Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Opus 55, Eroica

Ludwig van Beethoven was born (probably) on December 16, 1770 (he was baptized on the 17th), in Bonn, then a sovereign electorate, and died on March 26, 1827, in Vienna. The first sketches for his Symphony No. 3 date from the summer or fall of 1802; most of the composition was carried out in 1803, and the symphony was completed in the spring of 1804. The work is dedicated to the music-loving nobleman Prince Franz Joseph von Lobkowitz. It was premiered in private performances at Lobkowitz’s palace in Vienna during the second half of 1804, and its first public performance took place on April 7, 1805, at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien, with the composer conducting. The San Francisco Symphony first played the work in March 1912 with Henry Hadley conducting; the most recent of its many performances here were conducted by Herbert Blomstedt in February 2010. The orchestra consists of two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, three horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings. Performance time: about fifty minutes.

“Here is more than Haydn and Mozart, here the symphony-poem is brought to a higher plateau!” That was the enthusiastic report of Carl August Griesinger, one of the first to hear Beethoven’s Third Symphony, following a private performance in 1804. He was writing to the Leipzig music publishing firm Breitkopf & Härtel, to recommend that the company secure rights to the piece as soon as possible. Beethoven submitted his new score, but the firm decided to take a pass, doubtless remembering complications that had delayed several earlier projects involving the famously irascible composer.

But Griesinger was right. Beethoven’s Third Symphony did mark a dramatic advance beyond the symphonies of Haydn and Mozart. That is not to say it is necessarily a “greater” symphony than, say, Mozart’s last four or some of Haydn’s final dozen, all of which may be considered near-perfect achievements; but it unquestionably moved the art of the symphony into a new realm. After Beethoven’s Third, there was no turning back for symphonists. It opened the floodgates for the symphonic outpouring of the nineteenth century—for Beethoven himself, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Berlioz, Liszt, Brahms, Bruckner, and the rest.

At first, Griesinger’s enthusiasm was a minority response to the new work. On February 13, 1805, readers of Leipzig’s Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung found this report: “The reviewer belongs to Herr van Beethoven’s sincerest admirers, but in this composition he must confess that he finds too much that is glaring and bizarre, which hinders greatly one’s grasp of the whole, and a sense of unity is almost completely lost.” The same critic maintained that the piece “lasted an entire hour.” Beethoven’s Third was the longest symphony ever written when it was unveiled, and listeners and critics commented widely on that fact, to the composer’s frustration. “If I write a symphony an hour long,” Beethoven is said to have countered, “it will be found short enough.”

Beethoven’s sketchbooks reveal that he began working on what would become his Third Symphony in the summer or fall of 1802, but in one particular the genealogy of the piece reaches back at least a year earlier, to his ballet The Creatures of Prometheus, premiered in March 1801 and published in a piano arrangement that same year. A project undertaken for the Viennese Court, it was a light allegorical entertainment loosely derived from the classic legend of Prometheus, who guides unenlightened man towards a fully human state marked by reason, emotions, and lofty aspirations. In the ballet’s finale Beethoven wrote a theme that he would press into repeated use, nowhere more famously than in the finale of his Third Symphony.

The Creatures of Prometheus gave Beethoven a trying-ground in which he might develop his own Promethean tendencies in his art. He was already a partisan of humanitarian principles, joining those who saw the democratic ideals of ancient Greece reflected in the aspirations of the Jacobins of post-Revolutionary France. At the head of the Jacobins was Napoleon Bonaparte, and Beethoven was among the political idealists who viewed Napoleon as a sort of modern Prometheus, a repository of hope for the social enlightenment of humankind.

At the urging of the future King of Sweden, Beethoven began contemplating a musical celebration of Napoleon as early as 1797. As his early sketches gradually coalesced into a symphony, Beethoven resolved not simply to dedicate his composition to Napoleon, but to actually name it after him. But in the spring of 1804, just as Beethoven completed his symphonic tribute, news arrived that Napoleon had crowned himself emperor, that the standard-bearer of republicanism had seized power as a dictator. It fell to Beethoven’s pupil Ferdinand Ries to inform the temperamental composer. Ries tells of seeing the score, with the word “Bonaparte” on the title page.Learning of Napoleon’s power grab, “Beethoven went to the table, grabbed the top of the title-page, tore it in two, and threw it to the floor. The first page was re-written and the symphony was then for the first time given the title of Sinfonia eroica.”

The autograph score thus mutilated has disappeared, but the library of Vienna’s Society of the Friends of Music owns a copyist’s manuscript that Beethoven marked and used for conducting—and it tells a similar tale. Its title page originally read (in Italian) “Grand Symphony titled Bonaparte by Mr. Ludwig van Beethoven.” But the words “titled Bonaparte” were erased with such vehemence that a gash stands in their place. When the piece was published, it was presented as Sinfonia Eroica . . . per festeggiare il sovvenire di un grand Uomo (“Heroic Symphony . . . to Celebrate the Memory of a Great Man”); and the work’s dedication, originally intended for Napoleon, was given over instead to Beethoven’s patron Prince Lobkowitz. It would become a leitmotif in Beethoven’s life that individuals would fail to live up to his idealizations, and that the composer would prefer Humankind in the abstract to humans in the flesh.

With this symphony, Beethoven ushers in what is widely considered his “heroic phase,” a mid-life stage in which he began producing vastly scaled works of challenging complexity and breathtaking vision. The four movements of the Sinfonia eroica chart a structure that was unprecedented in its magnitude and variety, even though it hews closely to late-Classical models for its four-movement symphonic layout and its instrumentation (which exceeds a standard Classical orchestra only by a third horn). It’s really the first movement that lends the piece much of its bulk, despite the fact that its introduction is brutally compacted into two brusque chords. Whereas the central development section of Classical (and most ensuing) symphonies was typically somewhat shorter than the initial exposition, the Sinfonia eroica flips the proportions as Beethoven explores and develops his material intensively and at unusual length. The movement’s course is unpredictable.

The great funeral march that makes up the second movement invites tragic musings, its ceaseless pace perhaps suggesting the Promethean sufferings and inevitable demise of those who support heroic achievements. Listeners looking for music specifically tied to the revoked dedication to Napoleon will find the strongest link here in what might be viewed as a military slow-march. Music with this flavor was unfortunately familiar to listeners in a Europe racked by revolution; indeed, musicologists have pointed to the great affinity this movement shows to funeral marches by French composers of the Revolutionary era. But not all is tragic in this movement, which also includes an interlude in C major—lyrical at first, then triumphal—and even an intriguing fugal section. As in the first movement, Beethoven considers his themes not as inviolable entities, but rather as raw material he is free to fragment and to transform to novel emotional effect.

Funereal thoughts disperse entirely with the onset of the effervescent third-movement, which rises out of pianissimo and staccato in the strings. The scampering in which the movement opens stands in contrast to the bold, “heroic” (if you will) fanfares played by the three horns—the moment where Beethoven’s expanded horn complement becomes absolutely essential. The scurrying returns, and at the end the composer attaches a brief but fascinating coda.

The finale opens with a tumultuous outburst but quickly pauses for a breath before intoning the theme from the Prometheus ballet, whispered, but interrupted fortissimo with rude asides. The theme itself divides into two, and Beethoven gives voice only to the bass line at first. When he superimposes the “real” melody above it, we have the unusual sensation of witnessing a theme growing organically as we listen, from its individual elements into its fully formed state. This theme gives rise to a set of twelve variations that chart a virtual textbook of late-Classical, early-Romantic style, from military march to masterful fugue. The first and second movements are both longer, but this finale is in no way a pendant afterthought to the symphony. In fact, it is very much a destination, a goal towards which everything before had been reaching, a resolution of built-up tensions, a psychological point of arrival—which is to say, a harbinger for the drama to which all ensuing composers of symphonies would aspire.

—James M. Keller

This note originally appeared in the program book of the New York Philharmonic and is reprinted with permission. Copyright © New York Philharmonic.

More About the Music
Recordings: 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)

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)

On DVD: Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony on a Keeping Score DVD, from SFS Media: includes commentary on the music by MTT and SFS musicians, plus a complete performance.