LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 3, Eroica (1804)
Beethoven’s furious retraction of his dedication to Napoleon of the Third Symphony is well-known by now. The composer’s friend Ferdinand Ries recounts: “I was the first to bring him the intelligence that Bonaparte had proclaimed himself emperor, whereupon [Beethoven] 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 in his ambition. He will exalt himself above all others, become a tyrant!’ Beethoven went to the table, took hold of the symphony’s title page by the top, tore it in two, and threw it on the floor. The page was rewritten and only then did the symphony receive the title Sinfonia eroica, Composed to Celebrate the Memory of a Great Man.” The symphony’s extraordinary scope, its bold harmonies, the dramatic funeral march, a score resounding with majesty and drama—all proclaim that a new era in music had begun. Surely there is no greater leap in the development of a composer’s symphonic style than that which occurred in the year between Beethoven’s Second and Third symphonies. And yet, he observed the ideal formal structure of the 18th century symphony, all the while pushing its limits, expanding it, and making it grander. This is particularly evident in the first movement, which begins with two bolts-out-of-the-blue E-flat chords, where motifs come cascading in great profusion, and where grand gestures remind us that this music is all about a great man. The famous funeral march expresses both tragedy and nobility as we seem to be witnessing a solemn procession. (Referring to this movement when he heard of Napoleon’s death in 1821, Beethoven said, “I have already composed the proper music for that catastrophe.”) Following the third movement Allegro vivace, the brilliant finale ends on a note of triumph and exhilaration.