10 Best: Symphony movements, no. 1

Ludwig van Beethoven

Symphony no. 3 ‘Eroica’, mvt. 2 by Ludwig van Beethoven

The Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk might have the greatest claim to the double whammy of being ahead of their time and shining a light on a future that in hindsight seemed inevitable. Fast forward 110 years from their famous jaunt through the not-exactly-skies-but certainly-off-the-ground and we now live in a world where passenger planes filled with beds, alcohol, and unceasing danger fly around the world at all times of every day and unmanned aircraft called, with menacing casualness, “drones,” may or may not blow people up on the ground below (spoiler alert: REDACTED). The notion of giant mechanical beasts roaming the blue yonder probably seemed like a novelty in the 1860’s, pretty far-fetched considering the circumstances at the turn of the century, and the perfect tool for man to rain holy fucking hell on his fellow man by the 1940’s. The Wright Brothers greatest invention was not so much technological as it was ideological. 

Music has an equivalent to this “how is this possible?” brilliance, and it’s the Symphony no. 3 by Beethoven. Listen to music before the Eroica. Now listen to music after the Eroica. It wouldn’t be a stretch to think of music on a timeline with the Third as the fulcrum, what Jesus Christ is to the Gregorian calendar. The soul of the entire Romantic period can be found in the 15 minutes of the second movement. It’s cup runneth the fuck over with pathos and intensity, a journey with blissful highs and gut-wrenching lows.

There are too many amazing things to talk about in this movement, but for me the climax of the movement comes right after the highest high we get, the thundering C major explosion of the “Maggiore” section. A partially aborted statement of the funeral march theme gives way to a fugato that boils with the pent up rage of a thousand Putins, building, coalescing, and erupting in a pretty hostile major theme that grows with pride in the horns and then growls furiously in the basses, all the while being prodded on by staccato sixteenth notes in the strings and winds that a dreadful insistence that refuses to subside. You’d think the man would quit after having already written the baddest shit the world had ever known, but he’s going for blood and he fucking gets it. The violins put a bow on the staccato sixteenth notes by lifting them ever higher into a stratosphere of soul-penetrating repeated triplets while the rest of the strings (and winds) play a sequence punctuated by knife-in-the-heart sforzandi, ultimately coming to a brutally savage close on a snarling C# diminished 7 chord that makes me wish I played second violin in the worst possible way.

Where in the name of all things holy did this music come from? Beethoven never topped it from a dramatic standpoint. His later symphonies demonstrate his mastery of the symphonic form, and he certainly has other works with tremendous passion, but the Eroica stands out like a beacon which every significant composer who followed it sees in the distance and emulates in some way. Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Bruckner, Mahler, Schoenberg, Elgar, Shostakovich, Rachmaninov, Strauss, Britten, any other important composer with whom you could apply the label “Romantic” you care to name can trace some part of their musical lineage to the spirit of Beethoven 3.

*****

So everybody was 75% right: it was Beethoven at the top. That’s certainly no accident. This countdown was a lot of fun, it took a long time, and I heard a bunch of really awesome music. Mission accomplished. Back to our regularly scheduled programming.

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9 thoughts on “10 Best: Symphony movements, no. 1

  1. This makes me happy. I’m going to have to go back and give this one a few more listens. Any suggestions on the best (or at least a very good) recording to enjoy?

  2. If you can track it down, my personal favorite is a great recording by Gunther Herbig and the Royal Philharmonic. It should be cheap, too.

  3. Great (and unexpected) choice! This is an amazing movement, for all the reasons you mention.

    I didn’t think you would pick a slow movement. It doesn’t get better than this. (Well, maybe the slow movements of the 7th, and the 9th.)

    This is a little off the subject, but did you know that the Boston Symphony played this movement right after they discovered that Kennedy had been assassinated?
    http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2013/11/21/246551876/hear-what-happened-at-bostons-symphony-hall-after-jfks-assassination

  4. I just discovered your blog last month and was really eager to finally read about your absolute favorite symphony movement. And here it is! And it couldn’t be in a more precise timing! OMG!

    What was particularly impressive is that, just before (!!!) I came here to check if you had posted this conclusion, I was hearing over and over again this very same movement throughout the youtube. I was really passionate about the marcha funebre yesterday and all I wanted was to read some articles about it in the internet. Somehow, for some mysterious reason, I had the idea to come check this blog for some old post or whatever and what a CHOCK I had when I saw that this second movement was your top symphony movement!! I could’t hold my laughs at this coincidence! haha. What a joy!

    And yes, the marcha funebre deserves this position, even if it’s not my choice. But yes, great list! Anyway, I have to say that I’m relatively new to classical music and, incredibly, I disliked a bit the Eroica until this year, when I decided to give it some more chances. Lucky me! Now it is my favorite Beethoven symphony, along the ninth. Well, one or another, great choice!!

  5. So…now what are you going to do with your life? Make another list?

  6. I’m pretty sure I’m going to kill myself as I will never top this moment!

    J/K EVERYONE! Not sure just yet. I’ve got a few things that I want to touch on, but I’m sure something inane will catch my fancy soon enough!

  7. waoo

  8. Regarding the Wright brothers,

    There are many technical problems with Flyer I 1903. The plane was unstable, underpowered and had propellers that appeared only in 1908, exactly in the same year when the Wright brothers flew for the first time in front of credible witnesses. The brothers simply lied about their flights from 1903-1905. They built their planes in France in 1908 with french engines (Bariquand et Marre), french propellers and using the entire French flight experience of 1908.

    see: http://wright-brothers.wikidot.com

  9. Awesome info. Sounds a bit like the situation with the phonautograph of Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville.

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