Beethoven’s Eroica—A Declaration of Liberty

eroica manuscript title page.jpg

There’s a glorious moment in the funeral march of Beethoven’s Eroica symphony where the brass and timpani swell over the strings in a brilliant heroic fanfare, a moment of white light and heavenly triumph. In those few bars, we can hear all of Wagner—his heroic-tragic Siegfried, and even, in a sense, his entire Ring Cycle.

But in this funeral march, we can also hear the autobiographical symphonies of Tchaikovsky and Mahler, the certainty that music is conveying a psychological narrative beyond its notes. The tune falters at the end, unable to keep up with the musical pulse, disintegrating note by note, unmistakably communicating the aching, gradual process of dying. Here was undoubtedly the inspiration for Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony and Mahler’s two farewell symphonies–Das Lied von der Erde and his ninth symphony. Yet the tight structure and evolution of the material also reveals the genesis of Brahms. The somber four note drum roll first heard with the low basses evolves into a rising four note scale that points to the beyond, but later becomes a dramatic fugue subject that seems to drop down to the underworld.  This type of motivic transformation became a signature technique in the music of Brahms. But the Eroica’s influence goes yet further.  The moments where the massive first movement breaks through conventional boundaries of meter and harmony, dissolving in shocking dissonance that presages the raw primitivism of Stravinsky and the dissonance of the 20thcentury. For all these reasons, perhaps Beethoven’s Eroica symphony is the most revolutionary piece of music. 

Its history is compelling and documented. Facing the reality of deafness and the end his performing career, Beethoven contemplated suicide. Writing to his brothers from his retreat in Heiligenstadt outside Vienna, he transformed his suicide note (the Heligenstadt Testament) into a long exegesis about his pain and suffering, explaining the reasons why he had taken on the persona of a madman—to mislead people from realizing he couldn’t hear. As he releases a torrent of emotions on the page, Beethoven works things out, confesses (now to himself), “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.” The remarkable letter was never mailed. It remained in his desk, undiscovered until decades later after his death. 

The music he composed in the following years underwent a dramatic stylistic change—Beethoven’s “heroic” period. His C minor piano concerto. The Waldstein piano sonata. Both ”game-changing” works for their genre. But it is with the third symphony that Beethoven fully expressed a new musical conception. The orchestra now sounds massive— louder, fuller, with a greater dynamic range than ever before. The first movement has the longest development section he would ever create. The slow movement is just as Olympian proportions, digressing from a funeral march to a heavenly proclamation, only to plunge into a fugue and descent into hell before a final disintegration. The scherzo goes at whirlwind speed, faster than any dance movement written before. Its trio features a virtuoso solo by not one, but three French horns. Instead of ending with a conventional rondo, Beethoven creates a grand set of variations encapsulating not one, but two contrapuntal fugatosections. This piece changed the character of the orchestra. It is no longer Haydn and Mozart’s elegant, delightful band of strings, winds, and percussion. Rather, it has become a powerful, fire-breathing organism that seems endowed with a unique “life form” all its own. It can speak in a hundred voices, or just one. It is capable of shattering violence and the most intimate, tender expression, often in the same piece.

If that description conveys a greater complexity in this music, it still misses a larger point. With Eroica, Beethoven broke through the boundary of abstract music into philosophy. We hear in Eroicanot only exquisite melody and harmony, not only the most brilliantly developed material, but music that isabout something, that communicates something to us about ourworld, something very human, both deeply emotional and deeply intellectual. It embodies ideaas well as strictly musical development. This was what was locked inside Beethoven. This is what the tragedy of his deafness seemed to force to the surface. Music without words can break through abstraction into sophisticated communication ifits development brings about a discovery of the most inner essence of its idea. We’re not talking here about tone painting, music imitating bird calls or the chattering of teeth in winter, as Vivaldi had done brilliantly in the Four Seasons. No, Beethoven was searching for a way to communicate ideas of Kant and Goethe in purely musical terms. The destinies of Eroica’smusical ideas that defy the barline explore the limits of time and space. They explore entropy, both the creation and disintegration of life. And they do it without words, in a progression of abstract musical ideas we can all understand if we pay careful attention. 

Beethoven’s admiration for Napoleon Bonaparte provided the inspiration. Napoleon held the promise of bringing freedom to Europe, toppling the monarchies of Europe and replacing them with Republics. Beethoven became a Napoleon fan and conceived his new symphony as a tribute to Napoleon’s heroism and revolutionary spirit. The heroic passages for three French horns (instead of the usual two) seem to represent Napoleon himself. But as we all know, Beethoven became completely disillusioned after Napoleon declared himself an emperor. The famed story of the symphony’s name change from Bonaparteto Eroicais significant. Beethoven’s pupil and assistant Ferdinand Ries reported a firsthand account: 

“In this symphony Beethoven had Buonaparte in his mind, but as he was when he was First Consul. Beethoven esteemed him greatly at the time and likened him to the greatest Roman consuls. I as well as several of his more intimate friends, saw a copy of the score lying upon his table, with the word ‘Buonaparte’ at the extreme top of the title page…I was the first to bring him the intelligence that Buonaparte had proclaimed himself emperor, whereupon he flew into a rage and cried out: ‘Is he then, too, nothing more than an ordinary human being? Now he, too, will trample on all the rights of man and indulge only his ambition. He will exalt himself abo e all others, become a tyrant!’ Beethoven went to the table, took hold of the title page by the top, tore it in two, and threw it on the floor. The first page was rewritten and only then did the symphony receive the title: ‘Sinfonia eroica.’”*

And so Napoleon’s name was erased from the symphony. There was no compromise for Beethoven. A tyrant deserved no recognition. The American Constitution was less than 20 years old, a beacon of hope for all those who embraced the ideals of the Enlightenment—reason, liberty, and constitutional government over monarchy and tyranny. Beethoven was very much a creature of the Enlightenment. He embraced those beliefs and conceived a revolutionary approach to music that could express them. 


*Thayer’s Life of Beethoven(revised and edited by Elliot Forbes) Volume II, p. 349.