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Length: c. 45 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 3 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 18, 1921, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting
It has been persuasively argued in whatever one reads about Beethoven that the crucial year of his life was 1802, when he produced the document since known as the “Heiligenstadt Testament” (after the Vienna suburb where it was written), in which the composer confessed, with wrenching candor, the ramifications of his growing deafness. In consequence of his altered physical – and, even more, psychological – state Beethoven mentioned in subsequent correspondence seeking a “new path,” that at once reflected his anguished state of mind and allowed him to overcome it.
This resulting catharsis through composition was simultaneous with Beethoven’s discovery of theater music (mainly, the now-forgotten operas of Cherubini and Méhul), the composition of his own, nowadays rarely encountered oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives, and the embarking on an operatic project that would ultimately result in Fidelio. The “new path” was the road beyond music in the abstract and in the direction of a sort of program music, if not in the Romantic era’s sense of telling a story and/or of making a “musical confession” (e.g., Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique), but one in which the element of feeling drawn from life experience was prominent.
The “Eroica” Symphony is among the most influential, early responses by a composer to extramusical stimuli. And the stimulus was called Napoleon Bonaparte. Beethoven, like many a thinking person of his time, initially regarded Napoleon as the savior of Europe, if not of mankind. And it is his presence that looms over and infects every page of this Symphony. Again in common with many other intellectuals, Beethoven became disenchanted, even disgusted, when Napoleon declared himself emperor. The inscription “Bonaparte Symphony” was withdrawn, to be replaced by the less specific “Sinfonia Eroica.”
With the thunderous E-flat chords that open the Symphony, Beethoven becomes a new man – and the creator of a new music. Following those two cannon-blasts we hear, in the cellos, what would seem to be the main theme. But the movement doesn’t really have a principal motif. By bar 85 four separate thematic ideas have been introduced with – in each – the brass allotted more say in the musical argument than in any previous symphony by any composer, including the young Beethoven.
Too much can be made of the programmatic suggestions of the ensuing slow movement, a funeral march recalling, in the pithy description of the German-American critic Paul Bekker, “the emotions of someone watching the funeral procession from afar, passing by, and then fading in the distance.”
The fleet, unexpectedly soft (in dynamics) scherzo surely signifies a revival of the spirit. The trio serves as a stunning display piece for the horns. In this movement Beethoven has fully realized “Haydn’s desire to replace the minuet by something on a scale comparable to the rest of a great symphony” (Donald Francis Tovey).
The finale is the giant (let’s call him Beethoven) fully reborn. The opening flourish leads into a favorite theme of the composer’s, previously employed in his Creatures of Prometheus ballet, the Op. 33 piano variations, and a little contredanse. The full statement of the theme, in which the trivial is transformed into something splendidly noble, is succeeded by a stirring, relentless march melody. The Symphony ends, fittingly, on a note of fiery triumph.
The “Eroica” Symphony was first performed at a private concert in the Vienna home of the composer’s patron, Prince Lobkowitz, in December of 1804. The public premiere was at the Theater an der Wien, the home of so many other Beethoven firsts, on April 7, 1805.
Herbert Glass, after serving on the administrative staffs of the New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Opera, was for 25 years a critic / columnist for the Los Angeles Times. He recently completed his 16th season as English-language editor / annotator for the Salzburg Festival.