The Kennedy Center

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

About the Work

Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven when composing the Missa Solemnis Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven
© Richard Freed

Beethoven was not by instinct a man of the theater. While his younger Italian colleague Rossini composed more than three dozen operas in the space of 20 years, and in so doing sometimes used the same overture for two or even three entirely unrelated works, Beethoven fussed over his one completed opera for ten years and eventually wrote four different overtures for that single work. He did, however, have very sure dramatic instincts, which he expressed powerfully in his instrumental works, and in none of them is this more clearly evident than in the great and revolutionary one in which he swept away all previous notions of what a symphony could be or ought to be.

Beethoven was profoundly affected by democratic principles and by acts of idealism and heroism. In contemplating throughout his adult life the eventual setting of Schiller's An die Freude (the “Ode to Joy”), he was surely aware that Schiller had originally conceived that poem as an “Ode to Freedom” (An die Freiheit—which term Leoanrd Bernstein substituted for the printed one in his memorable performances of the Ninth Symphony in Berlin after the Wall came down). Fidelio, a tale of sacrifice and devotion overcoming injustice, is exactly the sort of opera we would expect from him, and we are not surprised to read that he undertook his incidental music for Goethe's Egmont without fee because of his admiration for both the poet and the exalted message of that drama. He was moved by reports of the heroic death of the British General Abercrombie in the Battle of Alexandria in 1798, and by other military events of that dramatic period, and he was impressed most of all by the young Corsican, only a year older than himself) who did so much to define that period, as First Consul of the French Republic.

In Napoleon, Beethoven saw the liberator of the downtrodden, the destroyer of oppression and class distinction, the driving force for a democratic Europe. In 1801 he became a frequent visitor to the French embassy in Vienna and got to know the young ambassador, General Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, who was conspicuously active in supporting music and musicians (the violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer, whose name was to become attached to Beethoven's best-known violin sonata, was a member of Bernadotte's retiune), and who subsequently became King Charles XIV of Sweden. The long held notion that Bernadotte suggested to Beethoven that he compose a work in honor of Napoleon is apparently without foundation, despite their closeness, and it appears more likely that Beethoven undertook this unprecedentedly grand symphony entirely on his own, out of his own hopeful enthusiasm. In any event, by October 1803 he was able to play the entire work on the piano for his pupil Ferdinand Ries, who reported in a letter that the composer referred to it as “the biggest work he had written so far” and added, “I think heaven and earth must tremble beneath us when it is performed.”

At that time Beethoven expressed the hope that Napoleon would accept the dedication of the new symphony, which was to bear the title Bonaparte. When he learned in 1804, however, that Napoleon had crowned himself Emperor, his disillusionment was volcanic; within moments of receiving the news he reached for the score, literally tore through the paper in expunging the name Bonaparte, and in its place inscribed:

Sinfonia eroica composta per festeggiare il sovvenire d'un gran uomo
(Heroic Symphony composed to celebrate the memory of a great man)

The change of title, we might say, was preordained, for this vast and lofty work is not more “about” Napoleon than it is “about” Abercrombie or any other individual, the real impetus having been Beethoven's own idealism, the concept of the hero as he perceived it. Significantly in the purely artistic sense, this symphony is Beethoven's Declaration of Independence: its length—about twice that of the average mature symphony of Haydn or Mozart—as well as its character clearly set it apart from all preceding works of this genre, leaving no question regarding the symphony's replacement of the concerto as the most substantial form of concert music.

The principal themes of the respective movements are interrelated, and are derived from the common root of one of Beethoven's own earlier works in a quite different form—so clearly derived as to be regarded as being, directly or indirectly, variations on a certain contredanse he revisited more than once before he composed this symphony. The theme of the first movement may be heard in the Overture to Mozart's little opera Bastien und Bastienne, composed before Beethoven was born; Beethoven may have quoted it consciously here (as he was to do much later in citing one of Leporello's arias from Don Giovanni in his Diabelli Variations for piano), or, as appears more likely, he may not even have been aware of Bastien, and simply developed this motif as a further variation on his own theme. (Donald Francis Tovey pointed out that the theme in question is “simply the notes of a common chord swinging backwards and forwards in a quietly energetic rhythm.”) This particular question is of little moment. There happen to be two Mozartean antecedents of the big theme in the choral finale of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, with no involvement of variations, and again Beethoven may not have been aware of them; no matter where he may have found his materials, he made them his own, and invariably they strike us now as being eminently well suited to the musical—and sometimes symbolic—use to which he put them.

Beethoven's original intention was to open the work with the statement of that principal theme; he added the two crashing chords as a prefatory call to attention only after the first movement was otherwise completed. No fewer than five additional themes turn up in this movement, all of them similarly simple and spare, all similarly effective in evoking an impression of vigor and breadth combined. The elaborate embellishments with which the principal theme is adorned in some of its reappearances may be a sort of throwback to Beethoven the brilliant keyboard improviser; the variation principle, in any event, is at least hinted at, if not directly approached, even this early in the work. The jarring discords at pivotal points and the so-called false entry of the horn initiating the recapitulation were unimaginably novel when this music was first heard; the latter touch was regarded as a “mistake” by conservative musicians, a “misjudgment” on Beethoven's part which some conductors were moved to “correct” even as late as the 1890s, quite missing the point of his ingeniously calculated dramatic effect.

What ever Beethoven's actual motivation in composing a massive funeral march as the symphony's slow movement (it may or may not have been the death of General Abercrombie), he found a ready model in the form of the ceremonial funeral march in the opera Achilles, by Ferdinando Paer (whose Leonora preceded Beethoven's own operatic treatment of the same story by a year or two). The great double fugue, whose climactic threnody for the horns turns lament into exaltation, grandly rejects all attempts to affix any individual's name as subject. (The legend that Beethoven remarked, on hearing of Napoleon's death in 1821, “I composed the music for that sad event some 17 years ago,” appears to be another concoction of his early biographer Anton Schindler.)

After the sustained intensity of the huge first and second movements, respite is provided in the scherzo, described by Tovey as “the first in which Beethoven fully attained Haydn's desire to replace the minuet by something on a scale comparable to the rest of a great symphony.” While the tension is reduced here, the sheer vigor is unremitting and occasionally explosive. The three horns make a stunning effect in the trio, in which a simple “hunting” figure is raised to a level consonant with the work's title. Both sections are said to have roots in Austrian folk music—but there is a more direct source, as already suggested.

A symphonic finale in variation form was rather a novelty in Beethoven's time, but here that form seems an inspired choice for a grand summing-up, and the theme, taken from one of his earlier works, is not merely “recycled,” but is especially appropriate for its personal significance. It first appeared in the finale of Beethoven's ballet The Creatures of Prometheus, in 1801; in the same year he used it again as the seventh in a set of twelve contredanses, and in the next year he built a set of piano variations on it—also in E-flat (Op. 35) and now called the Eroica Variations because of the tune's greater familiarity in the symphony. Following a grandly dramatic opening gesture, the symphony's finale begins just as the piano work does, with the theme at first only hinted at with a playful statement of its bass pattern alone. Once the theme itself enters, though, the treatment is quite different, commencing with a fugue and concluding with a suitably triumphal coda.

For some time the final movement was regarded as the weakest section of the Eroica . Less portentous, perhaps than the massive first and second movements, but hardly “weak,” and it may be seen as containing the basic material of the entire work. As in several symphonis of later eras with finales in variation form, the variation principle here spills over to the earlier movements, whose themes may be regarded as additional variations on the theme dealt with so straightforwardly at the end—and thus as pointing directly to this particular kind of summing-up. The agreeable little dance tuen of his own creation on which Beethoven based this finale appears to have intrigued him to the point of becoming a sort of personal signature in the years 1801-04. The connotations of its uses prior to this final one, and his decision to use it once more in the finale of this work, combine to point up the significance of the Eroica as the most personal as well as the “biggest' of his creations up to the time it was introduced, and to remind us of this own “Promethean” role in the service of his art.

Beethoven himself conducted the public premiere of the Eroica at the Theater an der Wien on April 7, 1805, following a private performance at the home of Prince Lobkowitz, to whom the score was dedicated following the removal of Napoleon's name. Until he composed the Ninth, this work remained the composer's favorite among all his symphonies. He must have known that, just as Napoleon had changed the face of Europe, he himself, in this work, had permanently changed all previously held notions on the nature of the symphony.