Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”)
Last performed by the UC Davis Symphony on November 20, 2005, David Rehman, soloist
Its duration alone—nearly twice the length of Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony (with which we opened the 2004–05 season)—would earn the “Eroica” a prominent spot in the history of ideas. That combined with Beethoven’s keen sense of the implications pent up in his themes, the daring harmonic practices, the novel movement structures, and the extramusical connection with Napoleon and his legend, make the impact of the “Eroica” virtually unmatched in the literature.Beethoven went on to cultivate, notably in the Fifth and Ninth Symphonies, many of the notions he first proffered in the “Eroica,” but nowhere is their shock value so great as here at the very beginning of the Romantic century. Each of the four movements had its own particular influence on the symphonic repertoire to come.
The landmarks of the first movement are the “extra” theme in the development—one not directly implied by the exposition—and the moment at the end of that section when the French horn, pianissimo, foreshadows the recapitulation an instant before it is unleashed. With its panoramic development and extended coda, the movement takes on proportions appropriate to its heroic intent. What seem passing details when they are first heard get “composed out” in the fullness of time: the foreboding C-sharp you hear at the end of the very first theme (in cellos) occasions an episode in the recapitulation (D-flat). And so on, as the movement gets bigger and bigger.
The Marcia funebre, in its evocation of a passing funeral cortege, served the Romantics as a persuasive model of musical space and imagery. At first, it seems little more than a gloomy dead march with an affirmative second strain, rebounding triplets in the strings suggesting the tattoo of muffled drums. (Beethoven is known to have had French military marches in mind.) But then there are interjections of sterner stuff, and all sorts of digressions, as though the witness were perplexed by exactly what the hero’s life has stood for. In the trio are mighty fanfares from the brass and drums. But it is the dissolution of all this into fragments that left the Romantics trembling, where Berlioz (for example) saw “shreds of the lugubrious melody, alone, naked, broken, crushed,” the wind instruments “shouting a cry, a last farewell of the warriors to their companion at arms.” We don’t often write about music that way anymore, but his observations make good sense.
Beethoven calls his third movement a scherzo, and with it pretty well sets the precedent for replacing the old-fashioned minuet and trio of the eighteenth century with a movement of much faster triple meter, wherein the composer plays clever games with the listener’s perception of downbeat and phrase grouping. It’s by no means Beethoven’s first scherzo, and he learned the term and some of its concepts from Haydn; nevertheless this movement is the one that sent minuets packing for good. Note, at the beginning of the second strain, how the composer throws in an extra quarter note here and there, so that for a while you’re not quite sure how the phrases fall out. The horn calls of the trio, too, set a precedent for movements of this sort.
In the finale, a theme and its variations bloom from the bass progression stated by the strings in unison pizzicato just after the opening spasm. It takes two more variations before a true melody is heard (in the woodwinds, a theme Beethoven had used three times before), and soon afterward it becomes clear that he is really more interested in the fugal possibilities of his progression and with the three loud exclamation points that seem to be there for the purpose of making you pay attention.
One of Beethoven’s early biographers first told the story of seeing a manuscript on the master’s worktable titled “Buonaparte”; on hearing the news that Napoleon had proclaimed himself emperor, the composer tore the page in half and threw it on the floor. “Is he, too,” Beethoven is said to have remarked, “nothing but an ordinary human being?” What is certain is that Beethoven for a time saw cash value in dedicating the work to Napoleon. On the title page of the autograph manuscript score, the words “intitulata Bonaparte” are simply scratched out, and the subtitle “Eroica” appeared with the published parts in 1806.
For flutes I-II, oboes I-II, clarinets I-II, bassoons I-II; horns I-III, trumpets I-II; timpani; strings
Composed 1803 in and around Vienna; dedicated to Prince Franz Joseph von Lobkowitz, a patron of Beethoven
First performed April 7, 1805, at an Academy Concert of the violinist Franz Clement at the Theater an der Wien, Vienna, Beethoven, conducting
Published by the Contor delle arti e d’industria (Vienna, 1806; parts only). Inexpensive score: Ludwig van Beethoven First, Second and Third Symphonies in Full Orchestral Score (New York: Dover, 1976)
Duration: about 55 minutes