Symphony No.3 in E flat Major, op.55 (The Eroica)

I. Allegro con brio II. Marcia funebre – Adagio assai III. Scherzo. Allegro vivace IV. Finale. Allegro molto


“There are too many gaudy and bizarre features in it” – wrote a critic in 1805, having heard Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3. It is little wonder that the critic felt at a loss when confronted with the symphony’s innovations. Even its dimensions are staggering: if the repeat is observed (which in performances to day, is not always the case although Beethoven clearly calls for it) the first movement occupies 846 bars – making it longer than the totality of virtually any symphony by Mozart or Haydn. Its internal proportions would also have caused consternation among contemporary musicians. After the mighty exposition, a no less imposing “development” section ensues. Following the expected recapitulation, when audiences might have expected a quick coda, Beethoven launches into essentially another development section. In the history of music, the Eroica represents perhaps the most remarkable ‘quantum leap’ forward ever accomplished. However, although we encounter numerous themes, motifs and ideas, the listener is struck by the remarkable consistency of tone: its heroic pathos is only alternated with more melodic, gentler musical ideas in the centre of the work in an E minor passage, itself a telling indication of the symphony’s innovation, as the basic tonality is E flat major. This epic tonal sweep is also daring and new. But we also find harmonies that would have sounded unbelievably dissonant to early 19th century ears. At the point of the recapitulation, with the strings playing a tremolo that implies to our ears that the E flat major tonic is returning in a few bars time, Beethoven makes the horn enter with the main theme already in E flat, almost in spite of the violins. This results in a remarkable dissonance, but the tension created imbues the eventual resolution four bars later with an even great sense of arrival. The second movement in C minor is a funeral march – something highly unusual for a symphony of this period. This is followed by another remarkable contrast: an astonishingly energetic scherzo which seems to dispel the mood of the funeral march in no uncertain terms. Its central section is a little calmer, although it contains some hazardous passages for the horns which can bring a lesser orchestra to grief. Not least among Beethoven’s achievements in this symphony is his ability to come up with a finale that can top all that has come before. This movement again is of immense dimensions. It begins uniquely: after an introductory run by the strings, which for a moment, seems to be in the wrong key, we hear only the bass to the eventual theme. Other voices join it, and we have to wait for seventy seven bars until we actually hear the theme itself. For the bass and the melody, Beethoven turns to a theme that evidently preoccupied him for many years. We first find it in an early contradance, and he used it in the finale to the Prometheus ballet music. He later exploited it in a remarkably powerful set of piano variations op. 35. In the Eroica symphony however, Beethoven takes the idea even further. The movement is a loose set of variation, with the bass and then the theme taking prominence in the variations. The G minor variation even has a pronounced Hungarian flavour. From 1800 Beethoven was a regular guest of the Brunswick family at Martonvásár, and had ample opportunity to acquaint himself with the fashionable verbunk music of the era.

Beethoven dedicated the symphony to his loyal supporter, Prince Lobkowitz. This was not his original plan. He initially received a commission to compose a Bonaparte symphony, leading to the well known story (which unlike many well known stories about  Beethoven is very likely authentic) that when he heard the Napoleon had crowned himself Emperor, he tore up the dedicatory title page in disgust. The score was later published as the “Eroica” symphony. This in turn inspired an abundance of interpretations as to the meaning of the symphony. Some claimed to hear elements of the Prometheus myth. The German researcher Arnold Schering believed he could detect a hidden programme drawn from Homer’s Illiad. These are among the least fanciful. Such speculations are a distraction from Beethoven’s true achievement in this symphony, which is a triumph of compositional logic and discipline combined with originality and creativity that puts not just any programme music, but virtually all other symphonies into the shade.