Beethoven Goes Boom: In Celebration of the Memory of a Great Man

You either die a hero of you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.

The Dark Knight

Beethoven’s Symphonies are major events in music history.  And that really began in 1803 with his Third, the Eroica.  Settle in, this is going to be a long one.

To understand what Beethoven was doing in the Eroica, you need to understand what was going on in Beethoven’s life and in European history generally. As discussed last time, the teenaged Beethoven was a progressive, who welcomed the French Revolution as the first shot of what he and other idealists hoped would be a wave of popular uprisings across Europe, overthrowing the ancient and oppressive ruling aristocracies. But as Revolution gave way to Terror and dictatorship, those hopes appeared dashed. Until He emerged. Rising from the lowest levels of society (his father was a lawyer) by proving his military genius in the army, Napoleon Bonaparte overthrew the dictatorship and became First Consul of France, an echo back to the ancient Roman Republic. Napoleon set about reforming France as reflected in the revolutionary ideals of Liberté, égalité, and fraternité. Beethoven like so many idealists across Europe welcomed Napoleon’s emergence as nothing short of the Hero of the Revolution.

Beethoven in particular had cause to celebrate Napoleon, who appeared set to use French military might to bring French freedoms and rights to all of Europe. Joseph II, the progressive ruler of the Holy Roman Empire had died in 1790 and his successor, Leopold II had lasted barely two years on the throne. Francis II, destined to be the last Holy Roman Emperor, was decidedly reactionary, revsering many of Joseph II’s progressive policies and tamping down on popular sentiment across his empire. Many of Beethoven’s friends were caught up in the opposition to Francis’s rule–Beethoven was spared their fate only due to his many supporters among the aristocracy in Vienna.

During this time, Beethoven was also waging an inner struggle that was considerably more significant. By 1802, he could no longer deny the horror that fate had dealt him: He was going deaf and there was no cure. For someone who lived for music, this was a cruel torture indeed. Beethoven strongly considered suicide to save himself the pain, but resolved to soldier on, trusting that he could continue to serve his art through pure intellect, even if time would soon rob him of his ability to actually hear it.

Having taken that decision, he resolved to compose a massive symphony, unlike anything ever written to date. And he would dedicate it to his hero, Napoleon, relocate to France on the wings of its success and garner new patrons in a country that better reflected his political ideals. It was a good plan: France and Austria were at peace, his ideas for the new symphony were well-advanced, and there was a ready audience at home and abroad for new works. But as they say about the best laid plans of men . . .

In 1804, after he had completed the symphony, Beethoven learned from one of his students that Napoleon had declared himself Emperor. Flying into a rage, Beethoven (depending on which account you believe) tore up the title page of the score or otherwise scratched out his dedication to Bonaparte. And a good thing too: By the time of the symphony’s premiere in 1805, France and Austria were at war again.

Quite simply the most important symphony ever written by any composer in the history of the world. Ever. Beethoven, at the age of 32, had finally confronted his deafness, and determined to overcome it.

John Suchet, Classical FM

So what makes the Eroica so important, so revolutionary, as to deserve such praise? Let’s take a look at the music itself. Beethoven set out to create a Heroic story, a musical analogue to Homer’s epics. Keeping that in mind, let’s consider what he wrote.

The First Movement opens with two brash and loud E-Flat Major chords. This was unprecedented, completely unexpected, and totally shocking. They are the first true power chords in history. They grab your attention, while grounding your ear to the home key of E-Flat. It’s hard to find a good parallel in contemporary music, but if pressed, I’d say that Beethoven’s E-Flat Chords were imitated, if they did not directly inspire, the Beatles’ opening chord to A Hard Day’s Night.

The Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night:

Like Beethoven, the Beatles were already quite famous, but this chord announced to the world that they, like Beethoven in 1803, were something entirely new. More on the Beatles’ chord here:

Back to Beethoven: Almost immediately following those two thrashed chords, the cellos enter with the heroic theme. The theme itself echoes the opening chords by essentially breaking apart an E-Flat Major triad and presenting its constituent notes individually. The theme is cut short by a C#–one of the most famous dissonances in music history. This is also unexpected, since it introduces a musical conflict into the exposition–C# is not found in the key of E-Flat Major. The conflict is momentarily, if somewhat unsatisfactorily overcome by resolving to a D, but the initial conflict breaks the theme, which returns in fragments played by different sections of the orchestra (a bit like Pierre Rode’s sixth violin concerto, as discussed last time). This tonal struggle in the music is replicated in the rhythms, which move from a steady 3/4 time to a disjoined 2/4 time, made all the more complicated by placing the emphasis strangely on the second beat. This chaos is joined by new rhythms that resemble the beat of horses’ hoofs, as the key soars to B-Flat. The woodwinds enter, but present only pulsing harmonies–a frantic heartbeat. The heroic theme reappears (the theme in the exposition traditionally repeats in sonata form), leading to the development.

The horses reappar throughout the development, along with the fragmented heroic theme, giving the sense that the battle has been joined. Beethoven presents even more jarring harmonies and rhythms, heightening the sense of conflict in the music and leading to a series of very dissonant chords, representing the pain experienced by the hero. The hero seems to overcome his pain and conflict, as his theme reappears, but it collapses upon itself. The woodwinds present a new theme, which dissolves without resolution.

Then the horns sound the heroic theme and the recapitulation begins. The heroic theme opens the recapitulation (also standard sonata form to repeat the theme here), but the jarring C# of the exposition is resolved by a more satisfying C. The horn seemlessly transitions the theme to a flute, giving a sense of peace. Beethoven doubles down on his musical statement in a series of power chords: E-Flat Major; D-Flat Major; and, C Major, reinforcing the resolution of the the opening dissonance. The woodwind theme from the development (the only other theme in the movement) comes back, first in F but then resolving to E-Flat, thereby resolving all conflicts in favor of the hero’s home key. A great fanfare closes out the movement in truly glorious fashion.

And that’s just the first movement! Granted, it was as long as some of his predecessor’s symphonies, but we are starting to get the idea that something truly new is afoot.

The Second Movement opens in Beethoven’s signature key,, C Minor. The traditional slow movement here is presented as a funeral march, taking significant cues from French music. Here, Beethoven composes the soundtrack to the end of life itself. Fate, an ever constant companion in Beethoven’s music from this period, reveals itself: An oboe presents a new theme even as the music shifts to C Major and the woodwinds sound a hymn, before returning to the C-Minor funeral march. That about sums it all up, no? But there is still more to come. Beethoven presents a double fugue on his theme, but this more raw than Bach’s mathematical gems. Beethoven’s fugue is raw and filled with emotional power. A series of power chords sound; the funeral march returns in fragments and the movement ends.

The Third Movement opens with a country dance theme. Taken at a swift beat in Beethoven’s original manuscript (indeed, Beethoven’s stated beat is wickedly fast throughout leading most composers to adjust downward, much to the peril of the music in my view). The dance is wild, almost too fast to be a dance. And the rhythms shift again from 3/4 to 2/4, also strange for a dance.

The Final Movement opens with a grand fanfare which leads to, well, almost nothing. Beethoven unexpectedly dissolves to just a baseline devoid of melody. As many have noted, Beethoven took this baseline from his ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus, which tells the story of how the titan brought civilization and enlightenment to mankind. From this bass line, Beethoven constructs a melody—perhaps the melody that inspired the entire symphony. This theme becomes a fugue, which becomes a march, which becomes a hymn. This is Beethoven at his best—showing off like Mozart did before him. More and more instruments pile on–this is a victorious celebration. The music fades momentarily and the opening fanfare returns, leading to a glorious resolution and suitably grand conclusion.

So what does it all mean? There is little agreement here. Some say that this is where the Romantic Period began. Perhaps, but I cannot shake the fact that Beethoven is adhering to classical forms, even as he upends the details. But the Romantics have a point and it is this.

Beethoven said that his Third Symphony presents the struggle of a great man to overcome hardships. He thought, at the time, that he was writing about Napoleon, but he was really writing about himself. Here, in 1803, Beethoven changes music history forever by telling his own story, with all of his raw emotions fully on display. Eroica is nothing less than Beethoven’s victory over his creeping deafness. Beethoven’s full title: Sinfonia Eroica … composta per festeggiare il sovvenire di un grande Uomo.

Hailed by his supporters and derided by nearly everyone else who heard it at the time, audiences took years to come to terms with Beethoven’s Eroica. But come to terms they did, for Beethoven had strode boldly through the doors that Mozart had opened at the end of his life, showing the world new possibilities for music. Beethoven stripped away the artifice. Music need not be clothed in religious vestments or the shallow emotions of fictional or historical characters. Music, like art and literature, was now free to reveal the innermost emotions of its creator, forging a bond between composer and audience that would endure throughout time.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No. 3 in E-Flat, Op. 55 “Eroica”:

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