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Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”) in E-flat major, Opus 55
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
At a Glance
Beethoven composed his Third Symphony between 1802 and 1804. He conducted the first performance at a private concert in the home of Prince Lobkowitz, to whom the work is dedicated, in December 1804. The first public performance took place at the Theater-an-der-Wien on April 7, 1805, again with the composer conducting.
This symphony runs about 50 minutes in performance. Beethoven scored it for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 3 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings.
The Cleveland Orchestra first performed Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony in October 1920, under Nikolai Sokoloff’s direction. It is among the most frequently performed symphonies in the Orchestra’s repertoire, appearing often in Cleveland’s programming at home and in cities around the world. It was most recently presented as part of “The Prometheus Project” under Franz Welser-Möst’s baton during the 2017-18 season.
About the Music
Europe is not what it once was. Change is afoot, in ways good, bad, and uncertain. After centuries of conflict, the past fifty years have moved things dramatically toward shared values and understanding. Although, admittedly, some notable setbacks in the past decade have pushed in other directions.
Indeed, it is amazing to consider just how far this disparate group of nations has come in recent decades — a single currency (with a few notable holdouts, along with some new question marks) and an extensive list of common regulations and cross-border agreements. With all of this accomplished quietly, almost behind the scenes, largely by a group of new bureaucrats focussed on common goals and the common good.
Whether the “people” can understand and embrace the long-term value of such shared commonality remains to be seen. The ongoing anguish of Brexit, more than three years after the initial vote, as well as populist and nationalist candidates clamoring for attention and winning support for more narrow self-interests, all of these — along with accelerated changes to life and living enabled by technology — are now pushing the entire continent (indeed, the whole world) toward uncharted and untested paths forward.
In 1803, things were swinging in different directions, too. Europe was intoxicated by ideas — or at least its artists and intellectuals were — and of a raucous kind. The interest then was Revolution, the Rights of Man, and the importance of the individual. One of their central myths was that of Prometheus, a solitary man who defiantly brought fire (“power”) to the people.
Real life is not so tidy as myth, and Napoleon Bonaparte was no Prometheus. Yet even as observers at the time suspected that Napoleon had hijacked the French Revolution and turned it into a war of global conquest, they were fascinated by his inexorable rise.
And what better emblem for the worth of the individual than this “little corporal” who bestrode the world? “He put me under a spell, as a snake does a bird,” the Austrian playwright and patriot Grillparzer recalled later. In 1806, the philosopher Hegel called Napoleon “a soul of worldwide significance.” Long after the general’s death, the great poet Goethe drew a musical analogy: “Napoleon played the world as Hummel his piano; both achievements appear miraculous . . . [yet] the whole is done before our eyes.”
It is another musical analogy that many associate with Napoleon today, however — Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, subtitled Sinfonia eroica, per festiggiare il sovvenire d’un gran’ uomo [“Heroic symphony, to celebrate the memory of a great man”], as the composer ultimately called it. The famous anecdote about Beethoven tearing up the title page dedicated to Napoleon, a story eloquently expressing both Beethoven’s attraction to power and defiance of tyranny, is nevertheless only one chapter in the historical and personal saga that led to this revolutionary work of music, an “achievement” more “miraculous” than anything any of his contemporaries even imagined.
Confrontation and Crisis
“I am not satisfied with my works up to the present time,” Beethoven confided to his friend Krumpholz in 1802. “From today I mean to take a new path.” That path necessarily led away from his teacher Haydn (whom Beethoven even began to avoid socially), away from such popular successes as the First and Second Symphonies and the Septet — away, in fact, from the entire musical old order. Like the policies of French First Consul Napoleon (who was just a year older than the composer), Beethoven’s path led toward confrontation and crisis.
Beethoven’s feelings of isolation were deepened at this time by the first signs of advancing deafness. At a doctor’s suggestion, he escaped the stress of city life for six months in the bucolic village of Heiligenstadt. In October 1802, near the end of his stay there, Beethoven poured his despondent thoughts into an extraordinary confessional document, found among his papers after his death and now known as the Heiligenstadt Testament. This rambling discourse on his malady, ostensibly addressed to the composer’s two brothers, reads like a suicide note (“Farewell, and do not wholly forget me when I am dead”) yet rejects that solution (“I would have ended my life — it was only my art that held me back”), yearning instead for “but one day of pure joy” in the life remaining to him.
“Beethoven here enacted his own death in order that he might live again,” writes the astute biographer and psychoanalyst Maynard Solomon. “He re-created himself in a new guise, self-sufficient and heroic.”
Death was a preoccupation of those times. Art, literature, and music were full of the deaths . . . of Mirabeau, Marat, Danton, and other heroes, from which the Revolution flamed up more brightly than ever. (In fact, death was nearly a prerequisite for enshrinement as a hero, which may explain why “Napoleon’s funeral” takes place less than halfway through Beethoven’s symphony for him, composed when the real-life Napoleon was alive and kicking and considering an invasion of Austria. In 1821, when Beethoven was told that Napoleon had died on the island of St. Helena, he said, “I have already composed the proper music for that catastrophe.”)
Certainly Beethoven was aflame with ambitious new ideas on his return to Vienna. Two works in particular from 1803 vastly expand their polite Classical genres: the “Kreutzer” Sonata for violin and piano, Opus 47, and the new symphony that Beethoven was already calling “Buonaparte.” By the end of the year, he was at work on the opera Fidelio. And still more heroic overtures, named for their protagonists, would follow — Egmont, Coriolan, King Stephen, and finally a very noisy ode (full of canon and battle clash) to Napoleon’s nemesis, Wellington’s Victory. Beethoven had come through the crisis, and was striding purposefully along his “new path.” The Heiligenstadt Testament, as Maynard Solomon writes, had proved to be “the literary prototype of the Eroica Symphony, a portrait of the artist as hero . . . a daydream compounded of heroism, death, and rebirth.”
Solomon’s description is echoed in a newspaper review of the symphony’s first public performance, which took place in the Theater-an-der-Wien on April 7, 1805, with the composer conducting: “This long composition, extremely difficult to perform, is in reality a tremendously expanded, daring, and wild fantasia.” The review continues, less flatteringly, “It lacks nothing in the way of startling and beautiful passages, in which the energetic and talented composer must be recognized; but often it loses itself in anarchy.” Beethoven’s pupil Carl Czerny recalled a self-appointed critic at the premiere who expressed himself succinctly from the gallery: “I’ll give another kreutzer if only the thing will stop!”
These reactions were normal enough on first hearing a symphony that was twice as long as any previous work in the genre. In any case, the dissatisfaction that evening was mutual. “The public,” wrote another journalist, “thought the symphony too difficult, too long, and [Beethoven] too discourteous, for he did not deign to give even a nod to the part of the audience that was applauding. Beethoven, on the contrary, did not find the applause sufficiently enthusiastic.” And so was confirmed what Beethoven already knew — his new path would be a lonely one.
In performance, the Symphony No. 3 needs no subtitle, no Napoleon, no Prometheus, no Heiligenstadt Testament. Even the proverbial person from Mars could not fail to be moved (or horrified, like some of those first hearers) by the organic force of the notes themselves. May familiarity never dull our awareness of the daring masterstrokes in the opening movement — the two mighty opening chords, like cosmic ticks of a god’s metronome, setting the pace for all that follows; the first theme, which seems placidly to affirm E-flat major, until it slides down to C sharp, opening a window onto a vast harmonic landscape; the graceful, wholly new theme that appears in the development in the remote key of E minor; the horn, unable to stand the suspense any longer, jumping the gun at the start of the recapitulation and seeming to come in four bars “early”; and the monumental architecture of this entire 691‑bar first movement, in which the tiniest musical motifs are linked to form themes, then groups of themes, then sections, and finally a single great edifice. Like other great buildings, it is easy — and a pleasure — to get lost in this.
The second-movement Marcia funebre [“Funeral March”], on the other hand, tells its story vividly and directly. One can almost picture the formal gait of the marchers, the drums that gently urge them on, the reveries of happier times in the major-key middle section, the bugle corps that snaps us back to reality with its dire fanfare. The “disintegration” of the theme in the coda section nearer the end is a metaphor for death that Beethoven had used before, in his Joseph Cantata.
And what could be a greater contrast to all this than the jolly chase of the third-movement Scherzo?! Impressions of a chaotic hunting scene (or the exhilaration of battle?), full of cries and exclamations near and far, are reinforced by the bold horn calls (literally a “trio”) at mid‑movement.
Beethoven opens the fourth-movement finale, just as he did the first movement, with a proclamation of important events to come. Then, humorously, a barely audible bass line peeks around the corner. A countermelody is added, and finally the dance tune itself, which we now realize begins with the same notes as the opening theme of the first movement. Again, something is being built, the other foundation structure of the symphony’s triumphal arch, this time based on variation form, but with superimposed features such as a sonata-style development and rondo-like episodes. Near the end, there is a period of repose, marked with the tempo Poco andante, in which the hero — plainly Beethoven himself now — can survey his accomplishments at a distance, but even here the anxieties of the present intrude, and the symphony closes with a fresh burst of energy and determination.
—David Wright © 2019
Bonaparte out, “Heroic” in
“In this symphony, Beethoven had Buonaparte in mind, but as he was when he was First Consul. Beethoven esteemed him greatly at the time and likened him to the greatest Roman consuls. I as well as several of his more intimate friends saw a copy of the score lying upon his table with the word ‘Buonaparte’ at the extreme top of the title page, and at the extreme bottom ‘Luigi van Beethoven,’ but not another word. Whether and with what the space between was to be filled out, I do not know. I was the first to bring him the intelligence that Buonaparte had proclaimed himself emperor, whereupon he flew into a rage and cried out: ‘Is he then, too, nothing more than an ordinary human being? Now he, too, will trample on all the rights of man and indulge only his ambition. He will exalt himself above all others to become a tyrant!’ Beethoven went to the table, took hold of the title page by the top, tore it in two, and threw it on the floor. The page had to be rewritten, and only then did the symphony receive the title ‘Sinfonia eroica’.”
— from Recollections of Ferdinand Ries