Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam

Beethoven Symphony No. 3

Eroica: Great Men and Great Events

For thirteen and a half years Austria and France were at war. From 1793 till 1815, one bitter defeat after another followed for the Austrians on the battlefields of Jena, Austerlitz, Marengo, Friedland and Wagram: their names survive in the bridges, avenues, monuments and metro stations that bear their names in Paris.

The leader of the French troops was the short Corsican upstart Napoleon Bonaparte, an outsider of common birth. He inspired his armies with real revolutionary ardour through his own strength of will and military genius and not by aristocratic title or wealth. Even his opponents considered him to be the incarnation of the spirit of the times, in which the centuries-old system of rank and privilege was turned on its head and a new period of enlightenment seemed to be dawning.

The spirit of the Napoleonic revolution also inspired Beethoven. Legend has it that he intended to dedicate his third symphony, composed between 1802 and 1804, to the French general, only to change his mind when Napoleon betrayed the revolution by crowning himself emperor in Paris, and once again threats of war began to be heard.

Photo Olga Scholten, 2014
PHoto Olga Scholten, 2014
Strange and rough

The new dedicatee of the symphony was prince Lobkowitz, one of Beethoven's most generous patrons. The first performance of the symphony took place in private in Lobkowitz's palace in December 1804. Accounts of the symphony first appeared in February 1805: the music critic of the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung described the work as '… 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. […] The writer belongs to Beethoven's warmest admirers, but in the present work he finds very much that is odd and harsh, enormously increasing the difficulty of comprehending the music, and obscuring its unity almost entirely.'

The first public performance of Eroica took place in Vienna on 7 April 1805; Beethoven himself conducted the orchestra. The fifty minute long symphony caused general shock, for it was twice the length of the average symphony by Haydn or Mozart. The large orchestral forces and the high drama of the music as well as its strong dissonances and frequent rhythmic collisions were simply too much for even his warmest admirers.

Moral significance

History has it that Beethoven laid the basis for a new Romantic tradition with his first three symphonies and with the third in particular. From Beethoven onwards a composer was regarded almost as a prophet, one who filled his creations with moral significance. Haydn's symphonies seem ten to a penny, whilst Beethoven's nine symphonies all make a great moral call upon the listener; the artist is the new hero of his age and in this sense all of his symphonies are 'heroic' from that time onwards.

The idea of the expression of a composer's personality in his music was an essential part of Romanticism. We make no connection between the individual personalities of Monteverdi, Bach, Telemann and even Mozart and their music, although we do from Beethoven onwards. The idea that music should express purely personal feelings and ideas, the idea that the artist is different from normal people, that he can perceive things that others cannot, that he has access to the sublime and that he can catch a glimpse of the divine — these are all characteristic of the Romantic period. They began with Beethoven and are still current today, as can be heard in the music of Chet Baker, Kurt Cobain and Jim Morrison. As the critic Bas van Putten writes, 'This is about us — it's an art that represents the best, music by a titan who struggles worthily and prevails.'

Koen Kleijn
Translation: Peter Lockwood