Theater an der Wien, Vienna, 7 April 1805
Like many artists of his generation, Beethoven drew powerful inspiration from the French Revolution, revelling in the collapse of an oppressive monarchy and in the new freedoms which the march of popular democracy appeared to promise. For Beethoven, himself a cussed individualist, the figure of Napoleon Bonaparte epitomised the new spirit of liberty and self-determination sweeping Europe.
The Third Symphony was conceived as a tribute to the French military commander – until, that is, Napoleon declared himself Emperor of his country, prompting an enraged Beethoven to tear the title page of the finished manuscript, on which he had written ‘Bonaparte’, in two pieces. A new title was eventually adopted, less specific in its references: ‘Heroic Symphony, composed to celebrate the memory of a great man’.
Such is the backstory of the Eroica Symphony. How important is it to the actual music? Fascinating as the Napoleon connection is, posterity has gradually shied away from viewing the work as a glorified piece of musical hero-worship. ‘Some say it is Napoleon, some Hitler, some Mussolini,’ as the conductor Toscanini tetchily put it. ‘For me it is simply Allegro con brio.’
And while it’s true that vestiges of the Napoleonic element can easily be traced in the Eroica – the confident demeanour of the opening movement, the overtones of militaristic ceremonial in the Marcia funebre – they can easily obscure the extraordinary innovations in the piece, which one commentator calls ‘the greatest single step made by an individual in the history
of the symphony and in the history of music in general’.
Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, performed by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
under Daniel Barenboim
What exactly makes the Eroica so revolutionary? For early listeners, size was certainly a major issue. ‘I’ll give another Kreutzer if the thing will only stop!,’ one irritated audience member shouted at the first public performance. He would not have been alone in wondering why exactly Beethoven’s newest symphony had to be twice as long as any that preceded it.
The reason was simple: Beethoven was bursting with musical ideas, and needed the broadest canvas on which to paint them. The development section of the opening movement is unprecedentedly fertile, introducing a new theme unheard in the exposition. The Marcia funebre has not one, but two interpolated episodes, one ringingly triumphant, the other gravely fugal. The finale’s variations become a major statement in themselves, not just a mood-lightening way to drop the curtain on a major-key symphony.
Everywhere is plenitude, dynamism and surging energy, and a determination to use symphonic form to give these indomitable human qualities full expression. The Heiligenstadt crisis, barely over, had laid Beethoven low, but certainly not defeated him. In the Eroica Symphony he is resurgent; the composer himself is the ultimate hero of this extraordinary masterpiece.
When Rudolf Kempe made his Beethoven symphony cycle with the unfashionable Munich Philharmonic in the early 1970s, it was overshadowed by other, more glamorous interpretations, Herbert von Karajan’s in particular. But Kempe’s is a glorious Eroica, powerful and majestic, yet buoyed with lyricism and elegance. It remains a definitive point of reference.
Münchner Philharmoniker/Rudolf Kempe
EMI 636 5552
Words by Terry Blain. This article first appeared in the December 2015 issue of BBC Music Magazine.