity. Even the infamous dissonant chords at the climax of Beethoven’s development are anticipated in the slow introduction of Mozart 39. On the other hand, Beethoven dispenses with the formality of a slow introduction for the first time in his symphonies, throwing the listener straight into the action after the two opening chords. (Mozart had already done the same thing in several of his symphonies, most powerfully in his 40th).

Dramatic as the first movement is, it would be a mistake to think of it primarily as a drama- in many ways it is more of a character study. Most music lovers know that Beethoven was initially inspired to write the work by Napoleon Bonaparte, and in many ways, this movement represents more a portrait of the heroic spirit than a depiction of heroic acts. Beethoven could evoke adversity like no other composer before or since, but in the first movement of the Third Symphony, hardship and struggle are clearly there to be overcome by the heroic protagonist. Yes, the development section contains some of the most intense, dramatic and sorrowful music ever written, but even in the most harrowing passages, one sense that we are safe in our protagonist’s hands. Victory seems assured right from those first two bracing E-flat major chords, never mind the cost.

It is only in the second movement, the Marcia funebre: Adagio assai that Beethoven finally shows us the true cost of the “victory” depicted in the first movement’s heroic endeavours. Again, the sheer scale of this movement must have simply staggered early listeners (to say nothing of the musicians). It is almost a mirror image of the first movement—tragic instead of triumphant, minor instead of major. Even the musical language is markedly different- where the first movement paints the portrait of a great hero through the abstract language of triads, crotchets and quavers, the Marcia funebre is rooted in vernacular music, music of ceremony, full of fanfare rhythms and drumrolls. It is  almost shockingly programmatic for a Classical symphony, although I hasten to point out that Haydn usually saved his more audacious and programmatic touches for his slow movements as well. The presence of our hero is still felt– after all, Beethoven later described the entire symphony as “composed to celebrate the memory of a great man.” The real Bonaparte was still very much alive at this time, but one gets the sense that the protagonist of the Eroica didn’t quite survive the first movement. The real, horrific price of human conflict is revealed in this movement with shocking directness. Where the heroic character of the protagonist conquers all in the first movement, in the Marica funebre, the heroic character attempts to rise again and again, only to collapse each time into ever blacker depths of despair. Many musicians, including me, consider this to be the greatest symphonic movement ever composed, and probably the darkest as well.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Eroica is the fact that Beethoven is able to continue beyond the Marica funebre. A generation later, Schubert would write two symphonic movements of similar scope and intensity, only to find himself completely stymied as to what to say next. Beethoven might have been forgiven for leaving us with his own “Unfinished” symphony, but, as only a genius could, he manages to show how life reinvents itself when all seems to have been lost.

After the human-centred, drama of the first two movements, I always think of the pianissimo opening of the Scherzo as music of nature- emerging pregnant with energy and potential like the first green shoots of spring after an impossibly cruel winter. In the trio, the horns bring us into the world of the countryside, evoking the raucous spirit of the hunt and the boozy village feast. Humanity gradually returns, and by the movement’s end, we’re well and truly surrounded by beer and laughter.

A short, shocking outburst rips us from the jolly world of the Scherzo and flings into the Finale, wherein Beethoven will pull together all of the threads of this great symphony into a coherent whole. One thing becomes clear almost immediately- after three movements which each explore more or less one mood, the Finale will be one of quicksilver changes and sharp contrasts. After the abrupt and violent opening, we hear the skeleton of an unbelievably simple theme- the first six notes are all either the tonic or dominant pitches of the key. With each restatement, the skeleton adds a few bones, gradually taking on a more and more comic appearance as Beethoven adds echo effects, riotous fortissimo octaves, bars of silence and quirky pauses. Finally, after about 76 bars, Beethoven puts some flesh on his skeleton with a sweeping and gorgeous melody, as attractive as everything that came before it was odd.

Beethoven is working at something very audacious here. We quickly realise we’re in the midst of a Theme and Variations, but it’s more than just that. In the course of the movement, Beethoven manages to bring to his quirky theme the most tremendous range of emotions, and over the course of the movement he takes us back through the drunken party atmosphere of theScherzo, to the striving derring-do of the first movement. There are also two fugues of astonishing audacity and invention, the second fugue based on an inversion of the first. Finally, the tempo slows, and for the final variations we’re back in the mood of the Marcia funebre for a powerful final meditation on all that has come before, all that was fought for and all that was lost. My friend and mentor Michael Steinberg said of this passage “the slow variations here are an apotheosis, a climax of towering force. This kind of climax is new, and the whole nineteenth century lived on it.”

As before, this slow music reaches a point of despair from which there seems no escape, but then Beethoven brings back the violent outburst which opened the Finale. That which previously interrupted the celebratory mood of the Scherzo here throws off the chains of despair we now find ourselves in, and the symphony literally storms to its appropriately heroic conclusion.

It would seem that in this movement Beethoven manages to do just about everything that could possibly be done with so simple a theme, both musically and spiritually, but many readers will already know that he’d already used the same theme in three other works, starting with a set of contradances in 1800, carrying on through the finale of his ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus, and his Fifteen Variations and Fugue for Piano, opus 35. In some important way, the Third Symphony seems to have begun not with Bonaparte and the idea of a grand, heroic symphony, but with this theme: with this quirky, bare little oddity. There’s something compelling yet funny about the paradox of this most human and dramatic of symphonies growing from such a modest musical idea. Something which I think Haydn would have loved. Yes, Beethoven was as great a visionary as he was a potent revolutionary, but a Janus-faced one, who saw into the past and future with similarly revelatory powers of perception.

c. 2016 Kenneth Woods

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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2 comments on “Explore the Score- Beethoven: Symphony no. 3 in E-flat major, Opus 55, “Sinfonica eroica””

  1. Deepak Subramanian

    Hello there. I stumbled across your website while trying to to find out the merits of the different Urtext versions for the Eroica Symphony (Barenreiter/Del Mar vs Breitkopf/Hausmann), and was wondering if you have had a chance to compare the two? The reason why I ask is that my amateur orchestra is preparing to perform this symphony using the Breitkopf Urtext parts, but our conductor is using a Barenreiter score and seems to be altering things as we rehearse to fit the reading in his score, meaning that our performance might well end up as an amalgam of the two versions! Are there any significant editorial or performance differences between the two? The critical notes for the Breitkopf edition are available as a free download from their website, but unfortunately they are only in German.

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Deepak- I wouldn’t worry too much about creating an amalgam of the two versions. Ultimately even a critical edition is just the editor’s view of the piece, and within either the Del Mar or Hauschild, there are plenty of possibilities for alternative readings.

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