The Eroica Symphony

There is probably no single work of art that more personifies the Regency/Romantic period than Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E flat major (Op. 55), better known as the “Eroica” symphony. It displays such a range of high emotion, from the sadness of the main funeral march theme, to the exuberant, hopeful ending. It marks a break from the style of Mozart and Haydn, and a turn in the sensibility of the times. And it had its public premier on this date in 1805, in Vienna’s Theater du Wien, with the composer conducting!

But it’s conception began several years earlier. Around 1799, when Beethoven was in his 20s, he began consulting doctors about the persistent ringing in his ears. In 1801, he was advised to go easy on his hearing for a while and take a little vacation. Beethoven duly trekked off to the village of Heiligenstadt, but the rest, the walks, the composing, didn’t improve his hearing. In despair, he wrote a last will and testament, a document that came to be known as the “Heiligenstadt Testament.” In it he leaves his property to his brothers, but more important it’s a snapshot of his emotional turmoil at the time, fraught with pain and despair. It’s after this that we can see the stylistic shift that results in “Eroica.”

In October, 1802, Beethoven returned to Vienna, where he was engaged by theater owner Emanuel Schikaneder (who was the librettist and producer of Mozart’s Magic Flute) to compose an opera. After a long winter, there was still no opera, and Beethoven went off to Baden. He would spend the summer there and in the countryside, where he would create his new symphony.

It’s well known that Beethoven originally planned to dedicate the symphony to Napoleon, who seemed to embody the ideals of freedom and high emotion that marked the birth of the French Revolution. But in May 1804, Napoleon proclaimed himself emperor. Beethoven’s assistant, Ferdinand Ries, writes in his memoir, “I was the first to tell him the news that Bonaparte had declared himself emperor, whereupon he broke into a rage and exclaimed ‘So he is no more than a common mortal! Now, too, he will tread underfoot all the rights of man, indulge only his ambition; now he will become a tyrant!’ Beethoven went to the table, seized the title-page, tore it in half and threw it on the floor. The page had to be re-copied and it was only now that it received the title ‘Sinfonia eroica’.”

In the end, the symphony was dedicated to Beethoven’s patron Prince Lobkowitz, and it had its first, private performance at the prince’s castle of Eisenberg in Bohemia. The public premier followed a few months later.

The critics were, er, divided in their opinions. The Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung said, “a daring, wild fantasia of inordinate length and extreme difficulty of execution. There is no lack of striking and beautiful passages in which the force and talent of the author are obvious; but on the other hand the work seems often to lose itself in utter confusion. In the present work he (the reviewer) finds much that is odd and harsh, enormously increasing the difficulty of comprehending the music, and obscuring its unity almost entirely.”

Der Freimuthige said, “One party contend that this particular symphony is a masterpiece, that this is exactly the true style for music of the highest type and that if it does not please now it is because the public is not sufficiently cultivated in the arts to comprehend these higher spheres of beauty, but after a couple of thousand years its effect will not be lessened. The other party absolutely denies any artistic merit to this work. Neither beauty, true sublimity nor power have anywhere been achieved. For the audience the Symphony was too difficult, too long and B. himself too rude, for he did not deign to give even a nod to the applauding part of the audience. Perhaps he did not find the applause sufficiently enthusiastic.”

After the first few performances, the symphony was only heard 3 more times in Vienna during Beethoven’s lifetime. Now, of course, it’s considered a work of genius and enormous beauty.

(For more of Ries’s biography of Beethoven, see the 1987 translation from Great Ocean Publishers, Beethoven Remembered)

What is your favorite work by Beethoven? Any artistic creations (paintings, books, music) that you think say “Regency Period”? Have you seen any good movies about Beethoven (somehow, there just don’t seem to be any to compare with Mozart and Amadeus…)?

About Amanda McCabe/Laurel McKee

Writer (as Amanda McCabe, Laurel McKee, Amanda Carmack), history geek, yoga enthusiast, pet owner!
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