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Ludwig Van Beethoven - Symphony No. 3,(Eroica)

( Originally Published 1935 )



I. Allegro con brio

II. Marcia funebre: Adagio assai

III. Scherzo: Allegro vivace; Trio

IV. Finale: Allegro molto

The inspiration of the "Eroica" symphony, and the manner in which Beethoven changed its dedication, are strangely symbolic of the nature of the composition and the place that it occupies in art. We know that when Beethoven began this symphony he had in mind Napoleon Bonaparte. There is no question about this. The erased dedication on the manuscript title-page of the symphony is the evidence. But when Beethoven thought of Napoleon he though: of the First Consul of the new French Republic, the liberator of humanity, the destroyer of kingcraft and all that that estate implied. Then Beethoven received the news that Napoleon had had himself declared Emperor. He tore up the dedication page in fury, crying out that Napoleon had become nothing but an ordinary man, "and now he will turn tyrant." And the symphony was described on the title-page as "composed to celebrate the memory of a great man." The work, in other words, was re-dedicated, not to Napoleon, the cracked statue of a hero, but to the heroic spirit in man. That became Beethoven's theme. That was what Bonaparte stood for in Beethoven's mind when he composed the symphony. And so we have a score cleansed, as it were, of any literal or programmatic associations, which treats not of an individual but of an ideal, in terms of the greatest music. There is no attempt. here to give us a portrait of the dress and the button:; of a hero, or the deeds of an egotistical individual--anything but such an attempt as Richard Strauss made when he celebrated himself in his tone-poem "Ein Heldenleben" ("A Hero's Life"). The ":Eroica," or "heroic," symphony is impersonal as the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a monument to the deathless spirit of man. It is as if a mysterious destiny, in causing Beethoven agony by tearing down an idol before his eyes, had taken the ultimate pains to insure the greatest destiny for his creation. We have in this work not a personal outpouring so much as a masterpiece which balances form and profound feeling, and looks down from its height on the music of two centuries.

Therefore, there is no program for this symphony such as Beethoven gave us for the "Pastorale." But the thought back of the work is obvious in the musical material. The gap in style between this symphony of Beethoven—his Third—and the Second symphony, which-it followed by an interval of only one year, is deep and wide. There is perhaps no greater leap in the symphonic evolution of any composer. The distance between the works has been explained as due to development in other scores, not symphonies, which came from Beethoven's pen in the intervening period. But I cannot find in those other scores any real approach to the "Eroica." The real cause of the change is the impregnation of Beethoven's thought by a new intellectual conception.

The first movement of the symphony is surely to be construed as the picture, in broadest and most impersonal terms, of heroic character, in which resolve and tenderness, faith and the tragic consciousness, have equal representation. There is no formal introduction, as there was in the earlier symphonies of Beethoven—merely two brusque major chords and the immediate announcement of the hero theme. It is a theme bare to starkness, very plain, and based on intervals of the commonest chord. It is announced and expanded by the orchestra. Between. this theme and the second are long connecting passages which are no longer episodes or mere connecting passage works, but significant musical ideas, closely related to and expansive of the import of the main themes. The architecture of the movement is on the grandest lines. The second theme is less a melody than a succession of chords—in other words, a harmonic rather than a melodic theme, tender and lofty in sentiment. It is noticeable that in this symphony, unlike the works of Beethoven's predecessors, there is not the sharp demarcation and partitioning off of first from second and subsidiary themes. The movement is much more plastic and connected in its parts—more so than any earlier symphony Beethoven had written. The treatment of the ideas is lengthy, and very rich and bold. The hero theme is endlessly manipulated, and always with fresh resource. In one place, after the ex-position of his material, Beethoven drives home repeated sharp dissonances—chords in which an "E natural" rasps against an "F"—with the most start-ling and dramatic effect. The place is thrown into higher relief by the suave harmonies which immediately follow.

All this and much more takes place in the first two-thirds of the first movement of the symphony, which comprisesa the Exposition of the themes and their free development. The return to the Recapitulation of the material of the Exposition is accomplished in such an individual manner as to have disconcerted Beethoven's contemporaries. In fact, Beethoven's pupil Ries, at the first rehearsal, thought that this intentionally dissonant passage was a mistake in the score, and nearly got his ears boxed for calling the composer's attention to it. The passage is the one in which the solo horn, playing the first notes of the hero themes, appears to come in too soon, against a harmony that does not belong to it. Two measures later the horn repeats its motive, now with the right harmony, and we have the long and splendid repetition of the Exposition and the "coda," or peroration of the movement. This movement in itself is almost a symphony.

Its antithesis is the epic lamentation of the second movement, the incommensurable Funeral March. It is said that after he had eradicated Napoleon's name from his score, Beethoven never again referred to him, until he was told, seventeen years later,of Napoleon's death at St. Helena. He is reported to have said, "I have already composed the proper music for the catastrophe." If he said that, he underestimated his dirge, which is for all humanity. The march begins heavily, tragically, in the minor key. Later, in the middle part, it changes to major, with a more sustained and consoling song. But the emotional climax is reached by means of a fugal development (Measure I14) followed by the awful proclamations of the trombones which made Theodore Thomas think of the Resurrection Day—and that does not exaggerate the tragic grandeur of the passage. You will notice the touch of drama and spectacle at the end of the march —the broken, disjointed fragments of the march, played softly, with pauses of silence between the fragments, as if the last words of leave-taking and homage had. been choked by sobs.

Many, Thomas among them, find in these first two movements of the symphony the real "Eroica," rating them, as distinct, apart from and superior to the movements which follow. Others, making no unfavorable comparisons, are puzzled to discover the relation between the two first and the two last themes, especially as the movements which make the second half of the symphony are joyous in tone. How are they to be construed? The scherzo is music of joyous rustlings and horn-calls; it has the tang of the Autumn forest, and the promise of Nature's eternal cycle of deaths and resurrections. The finale, tie cap-stone of the gigantic creation, is a set of variations on a simple, stark theme.

Each listener will have his own explanation of these movements. For some the scherzo will be the voice of what we know as life, murmuring strangely and joyously of the glory of death. The choice, for the finale, of the theme with the enigmatic repeated :a flats, is the highest wisdom, a theme that grew for years in Beethoven's consciousness. He had used it first, in a comparatively superficial way, in his "Prometheus" ballet; then as a basis for the fifteen piano variations, Op. 3S. But still he had not plumbed all the secrets of that simple motive. He expands it now on lines that stretch out into infinity. It is not romantic feeling that Beethoven seeks here, but something more vast and eternal. He has done with transient emotions, profound as they may be, and immortalized by him in the first part of the symphony. That first part was life; this is beyond life. We have a protean set of variations, pure music, symbol of order, power, spirit; play of invisible tones about a certain central point; sovereign evocation of form and rhythm. Their development includes the return of the first theme of the symphony, which has already reappeared, in different disguises, in the Funeral March and the scherzo. Perhaps this finale is the most "absolute" tonal design to be found in the nine symphonies. Perhaps, because of its balance of emotion and thought, feeling and form, and all-surpassing grandeur of design, the "Eroica" will one day stand forth as the greatest of all symphonies.



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