By 1804 Napoleon Bonaparte, thanks to his military exploits and delicious layers of puff pastry and jam, had achieved enough popularity in France to declare himself Emperor. 700 miles away in Vienna, Ludwig van Beethoven had achieved enough bitterness from Napoleon’s power move that he grabbed the title page to a new symphony dedicated to Bonaparte, scratched out the Emperor’s name with a knife vigorously enough to tear a hole clean through the paper, ripped it in half and threw it on the floor in disgust. When a new title page was published in 1806, it was inscribed “Heroic Symphony, composed to celebrate the memory of a great man,” presumably pre-Emperor Napoleon.
Such is the legendary story behind the music, now ubiquitous enough to be called simply “Eroica” as if it were on the Brazilian soccer team. But what of the music itself? Far, far more than simple “program” music, it is virtually the foundation upon which orchestral music continues to build itself to this day. If any hero emerges from the pages of Beethoven’s 3rd symphony, it is the composer himself. In 50 or so minutes, Beethoven almost singlehandedly ushered in the Romantic period and stretched the symphony so far it needed to apply cocoa butter.
Speaking strictly in minutes and seconds, the Eroica is almost twice as long as any symphony written before it. Speaking strictly in descriptive nouns like breadth and scope, the Eroica is about a thousand times more monumental than any symphony preceding it. The piece begins with two solid Eb major chords, followed by a theme in the cellos that simply outlines the Eb major triad…until running headlong into C-sharp seven measures into the piece, surprising and unsettling, not unlike seeing Khloe Kardashian in natural lighting. After an exposition that is still quite concise and classical in proportion, we are led into the gargantuan development section with several interesting characteristics. One is the famous “new” theme in the oboe, recognizable because you don’t recognize it. Another is the climactic moment just before the oboe theme with the full orchestra laying down a huge A minor chord punctuated by penetrating F’s in the violins and flutes, devastating in its raw impact. The entire development ends with a false recapitulation in the horn that caused Beethoven’s pupil Ferdinand Ries the embarrassment of trying to correct the mistake that did not exist, drawing the ire of Beethoven, who was not known for his patience, social skills, or hearing ability. The movement ends with the recapitulation and a coda as fittingly monstrous as the development.
The gem of the symphony is the second movement Adagio, an epic funeral march in C minor. Beethoven had done a little experimenting with the funeral march (no word on whether he, you know, tried any, uh…stuff with guys or whatever) prior to this in his woefully underrated Piano Sonata no. 12 of 1801. The funeral march theme itself has two contrasting sections, one with forceful dotted rhythms, the other with a more flowing legato feel. This is music of immense grief and profound sadness, the kind you feel at the grave of a dear friend or from watching Ben Affleck appear in any movie. This sadness is mitigated briefly by a radiant section in C major, but the funeral march quickly returns and descends to even greater depths of intense sorrow in a double fugue that is as passionate and utterly heart-wrenching as any music written before or since. The movement ends with glimpses of solace, but ultimately comes to rest in the despair in which it began.
Yet another of the innovations Beethoven presents in the Eroica is the addition of a third horn, which he puts to good use in the third movement. This scherzo is music of tremendous energy and momentum even though much of it isn’t very loud. The trio, true to its name, features the trio of horns in music reminiscent of their earliest uses, announcing the beginning of the great hunt and/or alerting enemy archers just where they should aim for maximum lethal impact. The scherzo returns and concludes with a brief coda that leads almost without pause into the fourth movement.
The Allegro that concludes the symphony is a theme and variations based on music from Beethoven’s ballet The Creatures of Prometheus. It is a remarkable and unusual journey through an incredibly diverse musical landscape, from virtuosic solos to rustic, peasant-like dance music and all points in between. Just when the music has reached its boiling point, the theme appears as a beautiful chorale in the woodwinds and culminates in a grandiose hymn in the full orchestra that radiates as brightly as the aura that surrounds Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club selections or upskirt paparazzi photos of Britney Spears. The movement and symphony close with a thrilling coda that brings the mood as far from the gloom of the funeral march as it could possibly get.
It is incredibly rare when history moves in giant steps. Progress usually comes in fits and starts and grows slowly over time into fully flowered maturity (for example, look at the stylistic maturation process of Camille Pisarro or the whore maturation process of Lindsay Lohan). Occasionally, though, the paradigm shift is sudden and jarring, and Beethoven’s Eroica is music’s shiniest example of the great leap forward. To look back at the symphonic music that came before it, Eroica almost seems to come out of left field, and to say music would never be the same would be a dramatic understatement. In less than an hour, the world changed, and 100 years of some of the greatest music ever to be brought into existence had its roots.