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Ludwig Van Beethoven & the Eroica Symphony

Beethoven's symphonic program reconstructed

Beethoven's 3rd symphony, which he named Eroica, has long been said to be a symphonic portrait of Napoleon. In support of this is a story told by his friend & associate, Ferdinand Ries:
In 1802 Beethoven composed his Third Symphony (now known as the Sinfonia eroica) in Heilgenstadt, a village one and a half hours outside Vienna.

When he was composing, Beethoven frequently had a certain subject in mind, even though he often laughed at and inveighed against descriptive music, particularly the frivolous sort. Occasionally Haydn's Creation and The Seasons came under fire in this respect, though Beethoven did recognize Haydn's greater achievements, especially the many choral works & certain other things for which he properly lavished praise on Haydn. In this symphony Beethoven had thought about Bonaparte during the period when he was still First Consul. At that time Beethoven held him in the highest regard and compared him to the greatest Roman consuls. I myself, as well as many of his close friends, had seen this symphony, already copied in full score, lying on his table. At the very top of the title page stood the word "Buonaparte" and at the very bottom "Luigi van Beethoven," but not a word more. Whether and with what the intervening space was to be filled I do not know. I was the first to tell him the news that Bonaparte had declared himself emperor, whereupon he flew into a rage and shouted: "So he too is nothing more than an ordinary man. Now he also will trample all human rights underfoot, and only pander to his own ambition, he will place himself above everyone else and become a tyrant!" Beethoven went to the table, took hold of the title page at the top, ripped it all the way through, and flung it on the floor. The first page was written anew and only then did the symphony receive the title Sinfonia eroica. Prince Lobkowitz later bought this composition from Beethoven for his own use for several years, and it was performed many times at his palace. Here it happened that Beethoven, who was himself conducting, once threw the whole orchestra out of rhythm in the second part of the first Allegro, where it runs on so long in half-notes on the off-beat, that they had to start all over again from the beginning.

* * *

In that same Allegro Beethoven plays the horn a mean trick. Several bars before the theme re-enters completely in the second part, Beethoven has the horn suggest it, while the two violins are still holding a chord on the second. To anyone who does not know the score it inevitably gives the impression that the horn player has miscounted and entered too early. During the first rehearsal of this symphony, which went appallingly, the horn player did come in correctly. I was standing next to Beethoven and believing the entry wrong said: "That damned horn player! Can't he count? - It sounds terrible!" I believe I was very close indeed to having my ears boxed. - Beethoven was a long time in forgiving me.

(Ferdinand Ries, from pgs. 67-69, Beethoven Remembered, translated by Frederick Noonan. Great Ocean Publishers, Arlington, VA, 1987)

When I started studying Beethoven's actual melodies, I discovered, to my surprise, that he was surprisingly literal. Practical. To the point. He starts with an idea of something he wants to express. Next he determines what kind of composition would best fit the idea. Only then does he set about finding melodies to express it.

The Eroica is a clear example. Beethoven is excited about Napoleon - everybody in Europe was excited about Napoleon. A symphony is an appropriate musical form to express Napoleon, but not simply because it's big. It's appropriate because it can be presented to a large audience. Just as Napoleon is a large man & acts on an international stage, in front of all.

But that's not yet enough to start a symphony, because we don't really know anything about Napoleon. Beethoven is, in fact, ignorant of the fact that Admiral Nelson has sunk the French fleet off Tralfalgar and, as a result, an entire French army, under Bonaparte's command, has perished in Egypt. Napoleon in fact fled. If Ludwig had known that, it might have sobered him up.

Instead, Beethoven sees Napoleon as the man who will rescue Europe. Restore order. Promote democracy (as Beethoven understood it). Be first among equals. But while that might be enough for an opera (if he can find a librettist), it's not yet enough for a symphony. Saving Europe is only one movement. Maybe two.

So how do we make "Napoleon" big enough to fill a symphony? Well, maybe we could start by telling the story of how we got here. Then Napoleon can enter & lead us into the future. That sounds like a plan. That sounds like the makings of a symphony.

So how did the current situation get started? Well, back in Paris in 1789, there was a revolution. The common man overthrew the most powerful monarch in the world. That story would make for an exciting movement, don't you think?

How would you express that in music? Well, maybe you could use melodic fragments, jumping from instrument to instrument, voice to voice. And when we listen to the very opening of the Eroica, that's what we hear. Two sharp chords to get started, and then a cacophony of voices, one tumbling over the other. These represent eager men, free to speak for the very first time. A Citizen states his opinion of the matter at hand. He is immediately interrupted by another Citizen, voicing a second opinion, etc. If Beethoven is working in motifs (rather than melodic phrases) and if these various motifs have individual meaning to him, then we begin to understand why "new" material is introduced in both the development & coda. Rather than vary his melodies, Beethoven is instead showing us how the various motifs interact, what one Citizen does with another. The result will always be something new. In the background are the famous footsteps. I have always been skeptical they were Bonaparte's, as there seems nothing heroic about them. An alternative interpretation: Beware the king's spies! Note well: This is how Beethoven works.

And there's a bonus. The French chopped off their king's head. That's dramatic. But even more, the French chopped off the head of the youngest daughter of the greatest Queen that Vienna had ever seen. Marie Antoinette was the daughter of Maria Theresa. That execution hit Vienna full in the face. A dozen years later, it's still raw. Beethoven was from Bonn, but had lived in Vienna since 1792. Listen carefully to the very opening notes of the Funeral March. Imagine a man who is stricken with grief. He is a man, he will bear it silently, but then, his eyes water & twitch & without being able to stop himself, he sucks in his breath, and bursts out: Boo-hoo-hoo. And then he cries & cries, inconsolable. We have all heard it. Eventually we all do it. Beethoven made this involuntary reaction to overwhelming grief the motif of the funeral march. Listen again to the very first notes. Suck in your breath & cry along with it. It is unmistakable. The movement eventually segues into a description of Marie Antoinette's final days. Note the flight from Paris, starting at bar 158. At bar 209 (score mark H), Marie's execution. The passage that follows describes the shock that Vienna felt upon hearing the news, before we take our final leave of her. When you know what the notes represent, the music regains its original power to shock and disturb.

The Eroica has long been considered as two movements in one style, followed by two movements in another style altogether. Descriptive music ends with the second movement. In the Scherzo, Napoleon comes riding to the rescue. But, Napoleon what, exactly? What to use as a theme for this man? What's he like? What's he done? Beethoven is excited but knows nothing about him.

Napoleon was methodical. A year before his coronation, he was already planning his rule. Finding emblems & symbols of what he wanted to be. One of them was the bee. While it's true that the first use of the bee on the French flag came after the premiere of the 3rd, it's also true that Napoleon, ever the showman, made his bee known much before. He publicized ideas to see what kind of response they would get. With bees, he got the response he was looking for. Beethoven heard of Napoleon's bees - everybody heard of them - and Beethoven thought of them as Napoleon intended: Worker bees contributing to the greater good, all under the wise guidance of the Queen Bee, Napoleon himself. Beethoven understood that. And he used it.

The opening of the third movement? It's a beehive. In the center of the hive, in the trio section, Napoleon himself, symbolized by the horn. It's long been surmised that the trio represents Napoleon, giving counsel, giving orders, being a wise ruler. My reconstruction of the program to Beethoven's Third merely confirms that.

So, how to finish the symphony? Well, you could fall back on that old stand-by, the Story of the Hero. It's been told, over & over again, in all the books of myths & fairy tales. In musical terms, it amounts to episodes in the life. How best to express that? With theme & variations, of course. (A rondo would be an alternative.)

Beethoven adds an interesting twist. Instead of starting with a plain statement of the theme itself, he starts with the bass of the theme. What does this represent? Well, the underpinnings of the hero. What came before. What is underneath. In other words, the hero's ancestors. From this beginning, Beethoven spins a fantasy life of The Hero. The Hero surmounts life, he conquers all challenges, he is triumphant. Which is exactly what the music tells us. But then, like all men, the hero is elderly, he falls ill, he dies, and is gone, and we are bereft. A section towards the end of the 4th movement depicts this exactly.

But in myth heroes never really die. They are just in hiding. Whenever there is need, whenever the call is made, they return, to lead us again. And this is, in fact, the very end of the symphony. The Hero returns, to acclaim from all. And it's not just "everybody". It's Everybody. Note the cleverly written clarinet arpeggio, indicating that all are included. . And with this Beethoven ends his hero's symphony.

And that's Beethoven's Third Symphony. I had this worked out about ten years ago, but it's taken several tries to get it as clear as this. It was clear to Beethoven, because you cannot create unless it's clear in your head before you begin. Might not go the way you expected, but you have to start with a clear idea.

As to the famous story, that when he heard that Napoleon had proclaimed himself emperor, Beethoven tore up his dedication, Ferdinand Ries seems to be the only source. As I study Ries, it becomes clear that he says exactly what he means, but what he means is not always what you think you read. Ries said, or seems to say, that Napoleon is the subject of the entire symphony, when, in fact, Napoleon is only the resolution to the symphony. Which is different, and which has confused people to this day. Beethoven's Third Symphony is about the liberation of man, as shown by the French under the wise (we hope!) leadership of Napoleon. I am aware that by 1825, Ries has, for various reasons, soured on his old friend, and in such a way as to make the rift permanent. Ries's story, which he wrote down in December 1837, might be a way of sticking Beethoven with Napoleon in a way that Beethoven himself never quite intended.

So now we have the program to Beethoven's Eroica Symphony:

1. Allegro con brio: The French Revolution.
2. Marcia funebre: Adagio assai: The execution of Marie Antoinette.
3. Scherzo: Allegro vivace: Napoleon comes to the rescue.
4. Finale: Allegro molto: The life of the Hero.

David R. Roell

Copyright 2008. All rights reserved

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