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.