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The Eroica Symphony Essay

Beethoven’s third symphony was first preformed privately in early August of 1804. One would think that the people of this time period would marvel over anything Beethoven composed. However, Eroica was not as well received or understood, as Beethoven would have liked. Many educated listeners were thrown off by the “false” horn entry halfway through the first movement. It is said that Beethoven’s pupil was surprised by this, and was reprimanded for saying that the “player had come in ‘wrongly’”(Green). Beethoven should have expected such response, though. He had been consciously planning to compose a work of art, a masterpiece of unequaled breadth. Three years before he wrote his third symphony, Beethoven had stated his discontent with his own compositions previously written and “Henceforth [he] shall take a new path.” (Beethoven)

In late September of 1802, Beethoven felt compelled to write out a last will and testament. This document that he drafted became known as the Heiligenstadt Testament due to where he was located, the village of Heiligenstadt. Beethoven was never to reveal this document to anyone, except for his brothers, Carl and Johann, to whom it was addressed. The language within this testament is filled with pain. Upon reading it, you can feel the unhappiness that manifested itself within the writer. The Heiligenstadt Testament can explain the sudden, drastic musical changes that occurred around 1803. Beethoven’s music, after writing his will, became much more daring. He cast aside his previous teachings and rules as he developed a new path of music, Eroica as his flagship. These two pieces of Beethoven’s history, Eroica and the Heiligenstadt Testament, are inseparably linked, almost as if they were the same creation (DeWitt).

Eroica will forever be connected with Napoleon Bonaparte. In writing this Symphony, Beethoven had been thinking of Bonaparte, but, this was Bonaparte as First Consul. At this time, Beethoven had the utmost respect and held the highest esteem for him. He even went as far as comparing Bonaparte to consuls of ancient Rome. Many of Beethoven’s closest friends saw the score laid out on his table. It was beautifully copied in manuscript, with “Bonaparte” inscribed at the very top, and “Luigi van Beethoven” at the bottom. When Beethoven first learned of Bonaparte declaring himself emperor in 1804, he was outraged. “So, he is no more than a common mortal! Now, he too will tread under foot all the rights of man, indulge only his ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men, become a tyrant!” exclaimed Beethoven.

After this, he walked over to the table where the Symphony lay, held it by the top, tore it down the middle, and threw it on the floor (F. Wegeler & F. Ries). Prince Lobkowitz, a Bohemian noble who was a leading patron of the arts in Vienna, wanted exclusive rights to the Symphony for six months. He expected to dedication to be towards him due to the generous payment he was offering Beethoven. However, Beethoven was still eager to honor Napoleon. This lead to the idea of dedicating the piece to the Prince, but entitling it “Bonaparte”. The “emperor” received neither title nor dedication. The dedication would go Prince Labkowitz and would be titled Eroica (oxfordmusiconline.com). Eroica is comprised of four movements:

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

The orchestra that Beethoven decided on was typical for symphonies of that time period. In addition to the strings, he scored Eroica for two flutes, two oboes, two Bb clarinets, two bassoons, two trumpets and two timpani. The first movement, Allegro con brio, is in Sonata form and opens with two massive Eb chords. These staccato chords grab the listener’s attention and establish the tonic. These chords are unfolded, and the cellos reveal the main subject (DeWitt). As the cellos play the main subject, the Symphony reveals itself to be in ¾ time, a meter usually meant for dance. Beethoven wanted rhythmic ambiguity within in Eroica. He did this by playing sforzandos on alternating beats, forcing the meter into a two-step rhythm (emphasis on beat 2, followed by an emphasis on beat 3 in the next measure).

This is then followed by an emphasis on beat 3. Therein lies the ambiguity. This provides a sense of struggle. A few seconds into the piece, Beethoven makes a move through D-natural coming to a rest on C#, which is far away from the tonic, Eb. After the music is found in C#, Beethoven continues to draw out uncertainty as the harmony begins to wander (Beethoven). The cellos then move to D-natural as the rest of the orchestra is still searching for tonic. The woodwinds and the strings resolve this tension as a gentle crescendo pushes the pieces back to Eb. This is a key feature of Eroica (Suchet).

The second movement of Eroica is Marcia funebre: Adagio assai, where Beethoven takes a bold step by employing a funeral march (marcia funebre). Funeral marches are not commonly used within symphonies; rather, they are used throughout French revolutionary music of the period. The movement opens with a funeral procession in c-minor. This main theme forms the entire core of the movement, and will recur at various areas during its development (Ludwig van Beethoven). Beethoven presents the listener with a typical funeral march, nothing out of the ordinary. Until, after the trio. The procession theme does return as anticipated, however, one would expect a reprise of the march. He was not content though, and decided that after the trio, an entire development of the march should be scored.

The third movement, Scherzo: Allergro vivace assumes the form of a minuet with an accelerated tempo and zealous tune. It is very disorienting from the onset. Like the first movement, Beethoven plays with the ambiguity of time. Only when the oboe appears does it indicate that the piece is in triple meter. It is also interesting to point out that the oboe does not come on Eb (tonic), but comes in on the dominant, Bb. In this small time frame, it appears as if the orchestra cannot walk and talk at the same time. Slightly after, the strings return to the two-step rhythm that appears in the Allegro con brio, and the oboe returns.

The flute takes over the melody, but the orchestra is now in F major. The piece eventually ends up back in tonic, and the entire orchestra plays the scherzo theme in a bold manor. Three woodwinds typically play the trio section of a minuet. However, Eroica’s Scherzo bears no resemblance to its delicate namesake due to its three horns. Later in the trio, Beethoven does resort to a threesome of woodwinds (flute, oboe, and bassoon). The scherzo returns, and eventually leads to the coda where a resounding conclusion occurs with timpani (Lane).

At last, the final movement of Eroica, the Finale: Allegro molto. This is where Beethoven abandoned the rondo of Mozart and Haydn, and presents the listeners with a vast theme and variations. When Beethoven was writing Eroica, he planned out the three first movements, but kept the finale absent. This is because he had already planned the finale. The thematic basis comes from a simple tune found in his 12 German Contradances WoO 14, Die Geschöpfe des Promethus Op 43 (Suchet). The finale opens up abruptly with a flurry of notes from the strings, which is quickly halted. The theme and variations idea begins early on. He opens with only the bass part of the contradance and has strings plucking playfully around it.

The strings begin the first variation, it too based off the bass part. This is played by a string quartet because the basses had been written out. The second variation, like the first, is based off the bass line of the contradances, this time with a counterpoint of short triplets. Variation three is with the whole orchestra and variation four is written as a fugue. This fugue is a familiar tune, though. It is the variation one, now in the minor. The fugue leads to variation number five, which is in B-minor (“Fugue”).

The triplets in this variation mark the end and the start of variation six, in G-minor, with the bass contradance being stressed by the cellos and basses. Variation seven is a revisit of the fugue, but with much more energy. Variation eight is the last one, and has been slowed to Poco Andante. Variation eight continues to a beautiful exchange between strings and clarinets/bassoons. This variation leads us to, without warning, a fog of music, which seems as if it could go anywhere (DeWitt). The listener will find themselves back in tonic, Eb-major, and the conclusion of Sinfonia Eroica near.

After writing the Heiligenstadt Testament, his musical compositions took on a new perspective and a new dynamic. Some artists of the time understood it, many did not. Beethoven showed great self-determination by veering off the path of normality. Beethoven constructed a masterpiece that is known throughout the world, and that piece is known as: Sinfonia Eroica.

Works Cited

“Beethoven.” BEETHOVEN : Life and Work. 2007. Web. 24 Apr. 2012. <http://www.beethoven.ws/>. DeWitt, W.A. “Beethoven’s Eroica.” Beethoven’s Eroica. Web. 24 Apr. 2012. <http://www.beethovenseroica.com/eroica2.html>. “Fugue.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster. Web. 24 Apr. 2012. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/fugue>. Green, Aaron. “The Eroica Symphony – Beethoven.” About.com Classical Music. Web. 24 Apr. 2012. <http://classicalmusic.about.com/od/symphonies/a/aaeroica.htm>. Lane, William. “Beethoven: The Immortal.” Beethoven: The Immortal. Web. 24 Apr. 2012. <http://lucare.com/immortal/>. “Ludwig Van Beethoven.” The Magnificent Master. Web. 24 Apr. 2012. <http://raptusassociation.org/>. Oxfordmusiconline.com. Oxford University, 2012. Web. 24 Apr. 2012. Suchet, John. “Welcome to Www.madaboutbeethoven.com.” Welcome to Www.madaboutbeethoven.com. Web. 24 Apr. 2012. <http://www.madaboutbeethoven.com/>.


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