Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 55 “Eroica”
Ludwig van Beethoven
b. Bonn, Germany / December 15, 1770; d. Vienna, Austria / March 26, 1827
In 1802, Beethoven declared to a friend, “I am not satisfied with my works up to the present time. From today I mean to take a new road.” On the symphonic front, he did so by composing his Third. It is an astonishing watershed in the history of orchestral music; a stirring declaration of artistic and spiritual independence; and in both physical size and visionary spirit a model for countless compositions by later composers.
A dedicated humanitarian such as Beethoven heartily endorsed the French Revolution and the early career of Napoleon Bonaparte. He composed the Third during the summer of 1803. His friend Ferdinand Ries relates that a draft of the title page originally bore simply the words “Bonaparte” at the top, and “Ludwig van Beethoven” at the bottom, with the balance to be filled in later.
On May 20, 1804, Bonaparte declared himself Emperor of France. Ries recalled that Beethoven “flew into a rage and cried out: ‘Then he, too, is nothing but an ordinary mortal! Now he, too, will trample on the rights of man and indulge only his own ambition! He will raise himself above all others and become a tyrant!’ Beethoven went to the table, took hold of the title page by the top, tore it apart and flung it on the ground. The first page was rewritten and not until then was the symphony entitled Sinfonia eroica (Heroic Symphony).”
The first movement is the most clearly “heroic” of the four. It opens with two sharp chords, simply yet effectively setting this titanic creation in motion. As this movement unfolds, both the vastness of its structure and the wealth of its materials gradually become clear. Instead of basing it upon two short, contrasting themes, as Haydn or Mozart did in their first movements, Beethoven used what are in effect groups of themes, and his development of them is more expansive, subtle and intricate.
Another of the innovations in the Eroica is the inclusion, as the second movement, of a funeral march. This type of composition had never before featured in a symphony. The influence of military music is clear, with its muffled drums and slow, mournful tread. The third movement is an immensely vital, red-blooded piece that sweeps away the funeral march’s emotional clouds. The horn section comes into its own in the central trio section, crowing merrily as they gallop across the countryside. The finale is a set of variations on a rather naïve theme that Beethoven drew from his ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus. Here it reaches its apotheosis, transformed into material fit to crown this mightiest of symphonies.
Program Notes by Don Anderson © 2019