Three on Three
Bach: Orchestral Suite No 3
in D major, BWV 1068
Haydn: Symphony No 3 in G major
Beethoven: Symphony No 3 in E-flat major, Op 55 "Eroica"
Allegro con brio
Marcia funebre - Adagio assai
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) was already an established pianist and composer in Vienna, when in 1800 he began to notice his gradually encroaching deafness. His growing despondency with this discovery only intensified his antisocial tendencies, and, consequently, in his isolation, he turned more toward inner reflection. The first large-scale composition the composer issued as his deaf condition slowly overtook him was the Symphony No 3 in E-flat major, Op 55, 'Eroica'. With this symphony, Beethoven went beyond the stylistic Classicism of Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Mozart to essentially personalize the symphony as a work that reflects not only outward to the public but that looks inward into the soul of the composer.
The Symphony No 3 is a milestone in the history of classical music - a defining composition that did indeed change the nature of the symphony as well as music in general. The Third is cast large in scale: The length of the symphony is approximately twice the length of a Mozart or Haydn symphony; in fact, the first movement of Beethoven's Third alone equals the length of typical symphony of the time. In place of the usual second or third movement minuet, Beethoven introduces a playful third movement scherzo to offset the somber mood set by the second movement funeral march. In the final movement, rather than the usual light and breezy finishing up of previous symphonies, Beethoven imparts a weight and seriousness to the movement that does justice to this monumental work. This finale is a lengthy set of variations on the 'Eroica' theme Beethoven had originally written for his ballet music to The Creatures of Prometheus.
Beethoven had originally dedicated the Third Symphony to Napoleon Bonaparte who he considered a man of the people and an advocate of liberty. Beethoven was not alone in his thinking as Napoleon seemed to embody the republican ideals of many of Europe's intellectuals. According to Ferdinand Ries, Beethoven's personal secretary as well as star pupil, it was he who brought the news to the composer that Napoleon had declared himself emperor. The composer flew into a rage, grabbed the title page from the manuscript, tore it in two down the middle, and let the pieces fall to the floor. When the score for the symphony was published in 1806, Beethoven had retitled the piece Sinfonia eroica, composta per festeggiare il sovvenire d'un grand'uomo (Heroic symphony, composed to celebrate the memory of a great man). He, thus, immortalized his disappointment for the ages. Officially, the Third is dedicated to Beethoven's friend and patron Prince Joseph Lobkowitz.
Ries was also present at the first rehearsal of the symphony at Prince Lobkowitz' residence. As one might expect, the session did not go without its complications. In fact, Ries himself received a scolding from the master. As the orchestra ran through the first movement, he made the mistake of complaining that the first horn player started the recapitulation of the movement four bars too early, creating a disturbing dissonance. Ries was unaware that the composer had written that particular passage on purpose. When he complained to Beethoven, the master lit into him for questioning his competence. Ries, chagrined, remained attentive, but silent, through the rest of the rehearsal. Beethoven did not forgive me for a long time, Ries recorded in his recollections.
Contrary to the suggestions of some musical sources that this new and innovative symphony was not well received at its premiere, the critical reception was surprisingly open minded given the revolutionary nature of the work. Following a semi-public performance on February 13, 1805, the music critic of the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung wrote in cautious praise about
[a]n entirely new symphony by Beethoven...written in a completely different style. This composition, extremely difficult to perform, is in reality a lengthy, daring and wild fantasia. It lacks nothing in the way of startling and beautiful passages, for which the energetic and talented composer must be recognized.
The writer then hastened to qualify his admiration: But it often loses itself in lawlessness.
The same critic, Johann Nepomuk Möser, after the public premiere of the symphony two months later, April 7, 1805, suggested that Beethoven could improve the audience's comprehension of his work if he would shorten it. At least one other person at the performance felt the same. An impatient audience member is reported to have shouted that he would be willing to pay extra money if only the piece would stop.
Following the premiere, some patrons considered the Symphony No 3 in E-flat major, Op 55, to be Beethoven’s masterpiece, while others took a more negative view. To them, the work was an ill-conceived attempt at originality that failed to materialize. The naysayers could also point to the concert program itself. On the same program as the Eroica was the first performance of a Symphony in E-flat major by Anton Eberl which garnered more positive reviews than did Beethoven's symphony.
Joseph Haydn gave the symphony its form and structure, but it was Ludwig van Beethoven who imbued the symphony with the emotional depth and romantic vigor that made it the epitome of musical expression.
Program Notes © William H Driver and Clinton Symphony Orchestra Association