Initial thoughts on the Eroica Symphony's opening chords

There is something about youtube which has the ability to do things our psyches aren't quite able or aren't quite willing to; or perhaps, to do those things a way that is more conspicuous, ostentatious than we ourselves can formulate. I think I fully realized this when my friend Joe Clark showed me the video of all six existent Star Wars movies playing at the same time. No, actually, I realized this when he suggested, in all seriousness, that we watch it; and I, in all seriousness, thought this was a good idea. Online video is a medium capable of something special – it can distill, or elaborate; it can take to one or another extreme the things we obsess about, that occupy our unconscious mind, that we fine obscene or hilarious or outrageous; it is a form of cultural durcharbeit. Goat screams. Cat videos. The most obscure live Carlos Kleiber performance you can find that, let's be honest, isn't that well-played. Family vacations. Amateur music videos. The 2007 Sugar Bowl.

How totally unsurprising is it, then, that this video exists. It is a compilation of a bunch of recordings, historical and not, of the first two chords of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony. Unprompted, I recently woke up for four days in a row with these opening chords running through my mind, trying to imagine, in my half-conscious stupor, different ways they should sound. Maybe you understand my observation above; I don't know which, in a metaphorical sense, came first – my semi-awake musings, or this video compilation.

The first two measure of the Eroica Symphony exist in an impossible combination of absolute, straightforward, what-could-possibly-be-clearer assertiveness; and a completely elusive, contextless, what-are-we-to-make-of-this-bizarre-gesture ambiguity. They inhabit those spaces simultaneously, and they command you to hold in your mind at the same time the contradictory co-habitation of these two affective states. The word “pillars” appears a lot in how people talk about them, and that grasps towards the point. Think of the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey or columns holding up a once-standing building in the disappointing ruins of the Circus Maximus. Those objects are things confident in the truth they assert. Just what that truth is is necessarily, maddeningly elusive. (Tangentially: isn't the “ruin” the quintessential piece of Romantic architecture?)

Formally: these chords occupy a unique place in the history of the symphony, again for the contradictions they force you to experience. An introduction to a sonata form movement could not possibly be more conventional, and this is surely a thing Beethoven learned from his lessons with Haydn (11 of 12 of whose final symphonies begin with a pre-sonata formal introduction; the lone exception is #95, in a C minor whose gloom is no more than official, and can barely attempt to mask a cheerfully optimistic demeanor; makes you wonder whether Beethoven adopted that key as his favorite out of spite; probably not, but wouldn't you love it if it were true). CERTAINLY the thing that those introductions often do is, first of all, establish the tonic – usually with a loud, un-argued pronouncement thereof. This the Eroica chords are, if nothing else. Yet introductions are always significant, long enough to have a certain gravity, to demand attention, to make us wonder what they are or could be doing, in short, to problematize the highly rationalized (hey, let's all feel good about affirming our scientific, organic, completely consistent – as far you know – tonal system, wut) procedure that is to follow. This the Eroica chords are definitely not. If performed properly in our contemporary context, you may actually miss the first one because you were looking at your program (pretending like you care about the tempo marking or the opus number), or making sure your phone is in airplane mode, or wondering aloud to your neighbor what the opening chords will sound like, or whatever. By the time you gather your wits you have but a moment to pay attention to the second chord, and before you know it you're already in a first theme (an elaboration of an E-flat major triad immediately undermined by a C# – but that's a different story).

Basically this: on the one hand it is CLEARLY an introduction because even Beethoven, for all of his self-flagellating, hand-wringing, desperately catholic parsimony, could not simply call a chord a theme. On the other hand, it is not an introduction. It is not functional as such, because it does almost nothing an introduction actually does – it doesn't establish a tonal center because listeners aren't given an opportunity to reflect on the possibilities of deviations therefrom. It is an introduction only in some radically compressed, blackholish sense, a musical big bang. The latter is not a bad analogy, actually, as musical culture has been attempting to work its implications and contradictions ever since.

In trying to puzzle through this, though, let's start with the surface, since that is the thing that is undeniably there. They are, simply, loud, abrasive, ugly, unvarnished pieces of sound, and they were more so back in the day. According to Mark Spitzer, “the little concert room in the Lobkowitz Palace, where the Third Symphony was introduced in 1803, was something like twenty-four times louder than [Boston's] Symphony Hall.” I am reminded of Jean-Francois Lyotard writing about the work of Barnet Newman (in “The Sublime and the Avant-Garde”):

Rather, it is what dismantles consciousness, what deposes consciousness, what consciousness cannot formulate, even what consciousness forgets in order to formulate itself. What we do not manage to formulate is that something happens, dass etwas geschieht. Or rather, and more simply, that it happens, dass es geschieht. Not a major event in the media sense, not even a small event. Just an occurrence.

When you first hear them you don't necessarily know the printed meter, the tempo, the metric location; they are merely two “occurrences” and their quasi-random, seemingly dangerous qualities is something Beethoven thematizes throughout the work. While the harmonies are different, a similar gesture – repeated, intrusive block chords – re-occur in both the exposition and recapitulation (m. 128 and 535). In both cases the notated effect is a hemiola. The aural effect, though, is much more: it is one of an irrational violation of the meter, an arresting of the harmonic progress, a halting of the formal development, an interruption of this cultured, artificial music by the real. Which is to say that the hemiola lasts long enough for the listener to easily forget what beat is where, not know whether a meter change has occurred, and certainly have no sense of when the next harmony change will occur (from time to time this happens to me to this day when half-listening to a recording – orchestras I conduct better hope I don't forget to count). One could even make the case that the wind chords, perpetually dissolving into string tremolos at the end of the development section and gradually liquidating the subdivision such that the meter is no longer really perceptible, are related.

In short, the opening two blocks of the symphony are also entropic, and they threaten the movement's structural integrity throughout its duration. So how does the movement end? With the same two chords, this time with a third tacked on. So, how to understand this gesture? A normalization? A heroic, bourgeois, enlightened rationalization of a force of nature?

As you can see, its mere occurrence-ness does stay as such; it asks (or “waits,” as Adorno would have it) to be interpreted; because after hearing them, it is hard not to slip dialectically from pre-consciousness into metaphor. Its naked aggression suggests something violent, and immediately non-musical things come to mind... the militarism of Napoleon, say... something mimetic or programmatic, like canon blasts or gunshots. Sweeping away the shackles of the ancien regime – whether it be political, philosophical, aesthetic – by the force of decisive, irreversible gestures; or whatever.

Paradoxically, though, I suggest that these chords simultaneously illustrate something about the closed nature of the tonal system (and perhaps political ones as well), precisely as a result of this fact that the same two chords that begin the movement return to close it. As in Beethoven's 8th symphony first movement, Haydn's “Joke” Quartet Finale, the trio of Mozart's “Jupiter” symphony Minuet, the opening and closing gesture is conflated. It would be an understatement to say that work contains at its beginning the seeds of its own end, because the beginning is literally the end. There is, as it were, something tail-chasing about tonality, rather in the same way that Napoleon, far from being the great liberator he was thought to be by Beethoven, was just another tyrant.

When I met with German composer Mathias Spahlinger this summer at the Darmstadt Summer Courses, I asked him why the opening of his orchestral masterwork Passage/Paysage begins with a re-writing of the opening of the Eroica symphony. A few minutes into a passionate answer about 20th century German history and solidarity against fascism, I noticed he was crying. He said that he had taken Beethoven's chord and added materials not available in his day – instruments both lower and higher in register, microtones. Implicit in this compositional action is the notion that there is something ontologically hard to pin down about these chords (and about music itself) – they exist on paper, but also in our memory, as ideas and traditions, and transiently in performance. They have a life that is symbolic yet formal but also visceral. They are, in short, the untranscended life we live, in guise of the history of music; which, despite all sensible advice that it should do otherwise, nevertheless continues to strive beyond what it can be.