Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” in E-flat major, Op. 55

Ludwig van Beethoven, part of 1804-05 portrait by Joseph Willibrord Mähler

Just as Beethoven’s Eroica marked the transition between the Classical and Romantic era, the time of this work’s composition also marked a defiant turning point during the years of tormenting pain when he started his hearing loss in late 1790’s. The Heiligenstadt Testament he wrote in 1802, just a year before he composed this symphony, clearly revealed his suffering of this unthinkable condition as a musician, and the determination to live on for his love of music. “Such incidents drove me almost to despair; a little more of that and I would have ended my life – it was only my art that held me back. Ah, it seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had brought forth all that I felt was within me”, he wrote.

Eroica is a ground-breaking masterpiece, marking the beginning of Beethoven’s middle period of his career, that is, the Romantic period. While the work still fell within the classical period forms, it is almost double in length as typical symphonies of his predecessors. But more importantly it’s the complexity and depth of the rich emotions throughout the work that demonstrated Beethoven’s genius, and sets it apart from his First and Second symphonies. All the stories and anecdotes on this work’s dedication to Napoleon aside, and whether the work is actually a self-portrait of Beethoven’s own journey of struggle and comeback from his deafness, it is the unprecedented expressiveness of the composer’s personal emotions that sets the work far apart from classical ear symphonies, which by and large are mostly crafted in confined forms, serving mainly as entertainment of aristocracy.

When it comes to breaking traditional boundaries, the 3rd symphony is undoubtedly a quantum leap compared to his earlier two symphonies. All the innovative techniques he employed, such as unconventional rhythmic pattern, irregular accent, heavy syncopation, sudden shifts of dynamics, and dissonant harmonics, all contributed to leading us through a dramatic emotional journey.

1. Allegro con brio

The work opens with two straightforward yet powerful major chords. While by convention the opening statement of classical symphonies do come with strong clear themes, such direct and strong calling right at the first two bars are quite unusual at Beethoven’s time. It clearly sets the mood of the movement, letting audience know what’s coming is not going to be a peaceful chapter:

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The main theme immediately follows, presented on lower register of the strings; the tune is amazingly simple (they are just the notes on the tonic triad), yet it brings us right into a sense of none-stopping momentum filled with urgency and anxiety:

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And right there as the theme is still being elaborated, Beethoven threw away the normal 3/4 time rhythm and forced onto the theme with irregular accent full of sforzando and syncopation:

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What followed were two themes that are usually considered to be transitional; however they obviously serve more than typical transitional material because they are prominently used during development of the movement later. Here’s the first transition, as if answering the main theme with an unsettling sigh:

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The next transition brings us back to the throbbing sense of non-stopping nervous rush:

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As the rush quiets down, the second theme comes in on the woodwinds; the tune barely forms a melody, and sounds like raising more doubts than giving answers while contrasts to the main theme:

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As the exposition coming to end, we hear these constant pounding chords, not only dissonant in harmony but with displaced accent (off-beat 2 over 3); we can just feel the rage from the composer:

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The score calls for repeat of exposition, though many performances skip it. During development, we hear blow syncopated tearing of dissonant chords again and again:

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Was that Beethoven’s furious anger and howling in despair? Or was it the bloody battles fought by our hero? Or maybe it was Beethoven’s own battle against the devastating prediction of his ever worsening hearing loss?

What follows is again unconventional of typical sonata form, a new theme in development section emerges; Bernstein characterized this theme as “a song of pain after the Holocaust”[1]:

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This theme later on comes back in the much expanded coda, where the main theme is reiterated with a brighter and almost triumphant tone (the trumpet call near the end) in the end.

2. Marcia funebre: Adagio assai

The second movement is a funeral march in a mostly A-B-A ternary form, but with a much extended reprise of A and new development. But the key point is, the extended part is not without its merit considering what and how Beethoven was trying to express himself in this work. I’d imagine Beethoven probably felt like the conventional A-B-A form was simply not enough to fully express himself.

The first theme (A1) opens soft and low on the cello, depicting the solemn progressing of the funeral march:

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After it’s repeated on oboe, the second theme (A2) follows, switching to E♭ major; though contrasting with first theme in tonality, the mood is still heavy and somber, and more so when it soon turned back into minor mode:

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The A1+2 theme group is repeated then twice, with the third time led by woodwind, and brings in theme B the middle section:

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This middle section, while brighter in C major, is played out by a singing oboe, and steps downward after climbing the three notes of the major triad, seems to convey a sense of bitter sweet reflection of the past. The section develops and reaches into a glorious climax, with the trumpet playing the major triad notes, as if recalling the glorious times of our hero:

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A conventional ternary form would now bring the reprise of theme A and conclude the movement. On the Karajan recording (BPO, 1963) I have, the re-entrance of theme A is only at 7:20 of a 17-minute performance. In the following 10 minutes, Beethoven took a path far exceeding conventional form limits, diving deep into his emotional struggles beyond a mere funeral march; the grandeur of the emotional landscape here was simply unprecedented. The first extension starts on a fugal passage in minor tone, filled much intensified somber feelings mixed with rage:

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The second extension starts on the sudden burst of lower strings followed by long howling brass that sounds like hear-wrenching outcry and mourning, with the feeling of devastated loss; this may well be considered the climax of the funeral march:

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When the strong emotional outburst is over, what’s left is complete sadness filled with void:

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At the end, theme A becomes broken and fragmented, slowly creeping away into the dark:

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3. Scherzo: Allegro vivace

In his audio analysis Bernstein argued against the notion that after the first two powerful movements the symphony starts to “falter” and the ensuing two movements simply “cannot measure up to the first two”; he considered the scherzo the rightful timing and a “relief from the quantitative grandeur of the two preceding movements”[2]. To me the scherzo is mostly driven by the classical symphonic form, which Beethoven understandably was still following at his time.

Bernstein characterized the scherzo with “shocks and tremors” like “a deep subterranean disturbance”[3]. This is probably most evident in the first theme, which starts with whispering staccato strings, and suddenly burst into boisterous blasting of the whole orchestra:

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Contrasting to the anxious first theme, the middle section trio is a chorale played unusually by three horns, with sense of calm and momentary content before the rushing first theme returns:

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4. Finale: Allegro molto

The finale takes on the form of variation instead of a traditional sonata form. Further, the variation is based a four-note baseline, which in itself is extremely simple and unremarkable: only the tonic and dominant note of the E♭ major triad, almost the same as the opening theme of the first movement.

The movement opens with a loud announcement of the orchestra on a key completely foreign to the home E♭:

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Then the 4-note baseline follows, played with pizzicato by violins, sounding mysterious and even playful:

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Only after further elaboration on the strings did the main theme is fully presented, sounding lyrical and optimistic, played by the oboe:

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The fourth variation is a refreshing fugal passage, with the main theme now modulated to minor mode:

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Beethoven’s imagination here is just unstoppable, he then put down a passage that sounds like a Hungarian Cavalry Officer charging in, as Bernstein put it[4]:

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The sixth variation, which is the start of the section Poco Andante, simply slows down the main theme on the solo oboe, its original mood is completely changed and becomes a melancholy song in memory of the old times:

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And when the theme is repeated then by the horns, with accompaniment of the strings on steady triplets and the hammering of the timpani, the heroic spirit is gloriously celebrated:

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The ending of the finale starts with the opening passing rushing back, and immediately followed by a triumphant climax:

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