“It represents not only one of the most incredible achievements in the history of symphony, but also the most important step on the progression of the whole western music history,” Paul Henry Lang, the renowned musicologist and critic, once stated it when he commented on Beethoven symphony no. 3, Eroica (1803). Although Eroica was written more than two hundred years ago, its impact on today’s listeners remains tremendous.
It has already been widely known about Beethoven’s admiration for Napoleon Bonaparte and he dedicated this symphony for him. But after Napoleon’s self-coronation as the French Emperor, Beethoven gave up the idea. In fact, this legend has nothing related to the magnificent power of Eroica. Compared to the stormy impact Eroica brought to the audience of different times and nations, the political turbulence caused by Napoleon was but a slight summer breeze. In no more than a few decades did Europe recover from Napoleon’s devastation. Eroica, on the contrary, had changed the entire concept of symphony and effectively brought the genre to a new stage.
Before Eroica was premiered to his main patron Prince Lobkowitz in 1804, Beethoven had built up his fame as a composer-performer by writing several instrumental pieces, including at least two symphonies, three piano concertos, in the classical style of Haydn. If Beethoven were merely satisfied with these achievements and continued working in a similar style, he might still had his name appeared in history with those contemporaries, such as Johann Nepomuk Hummel or Lugwig Sphor, but he certainly would not have become a revolutionary hero standing uniquely in the history of music.
Beethoven’s revolutionary spirit has already been unleashed in the slow movements of both the piano sonata no. 13, Pathetique and Piano Concerto no. 3. But it is still difficult to envisage the later development of Beethoven’s musical style from these movements. Doubtless Eroica has a particular attribute that no previous works of his possess. From the first note to the last, the music seems to narrate the life of a dramatic hero struggling from a tragic opening to a triumphant ending. In fact, this narrative character enhanced by pure instrumental music is pioneering. Neither Mozart’s mature symphonies nor those of Haydn can exert such expressive power. In Beethoven’s hands, the classical ideal of balance of emotions and intellects is no longer maintained. The fact that Beethoven boldly gave up the classicism of Haydn and Mozart proved to be far-reaching. Eroica becomes the first symphonic work stepping into the terrain of Romanticism.
In the outer appearance, Beethoven basically maintains the principles of what his predecessors did to classical symphony for Eroica. For example, it is a symphony of four movements, which is a typical classical style developed by Joseph Haydn. Also, Beethoven uses different keys to express various contrasting moods in all movements and let the home key returned after modulations, in order to keep unity. However, Beethoven makes a great change in the design of structure. This change not only makes an unavoidable expansion of the length, but also destroys the classical balance between movements, and replaces it with the unceasing dramatic impulses. Both the length and complexity of the first movement has gone beyond all past instrumental works. The first theme appears only in a brief glimpse in the opening few bars, and thus, tonal unity has been broken just after the first ten seconds. Not until the music reaching the coda can a comparably stable theme be heard. This completeness makes the ending theme looks like an opening theme, as if it should have appeared in the exposition. In retrospect, Beethoven seems to have raised a thirteen-minute whirling storm over the first movement.
Beethoven’s revolutionary “storm” commences by two Eb tonic chords calling in tutti. The “heroic” theme, which is based on the arpeggiation of this Eb triad, then follows. Putting tonic materials in the very beginning of a movement are the most direct and effective ways to establish the stability of a work. But it is only a fleeting stability because of the sudden intrusion of a C# note. According to the principle of harmony, this dissonant C# must be resolved. This unpleasant intrusion disappears shortly afterwards by resolving to another unstable dominant seventh chord. Music is said to go back to its stable “home” again. But this “home” only reflects a temporary placidity. A terrible storm is forthcoming.
To our modern ears, the chromatic C# note is only a piece of black cloud in the sky. Twentieth century music has been notorious for consisting the ‘black cloud’ notes of what the principles of classical harmony regard as “wrong.” To understand the disturbance caused by this C#, we need only to recall the audience of the late eighteenth-century Vienna.
Just before the private premiere of Eroica to Prince Lobkowitz, the revolutionary spirit has already pervaded the entire Continent. The success of American Revolution in 1776 and French Revolution in 1789 brought a chain of impacts to the socio-political structure of Europe. One of the results was the rise of the social status of bourgeoisie and layman. But this rise simultaneously denotes the fall of the aristocracy. Doubtless the late 18th century is a time for the blossom of humanity and equity, but it is also a time for the growth of anxiety and frustration. When the princes and nobles listened to symphonic works, they have already accustomed to the so-called Haydnian elegance and nobility for years. This fading classical style was still a highly revered beauty. The aristocratic Viennese did not need anything brutal to raise their anxieties, or to increase their worries. Thus, when Beethoven “Eroica” stood before them in the concert, this inflected C# was seen as a loss of social balance, or even a symbol of brutal invasion.
But even greater anxieties were bought to those Viennese laymen. Just a few days before Eroica’s first public performance in the concert hall (1805), Vienna was occupied by Napoleon’s army. The nobles fled the city. The audiences in the concert were the ones threatened by military invasion. Thus it is not hard to understand why they easily link the music of the first movement to a sonic description of a battlefield, where they can think of general, soldiers, horse rearing, sabre shining or column of men streaming through the mountain. The awed sounds of war, being fused with the stirring music, were hovering among listeners. This inflected C#, therefore, was certainly seen as a symbol of brutal invasion.
Instead of the unstable C# note in the heroic theme, the other stormy feature embedded in Eroica is the scalic running passages. These passages can always arouse listeners a feeling of spirited forward motions. It is essential for an overwhelming musical storm. Although Beethoven begins his heroic theme with triple time, he makes use of syncopation and shift of dynamics to enhance a sense of two-beat march rhythm after the short opening. In addition, using the fragmented heroic theme as the main developing cell is another important source for generating motions. The turbulent storm first starts blowing in the low strings by the heroic theme. The high strings then answer. Every time when repeating, the theme is raised a tone until it reaches the climax. Only the first four notes of the main theme can survive after the climax, and are taken gradually by the woodwinds and brasses. This is not a moment for rest, but the anticipation for another flow. Shortly afterwards, the four-note heroic fragment reoccurs with increasing frequency, arresting every listener in a moment of high tension.
Another example of Beethoven’s whirling storm happens in the second movement, the Funeral March. After two-third of the music, the opening theme returns softly in the first violin, hovering along the high register without any support. The whole orchestra then roars with an Ab. The brass at the same time repeats the C, then the F over the agitated string triplet-tremolo. The music now is like a whirling storm, seeming to engulf everything without any intention to stop. What the orchestra playing is no longer the Mozartian slow movement of elegant singing, but a hysteric growl of extreme pain that goes beyond any listener’s imagination. Never has such thing happened in previous symphonies. Never such thing has happened in the previous symphonies. Furthermore, Beethoven seems to let his hero added with a little tragic, dark color. He fragments the funeral theme and let it dissolves in the quietness at the end of this movement, symbolizing the death and getting buried of the hero. Is this tragic hero Beethoven himself or other? Perhaps, no one knows the answer, even Beethoven himself.
The replacement of minuet and trio with scherzo in the third movement also reflects Beethoven’s another innovative character. In order to maintain the stormy motion of this movement, Beethoven gives up his predecessors’ favorite, the courtly dance of minuet and trio. The music is no more “lofty” enough to please the Viennese upper classes, or to extend their vanishing noble dreams. It is reformed to a spirited and energetic chapter, seeming to mock at the hypocrisy of the Viennese upper class. In fact, the use of a scherzo to replace the Minuet and Trio in the third movement of a symphony becomes one of the major characteristics of Beethoven’s symphonies.
If Beethoven were asked why he made such bold reformation, he might have answered like this: “Why not!” A storm is still a storm. There is no reason why the finale of Eroica is not a storm. If the finale of Haydn and Mozart’s symphony is only the dessert, without any question, Beethoven’s finale will be the main course, or in the other words, the most powerful part of the storm. Usually, the classical symphony focuses on the first two movements in which all important ideas are displayed. The classical finale, thus, will be lighter and more relax in mood. But Eroica is absolutely different. The overwhelming power of the revolutionary storm can be easily felt in this triumphant ending. Beethoven must have known that a light and vivid finale could not counterbalance the gigantic and complex preceding movements. Therefore, Beethoven not only uses the duple meter, a March design for this spirited movement, but he also increases the complexity of the music and makes the length two times longer than the usual classical finale.
Furthermore, the structure of this movement does not follow any classical model. Sometimes, the music flows in form of a variation suite. But in another time, it freely appears as a fugato. The heroic theme propels forward like a fierce storm, seeming to use one man’s strength to break all bondages of the old social hierarchy and set all the people of any class free to a land of liberty, equity, and fraternity. This is why Sir George Grove has commented: “The title of Eroica is about a portrait of Napoleon, but it is Beethoven who paints his own protrait on it.”
In short, from no. 1 to no. 9 (Choral Symphony), Beethoven’s symphonies can always enter into a new terrain that no one has discovered. In fact, Eroica was Beethoven’s most favorite symphony throughout his life. But not many Viennese contemporary listeners showed the same appreciation. Some critics fiercely attacked it by saying that it is the most difficult symphony to understand. They criticized that Beethoven could not control many parts of the music, letting them flowing illogically. If Beethoven cut off some unmanageable parts, the music could be more bright, fluent, and understandable. As such, the Viennese mass seems being unready to accept Beethoven’s revolutionary storm.
David Leung (theorydavid)