16 Apr 2016

Curtain Raiser: Beethoven - Symphony No 3, Eroica

From the collecton Curtain Raiser

In 1802, the composer declared "Henceforth I shall take a new path ..."  That path led the symphony right away from its 18th century origins and towards the romanticism of the symphonists who were to follow.

Beethoven in 1804

Portrait of Beethoven in 1804 Photo: Joseph Willibrord Mähler, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps in response to the criticism of too much length Beethoven wrote in the score: “Since this symphony is intentionally written as a longer composition than the usual ones, it should be performed nearer to the beginning of a concert than to the end.”

“The symphonic work of Beethoven more than that of any other composer is essentially dramatic.” commented Sir Thomas Beecham.

Beethoven certainly understood about drama in music.

Even after the musical ideas have been exposed, developed and recapitulated, Beethoven still doesn't get tired of his themes, and in the Coda of the first movement – the tail-piece where many composers would be content to add a few closing bars to sign off – Beethoven adds a whole new development, much of it using the main theme, but also incorporating the new material introduced in the development section, and lasting another three minutes.

The 'Eroica' comes just three years after his famous 'Heiligenstadt Testament', in which he acknowledged his fears of impending deafness and resolved, after much struggle, to battle on.

"Such experiences brought me close to despair; a little more of that and I would have been at the point of ending my life. The only thing that held me back was my art. Oh it seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had produced all the works that I felt the urge to compose."

After assessing where he was Beethoven resolved:

"Perhaps I shall get better; perhaps not. I am ready. Forced to become a philosopher in my twenty-eighth year – though it was not easy, and for the artist much more difficult than for anyone else. Almighty God, who looks down into my inmost soul, you know that it is filled with love for humanity and a desire to do good."

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