Beethoven: Symphony No. 3, Eroica

Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Opus 55, Eroica

BORN: Probably on December 16, 1770 (his baptismal certificate is dated the 17th). Bonn
DIED:  March 26, 1827. Vienna

COMPOSED: 1802-04. Dedicated to Prince Franz Joseph von Lobkowitz

WORLD PREMIERE: During the second half of 1804, in private performances at Lobkowitz’s palace in Vienna. The first public performance took place on April 7, 1805, at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien, with the composer conducting  

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—March 1912. Henry Hadley conducted. MOST RECENT—September 2015, as part of the SFS European Tour. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons; 3 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings

DURATION: About 50 mins

THE BACKSTORY  In May 1804, Napoleon, who had been acceptable to Beethoven as a military dictator as long as he called himself First Consul, had himself crowned Emperor, and the disappointed and angry composer scratched out the words “intitolata Bonaparte” on the title page of his newly completed symphony. So violent was the erasure as to leave a hole in the paper. Actually Beethoven blew hot and cold on that issue. In August of that same year, he told the publishing firm of Breitkopf & Härtel in Leipzig that this symphony “is really called ‘Ponaparte’ [sic],” and in 1810 he considered dedicating his Mass in C to the Emperor, then at the height of his power. At some point, too, Beethoven penciled the words “Geschrieben auf Bonaparte” (“Written on Bonaparte”) on that mutilated title page. But the score of the Third Symphony as printed in October 1806 tells us that this is a sinfonia eroica, a “heroic symphony . . . composed to celebrate the memory of a great man.”

“I’ll pay another Kreuzer if the thing will only stop,” a gallery wit called out at the public premiere of the Eroica in 1805. One reviewer conceded that in this “tremendously expanded, daring, and wild fantasia” there was no lack of “startling and beautiful passages in which the energetic and talented composer must be recognized,” but he felt that the work “loses itself in lawlessness.” Another critic, deploring the composer’s ways of achieving “a certain undesirable originality” and proclaiming the new symphony with its “inordinate length” to be “unendurable to the mere music lover,” expressed the wish that “Herr van B. would employ his admittedly great talents in giving us works like his symphonies in C and D, his ingratiating Septet in E-flat, the intellectual Quintet in C, and others of his early works that have placed him forever in the ranks of the foremost instrumental composers.”

THE MUSIC  Beethoven had given his audience plenty to be upset about—a symphony half again as long as any they would have known, and one unprecedented in demands on orchestral virtuosity that were almost certainly inadequately met, unprecedented as well in the complexity of its polyphony, in the unbridled force of its rhetoric, in the weirdness of details like the famous “wrong” horn entrance in the first movement (the horn has already reached the home chord of E-flat while the violins are still preparing its arrival with a dissonance), and with the radical disintegration of the theme at the end of the monumental Funeral March.

Another newness in the Eroica is the shift of the center of gravity from the first movement to the Finale. Or almost. Even to the most historically oriented listener, the Eroica, with its aim of offering a finale that is not just an ending but a culmination and a place of resolution for an enormous range of accumulated tensions and questions, comes across as a new sort of symphony.

Facing a new challenge in his finale, Beethoven turned to old music; that is, he made a set of variations on a theme he had first used in a group of contradances in 1800-01, which he had introduced at about the same time in the finale of his ballet The Creatures of Prometheus, and which had also yielded Fifteen Variations and a Fugue for Piano in 1802. In the symphony he provides a grand, rhetorical introduction or “frame.” After the witty exploration of the possibilities of the bass alone comes a powerful set of variations on the combined melody and bass. In the Piano Variations he had wrapped it all up with a fugue. Now he does something subtler. Instead of making his excursion into polyphonic style a separate chapter, he infuses his variations with polyphony throughout their course. The vitality of texture that this gives him is one of the chief sources of the propulsive energy of the movement. True to classical tradition for variations, Beethoven slows the tempo near the end. The slow variations here are an apotheosis, a climax of towering force. Carefully Beethoven dismantles this structure. The music is almost an echo of the “disintegration” of the Funeral March. Then he resumes speed—returns in fact to a quasi-variation of the initial “frame”—to close, to fulfill his “heroic symphony” in triumphantly affirmative noise.

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

: Herbert Blomstedt conducting the San Francisco Symphony (Decca—out of print but available as an Arkiv CD reissue)  |  Blomstedt conducting the Dresden Staatskapelle (Berlin Classics)  |  Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony (SFS Media)

Online: Keeping Score: Beethoven’s Eroica with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony (available from SFS Media at and on iTunes and Amazon)

Reading: Beethoven, by Maynard Solomon (Schirmer Books)  |  Beethoven: The Music and the Life, by Lewis Lockwood (W.W. Norton)  |  The Beethoven Compendium: A Guide to Beethoven’s Life and Music, edited by Barry Cooper (Thames and Hudson)  |  Beethoven: His Life, Work, and World, by H.C. Robbins Landon (Thames and Hudson; reprinted by Collier Books)

(February 2018)