Spring Symphonies: 7/60 Beethoven: Symphony No 3 'Eroica'

This is an easy choice in many ways since today, 7th April, is the anniversary of the symphony's first performance in 1805 at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna

It's the best symphony Beethoven ever wrote and possibly the hardest to bring off.  Its the way in which the Romantic idea found form and flight.  It is one of the most fruitful products of political inspiration and fateful products of revolution and disenchantment.  It is protest and worship, it is urban and pastoral and it is the subject of argument and an object of beauty.   It is one of the greatest masterpieces in all art.

And like all the greatest pieces of art it is interpreted in a variety of ways over time, across continents and points of view.  For Toscanini it was about ensuring 'Itler and Mussollini didn't intrude on his Allegro con Brio, for Bernstein references to the holocaust loomed large, for Beethoven it was about a great democratiser who turned into an autocrat.  In the end I suspect we shouldn't even dwell too much on the "Hero": the most misleading of epithets.

The tendency of some great conductors to dwell in the monumentality of the first two movements is regrettable, Furtwangler seemed to be hypnotised by their weight and import. I remember when the Scherzo came alive for me on hearing Monteux's Vienna Philharmonic version and the full glory of the Finale's hymn like opened up in Karajan's 1977 version with the Berlin Philharmonic.

I recommend for anyone with an interest of the inner workings of this extraordinary piece to consult Thomas Sipe’s excellent Cambridge Music Handbook.  It reveals the simple frame which Beethoven pushes beyond the reason of his time.  It helped me understand how the drama unfolds and it appealed to the geek in me which thinks these works can be just constructed by formula.  They can’t - Beethoven worked hard on this.

The first movement’s glories and traps are many - the szforzandi provided Abbado with trouble enough in his LSO Beethoven cycle concerts in the early years of his tenure.  The movement is tightly interlocking and fiendish, five themes vie for our attention and contrapuntal victory.  The coda alone is one of the weightiest pieces of orchestral music written to that date at 140 bars long.  What I love about this coda is that whilst the main action centres on a battle royal there’s plenty moor going on too. At 639 one of the clarinets and the violas introduce a note of pastoralism to the mix - it reappears in the finale.  I’d love to know where that comes from.  There are arguments too about Wagner’s additions to the score here, extending the trumpet line to allow the new range of the valved instruments to join the tutti.  Beethoven could not allow for future musical instrument development but what is a conductor to do here if his resources are better than Beethoven allowed.  Karajan adds the Wagner brass, Monteux did not, most of the period instrument brigade avoid it, its not clear who’s being mislead if they are utilised.

The Funeral March (Adagio Assai) is a thrilling piece of theatre from bar 1.  It’s material is less varied than Movement I, its tone grave in our heads at least until a brighter Trio cuts in at bar 69.  The three interruptions to progress are some of the most dramatic writing any symphony has conjured up - a double fugue of grinding power, the interrupted pedal note which in Klemperer’s hands was weighty as to cleave a boulder in two (if the 1970s telecast is anything to go by) and a final diversion which is so heart rending as to leave you in tatters at the end of the movement.  All these may be too romantic for some, but have won many over.  Not least Richard Strauss who in his piece Metamorphosen mourning the death of German opera houses in 1944/5, quotes from this march in a most poignant fashion.

The Scherzo is a minefield.  Musically might easily be related to today’s music by Glass and Adams, but it marks the point after which scherzo replaced Minuet as the mode for this kind of movement.  The unwary horn players are cruelly exposed (though more so in Beethoven’s day). And everyone counts bars through until there’s the famous Alle breve which catches the unwary player and audience member.

The finale is for many the easiest to work out - a theme and variations the ambition and breadth of which had not been seen before.  I love the flute led scamper and its contrapuntal companion.  The cat and mouse game builds to a speedy and complex collapse after which the woodwind start a broad, hymn-like variation which opens its heart outwards and upwards - there is very little music that is this noble.  There’s much to savour here and a great deal to admire in Beethoven’s breathless invention.  But it must come to an end and Beethoven delivers a coup de grace coda this time which at speed finishes off players and audience alike.

So you should listen to this work because it’s still one of the top ten symphonies every written.  It has claim to be the father or mother of modern symphonies and it sits about the shoulders of some very important but less successful siblings in Beethoven’s canon.

So Happy 209th birthday Eroica - I hope no one ever finds all your secrets and you remain as puzzling, exhausting, invigorating and sincere in another 209 years time.  Lots of Love, Stephen 

Here's Daniel Barenboim and the excellent West East Divan Orchestra at the 2012 Proms  showing there's life in this symphony yet.  Start 6:49 to avoid the intro.



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