29 Mar 2012

Beethoven – Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major “Eroica”

Written by Jeff Counts

THE COMPOSER – LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) – Beethoven was little more than a year removed from his great literary cry of despair, the Heiligenstadt Testament, when he finished his world-changing 3rd Symphony. Such a work seems at odds with the agony he professed but Beethoven was a man capable of the firmest resolve when necessary. He clearly did not intend to let his deafness limit his professional achievement. In fact, a “new path” needed finding.

THE MUSIC – The 3rd Symphony was blessed from the start with a legendary dedication story, a story so essential it has become impervious to scrutiny. We know without doubt that Beethoven originally entitled the symphony “Bonaparte” after Napoleon, who was then merely the impressive First Consul of France. When Napoleon declared himself Emperor in 1804, Beethoven apparently flew into a rage at the impertinence of such a tyrannical act and un-dedicated his new symphony by ripping the score’s title sheet in half and tossing it down in disgust. Another version of the tale only has him scratching out Napoleon’s name with a knife. This latter option at least is borne out by some physical proof but the page-tearing scenario persists thanks to certain trusted biographies. The one sure truth is that, by the time of its publication in 1806, the symphony once called “Napoleon” became known as “Eroica” and was dedicated to Beethoven’s patron Prince Lobkowitz. Symphony No. 3 represented a shocking upheaval in the world of music. It was longer, more forcefully complex and less emotionally comfortable than anything the 1805 Vienna audience (or any audience anywhere for that matter) would have heard before. Harsh complaints and upturned noses were plenty, but the air of artistic uprising must have been intoxicating for even the most traditional listeners. Beethoven found his “new path” in “Eroica” and he was never again simply a composer. From then on, he was a creator of monuments.                       

THE WORLD – Haiti became the first black republic to declare independence in 1804. In the United States, Lewis and Clark began their expedition to explore the Louisiana Purchase. And in Europe, Spain declared war on England (again).  

THE CONNECTION – “Eroica” is performed quite often by the Utah Symphony on the Masterworks Series. The most recent concerts occurred in 2009 under the direction of Larry Rachleff.