Beethoven: Symphony no 3 in Eb Eroica

The name Bonaparte (not a dedication) appeared at the head of the composer’s manuscript score. Beethoven’s political leanings, and attitude toward Napoleon Bonaparte, have sparked off volumes of writings over the ensuing years. It does appear that he had some respect for the First Consul of France as a symbol of liberty etc.etc., and felt that all forms of tyranny would fall before him as he marched his armies across Europe. But when Napoleon declared himself Emperor Beethoven concluded that he was just another tyrant in the making, and he roughly scratched out the name Bonaparte from his manuscript. When the score was published in 1804 the sub-title Eroica was printed at the head of the page and, in Italian – to celebrate the memory of a great man dedicated (also in Italian) to Prince Lobkowitz, one of Beethoven’s Viennese patrons.

Beethoven’s use of the word Eroica has also led to reams of literature: was he seeing himself as the hero of this grand work? Or was it the Prometheus of Greek legend? (Thus thinking back to his music for the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus of 1801.) Or did he still retain a sneaking regard for Napoleon Bonaparte, and this was a veiled dedication, bearing in mind that these were dangerous times politically.

The symphony was completed in the spring of 1804, a time when Beethoven was first gravely concerned about his hearing. Private rehearsals were carried out at the Palace of Prince Lobkowitz in the June. The first public performance took place in Vienna on the 7th April 1805, confounding the critics and public alike not only by its length – being the longest of its genre yet composed – but by its overall massive conception. It has also proved to be a watershed between the Classical period of the 18th Century and the Romantic period of the 19th.

We must not allow all the foregoing to distract from the status that Beethoven’s work deserves. To recall that oft-quoted observation of Toscanini in the late 1930’s as he began a rehearsal of the first movement; “it is not Napoleon! It is not Hitler! It is not Mussolini! It is Allegro Con Brio!”

1st Movement: Allegro Con Brio

The inherent strength of this movement lies in the developing themes, which logically stem from the two introductory chords for the full orchestra. Out of these, in the third bar, the cellos enter “piano” with the movement’s first subject (theme). It is quite inoffensive in character, and perhaps with a different accompanying figure it could easily have the making of a free-flowing waltz. However, with the prominent dissonant C# on the beat of the bar, such idle thinking is immediately brushed aside. The accompanying figure is amended to an off-beat one for two bars, which has the effect of releasing the pent-up energy engendered by those opening chords. This proceeds until a full tutti climax (in Bb). The climax rapidly collapses into the first of the secondary (or transitional) themes, which consists of a three-note figure bounced between woodwind and strings. The second, more lyrical, transitional theme for clarinet follows, underpinned by bassoons and violas. This leads in turn to the third theme, consisting of quaver, two semi-quavers, and given to the strings. With drive and fervour this leads to the contrasting second subject, which is of a “yearning character”, but without languor, and is shared between woodwind and strings. It is all too brief, and is soon to develop into an extensive climax. A brief codetta brings the exposition full circle, heralding its repeat in its entirety. This establishes the crucial role the exposition will play in the following developments.

The development opens quite gently, and moves immediately to a re-statement of the first of the transitional themes, but now in C major. This paves the way for the exposition’s first theme to be presented in C minor. So Beethoven builds the power of his development, with further alternating of these two themes through G minor, Ab major. A “fugato” in F minor leads to a syncopated critical moment, which resolves into something one would not expect at this stage: a brand new theme in the “remote” key of E minor. It is plaintive in character, and as Beethoven moves it through A minor he creates for himself a perfect foil to re-introduce the exposition’s first theme in C major.

But Beethoven does not waste his invention of an E minor theme: he shifts it down to Eb minor, and it becomes a little darker in character. Then, through a process of discernible harmonic progressions and with the second french horn impatient (with its reiterated notes) to arrive at the home key of Eb, a cooling down period leads to the movement’s recapitulation. This opens with a restatement of the exposition’s first theme by the cellos coming to rest on that dissonant C#. But now, that note, resolving into C natural, and aided by a trill and appoggiatura from the first violins and violas and pizzicato basses, enables the first theme to be lifted to F major. This emerges as a french horn solo, with the accompanying harmony shifting continuously. And, as the flute and first violins take over, the key is by now Db. Then, with the pressure seemingly rising to Eb, the strings break the theme up into semiquavers. The reintroduction of the first subsidiary theme calms things down considerably. Beethoven continues to review his further subsidiary themes, until at long last he reminds us of his second principal theme of the exposition.

It has been worth waiting for. The double basses modulate over two bars to Bb and the music, flexing its strong muscles, powers its way into the coda – a peroration culminating on two Eb chords.

2nd Movement: Marcia Funebre Adagio Assai

Opening in C minor and 2/4 time, this movement is cast in the form of a Rondo with two contrasting sections. The opening is for strings alone. The first theme with the first violins rises from pianissimo to a sforzando Ab, in the 6th bar. The double basses with their four-note ascending “appoggiatura”, played on the beat, sound as “muffled side drums”. The oboe now takes over the theme an octave higher. A re-orchestrated accompaniment through an increase in the dynamic leads to a somewhat freer theme in Eb. This leads back to the first theme for strings alone, with amended accompaniment. The theme in F minor, seemingly gaining strength, leads into a return of the Eb theme. This is now given to the woodwind with agitated string accompaniment. Having run its short course the first theme is reintroduced, back in the home key of C minor, with the brass now making a stronger contribution. The music finally moves back into C major, for the first of the contrasting sections.

Beethoven does not ask for any increase in pace. Nonetheless, the new theme contrasted to the woodwind, together with the triplet accompaniment from the violins and minums, and staccato quavers in the lower strings, tends to lift the spirits. The theme and the accompanying figure are interchanged through the orchestra until a moment of ascending triumph. This brief spell, however, does not last. Beethoven plunges back into C minor (first abbreviation of the first theme) which in turn plunges headlong into a development section in the form of a double fugue (the second contrasting section). The fugue is worked upon until the first violins give out a seemingly disembodied three bars of the first theme (second abbreviation) modulating to Ab major.

Now, out of a powerful fortissimo Ab chord, followed by a fanfare of military splendour over the ensuing eight bars, the music rapidly collapses into interrupted triplets. The lower strings and bassoon move into C minor for a restatement of the movement’s opening theme from the oboe and clarinet. The sense of desolation is lifted with the reintroduction of the second theme, in E major. Then the first theme re-asserts itself, in the minor mode, high up in the flutes and oboes. A brief single bar extracted from the second theme serves to amend the movement’s progress, with the key modulating to Ab. Now, for some two dozen bars the music becomes freer, syncopated, lyrical, and leads into the coda. The coda is quite despairing in character, with its broken-up version of the first theme, and it comes to rest on a C minor chord.

3rd Movement: Scherzo and Trio Allegro Vivace

Beethoven marks his score “Sempre pianissimo e staccato”. So for 92 bars the music proceeds, with the strings bearing the brunt of the score, and interpolations from woodwind and brass: a period of pent-up energy. At the 93rd bar (heralded by a theme from the oboes) the pent-up energy is unleashed, and the movement’s tonic of Eb major is finally established. The music continues until the “repeat” which, when completed, leads directly into the trio section.

The ‘Trio’ is immediately introduced by the three french horns. Their theme, although bouncy and lyrical in turn, adds a certain “sonority” to the proceedings. This presages a more lyrical passage for woodwind, with answers from strings and horns. The section reaches a brief climax before the marked repeat.

Following the repeat, the Scherzo returns. As before (except for a four bar hiatus), it is fortissimo in “Alla Breve” time (2/2), whereas all has seemed satisfactory in 3/4 . The movement is rounded off with a Coda in which we are to hear, in the woodwind, the only six truly sustained legato bars in the whole movement. Three full orchestral chords bring this rumbustious movement to its conclusion.

4th Movement: Allegro Molto

This movement is composed as variations on a theme, within a Rondo/Sonata form. Beethoven treats the theme (which is described as an “Englische” country dance) in two parts: its bass and its melody. The melody he first used in his Ballet The Creatures of Prometheus of 1801, and the following year in his theme for the Piano Variations Opus 35.

Following the introductory orchestral flourish, strings, to be joined by the wind, state the bass of the theme. This is followed in quick succession by two variants – the first in three parts; the second in four.

At variation III oboes and clarinets clearly state the melody (Prometheus). Having run its course, a transitory passage leads to Part IV, in which the bass is treated as a fugato in C minor. Variation V is a variant on the melody in B minor. Variation VI in G minor is a variation on the bass theme, until a sustained horn chord heralds the “Englische” melody, and Variation VII is underway in C major. Then with a further shift to Eb we have Variation VIII, the second fugato, where the base is inverted and melody is hinted at. For rhythmic interest Beethoven adds a little syncopation, and the variation finds its rest on an “imperfect” cadence.

The character of variation IX is markedly different from all that has gone before. Marked “poco andante” the mood is darkly-coloured, sombre, hymnal and perhaps looking back to the Marcia Funebre. Variation X steps straight out of this darkness and the full orchestra brandishes the sword of victory, as it were, with the cellos and basses adding their weight to the melody. The early triumph falls like a stone into the coda. A brief hint of the melody in Ab leads to a cadence in G minor. Out of this cadence, and from a brief pianissimo, the final forty-three bars burst forth, bringing this monumental work to its ultimate, deservedly triumphal, conclusion.