On Beethoven's Eroica Symphony

Let me start by asserting that, though it might be possible to excavate, it is impossible for an audience of 2015 to recover the effects the political, social, and intellectual revolutions of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  One can study the history of, and thought behind, the French revolution.  One can read the works of the great literary figures and study the contemporary paintings.  One can speak, aesthetically, of the development of the categories of the sublime and the beautiful (the former, the experience of being so overwhelmed by a phenomenon that it forces one to confront what Burke calls “privation,” the threat of being annihilated coupled with the delight that one is not).  But on a much more fundamental level, the sweeping away of the ancien regime in France changed people’s perception of life itself, and the medium via which it is lived, namely, time.  As Reinhold Brinkmann has written: “The most overwhelming effect the Revolution had on its contemporaries was indeed an entirely new mode of experiencing “time.”  This experience was based on the recognition that far-reaching and profound social changes were taking place, changes as extraordinary in speed as they were unforeseen.  Contemporaries noted the tempo of change, the acceleration in the passage of time itself, and “contemporaneity of the non-contemporary” the latter a result of differing levels of acceleration in disparate fields.”  By 1800, the major capitals of Europe, say, Vienna just felt way different in a basic way.

It would probably be unbearably banal to say that Beethoven's 3rd symphony can be described as one of the single most influential pieces in the history of Western classical music.  Nevertheless, what might be worth remarking on when considering its historical importance is that Beethoven had a sense of, if not its long-lasting success, its unique and revolutionary goals.  The "heroic symphony," as Beethoven himself called it, was initially dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte, who the composer thought of as a champion of freedom and a modern-day world-historical hero.  Though Beethoven famously tore the title page in half and violently scratched out Napoleon's name when he heard that the Frenchman had crowned himself emperor -- whatever the reality of the Beethoven’s actions, the myth has become part of the work’s reception history -- the idealistic aims of the work remained unchanged.  (Yet subtly, we already perceive a reflective, historicizing instinct, one that wouldn’t be fulfilled until his late style: the revised cover stated that the symphony was composed "per festaggiare il sovvenire di un grand Uomo" – to celebrate the memory of a great man.)  The Finale uses as its main theme a tune from Beethoven's only ballet, the "heroic allegorical" Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus (The Creatures of Prometheus) from 1801, about two statues brought to life by Prometheus and introduced to various artforms by figures from classical mythology.  

The Eroica symphony is grand on every scale, self-consciously daring.  Each movement is longer than the norm, the forms more ambitious, the harmonies more daring, even the orchestration expanded: an extra horn is added to the usual two, Beethoven exploiting the new-found triadic powers of a section of three.  Though at an even more basic level, this is music that illustrates Scott Burnham’s claim that “[d]escriptions of Beethoven’s music… sound like experiences in a flight simulator.  There is a visceral element immediately perceptible in this music, a disturbing, invasive, and ultimately compelling interaction with the listener.”  To be more precise, in this “heroic” symphony, some sort of clear and decisive action is suggested by the rhetoric, invoking ambitious metaphors: military conquests, revolution, fundamental societal change.

The work opens with two bracing, aggressive chords, sudden interruptions of whatever is happening previously (so much the obsession of culture and the collective unconscious that a youtube video exists of nothing but a series of chronologically progressive recordings of these two chords only), followed immediately by what can only charitably be called a "theme" in the cellos whose stable E-flat major triad is immediately belied by a harmonically ambiguous C-sharp.  Its subsequent transformation into something more heroic yields no more clear tonal results, and an active transition begins.  While the dominant key of B-flat major is definitively arrived at, there is no second theme as such, just some block chords in the woodwinds.  A vague reference to this opening theme is again heard before a whirlwind of strings leads the entire orchestra to battle a series of secondary dominants with slashing two-note cadences, eventually getting stuck on a single chord that, through force of will (though I mean this metaphorically of course, the concept of freedom of will pervades much of early Romantic philosophy), violently assaults the prevailing 3/4 time signature and momentarily derails the exposition’s progress -- as if the bare reality of the movement’s opening chords has been recalled as a reminder (or perhaps as a threat).  The key of B-flat major has been regained when the music gets back on track, and the exposition is repeated with an abrasively sudden move back to E-flat major.

The development section, one of the composer’s longest, cleverly manipulates nearly all the material from the exposition with an imagination seldom seen even in Beethoven.  Sforzandos, like hard-to-locate shots, ring out unpredictably.  After a short fugato, strife returns, intensified.  Diminished chords imply harmonic uncertainty, while hemiolas create a the tension between the 3/4 meter printed and a more clearly audible 2/4.  The tension becomes unbearable on a chord that is aggressively confrontational in its dissonance, and the music collapses under the weight of heavy strings.  A mournful theme emerges in the oboes – it is the first real melody of the movement, and, though motivically related to the opening, is new.  (Let me suggest that it is in these small details that something essential about Beethoven reveals itself: that something may feel completely new, yet be a clear result of preceding events is one of many things that keeps this composer endlessly fascinating to an ever-changing human culture.)  Introducing a new melody in the development section is a truly unusual formal move, lending all the more emotional weight to the moment, and telling us what we already knew: that this is not a normal, well-behaved sonata form.  The skirmishes begin anew, eventually dwindling to a point of near inactivity.  The oblivious second horn must interrupt to catalyze a change.  (Famously, even Beethoven's student Ferdinand Ries thought it was a mistake during the first rehearsal-performance; the none-too-pleased composer punched him in the ear.)  While the entire, long recapitulation sort of does more or less as the exposition had (with many important changes to details; the C-sharp from the beginning re-heard as a D-flat, leading to different harmonic areas) it ends without having achieved – still! –  a definitive version of the opening theme.  The coda's jarring tonal descent by steps paves the way for the hard-to-explain return of the development’s oboe theme.  The orchestra responds by finally “completing” the opening’s theme, heroically in the first horn, then in the first violins accompanied by a horn chorale in canon.  Make no mistake: the ever-changing nature of this music reveals it to be a piece that could only be of its time period -- it is sonata form as a process of Hegelian “becoming” rather than Aristotelian “being.”  The climactic build-up is interrupted by a return of earlier music, but this doesn't stop an ending that triumphant, definitive, and insistent.  The opening two chords, now round out with a third -- heroic, enlightened, positivistic -- return to end the movement.

The slow movement, rather than something lyrical and song-like, is the hero's Funeral March.  It begins, bereft of energy (“subdued voice,” writes Beethoven), distantly, with the melody in the deepest register of the violins, the low instruments providing a bass drum-like accompaniment as if from afar.  The string take up the role of the snare drum, and the oboe gets the melody.  Thus the A section drags and plods along deliberately.  This chillingly concluded, the oboe offers a ray of hope as the B section begins – an ascending C major triad, accompanied by consolatory strings.  The section’s climaxes though, are all militaristic discipline, a point emphasized the second time around by a confident trumpet fanfare.  All motion is suddenly arrested; hope vanishes.  The funeral march begins again, grief-stricken.  It cannot go on.  A determined double-fugue grimly gets underway instead.  As in the first movement, it climaxes in conflict and then collapses; trumpets, as if imposing martial law, are forced to intervene to bring order to the movement.  The newly inexorably return of the A section is heard against the background of busily worried strings.  The cadence in C minor is interrupted, deus ex machina, by A-flat major, but a sweet and dream-like violin theme is a transparently unsustainable illusion.  The reality of C minor sets in, as its minor third, metaphysically in conflict with the overtone series, is made an example of via the collapse of a fleeting C major.  The pessimism is profound, complete, pervasive -- so all-consuming that the musical material itself break down.  The string section cannot even bring itself to complete a scale, leaving the timpani to play the final note.  The theme is a paralyzed with grief and is unable to continue.  A plagal cadence takes it upon itself to close the movement ceremonially.  It is remarkably “modern” art… music that is aware of, and thematizes, its own materials and their inherent inabilities, shortcomings, and contradictions -- it seems to ask the question “can a musical theme exist under these circumstances?” -- thereby making its emotional impact felt all the more strongly.

The Scherzo's opening rustlings are subdued, but the change of mood is clear.  The key has returned to E-flat major, and a short oboe melody promises to be a precursor to the celebration.  The quiet dynamic prevails, though, longer than seems necessary.  Just as the listener has given up in confusion, the party arrives boisterously, complete with whooping horns and strings mischievously accenting the wrong beat.  After a repeat of this music, the horns robustly present the majestic Trio, a splendid elaboration of an E-flat major triad.  The Scherzo section is repeated, with a few uncalled for changes that lead to a concise (to use a word one seldom sees in writings about Beethoven) coda.

The Finale bursts forth without pause, unleashing an cacophonous vortex of descending scales, whose implication of a minor key is quickly corrected by the dominant of E-flat major.  The listener's wait after the ensuing pause is answered only with bewildering unassertive string pizzicatos: E-flat, B-flat, B-flat an octave lower, E-flat again, as it happens the notes that are the scaffolding of the first movement's main theme.  Surrounding ornaments are gradually added as the music comes to life. When the violins finally introduce the main theme, the aforementioned tune from the Finale of "The Creature of Prometheus," everything is clear: the symphony has been trying to achieve this moment.  The melody is a paraphrase of and commentary on the first movement's proto-theme; it is an elaboration of a major triad, further ornamented with the notes in roughly the same order.  One might even say that the “theme” (in a theoretical, not musical, sense) is the triad itself, a figure for possibility, justice, truth.  Just as the first movement was teleological, goal-oriented, a process of “becoming,” so, indeed, has been the entire symphony.  Its status from Beethoven's earlier ballet makes it clear what the hero has been striving for this whole time – the power of art to effect historical change.  Just as the statues are given life and lead to art by Prometheus in his ballet, so the listeners are given art and lead to the future of music by the hero, Beethoven.  It is the artist as hero.

True to the symphony’s bold conception, the Finale of the Eroica symphony is truly unique in its form; though it starts out as a set of variations, eventually achieving the articulation of the aforementioned melody, it quickly turns towards a quasi-developmental contrapuntal episode.  This episode ends, after considerable effort, with the melody heard innocently in the violins, then the prattling flute.  A dramatic, homophonic minor-mode section ensues, filled with strife, reminiscent of the first movement.  It cannot bring itself to complete its closing gesture, though, and the main theme returns innocently in a major key.  Another fugato follows, this one grander than the first.  Heroically achieving a stable E-flat major tonality, it nevertheless stops on the dominant seventh chord (as it did at the beginning of the movement), resisting the completion of the cadence.  The final formal section, much to everyone's surprise, is much slower and begins with the melody played in a reflective, almost saccharine, manner by the solo oboe with poignant harmonies in the rest of the wind section.  Meditative reflections on the oboe's unexpected turn give way to the apotheosis of the hero: the Prometheus melody played majestically, fortissimo by the horn section -- what would become the very symbol of heroism in 19th century German music -- supported enthusiastically by the rest of the ensemble.  Though there are a few moments of hesitation, the coda transforms the movement's introductory vortex into a celebratory din, as the orchestra affirms Beethoven's triumph, and, it would not be an exaggeration to say, begins the next 200 years of music.