Saturday, August 14, 2010

A Magnificent Eroica

The Symphony #3 in E Flat Op. 55 “Eroica” by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) was first performed in public in 1805.  It had been written over the previous two years.  The portrait above was done about the same time.

According to Beethoven’s friend, Ferdinand Ries, “In writing this symphony Beethoven had been thinking of [Napoleon] Buonaparte, but Buonaparte while he was First Consul. At that time Beethoven had the highest esteem for him and compared him to the greatest consuls of ancient Rome. Not only I, but many of Beethoven's closer friends, saw this symphony on his table, beautifully copied in manuscript, with the word "Buonaparte" inscribed at the very top of the title-page and "Ludwig van Beethoven" at the very bottom. …I was the first to tell him the news that Buonaparte 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 under foot all the rights of man, indulge only his ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men, become a tyrant!" Beethoven went to the table, seized the top of 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 the symphony received the title "Sinfonia Eroica."

Anton Schindler, Beethoven’s sometimes unreliable biographer recounted that upon hearing of Napoleon’s death in Saint Helena in 1821, Beethoven proclaimed "I wrote the music for this sad event seventeen years ago" - referring to the Funeral March (second movement).

Now the relevance of this piece, and especially to Beethoven's remarks concerning the Emperor Napoleon, should become obvious and clear when we consider current events.  I searched You Tube and found an incredible performance that took place in Japan in 2006.  The performers were The Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen [German Chamber Orchestra of Bremen] with Paavo Järvi conducting.  Paavo is the son of the more well known Neeme Järvi.  They are of a very famous Estonian family of great musicians.  I think after more hear this performance he will become as well known as his famous father.

This symphony is in the typical four movements.  It is scored for an amazingly small orchestra to begin with.  What makes it big is not just the notes played but in this performance how they are played; with conviction and ardent force, in my opinion very much the way Beethoven intended it.  Those who know this music will understand right away why I have decided to highlight it in my blog.  To those who have never heard this music before, I assure you, this is one of the best performances of it I have ever heard.

As we are all about to go through exceedingly trying times in this country and around the world, I encourage you to hear this music, let it inform you of the very best that humanity is capable of, let it remind you of everything worth contending for, may you remember it when times get tough.  At the time it was written, the composer was discovering that he was losing his hearing and within a decade would become profoundly deaf.  It is inconceivable to many, even to me, how one of the greatest forces in music could continue after becoming deaf.  That too is worth recalling to continual reflection.  We are often known not just for our accomplishments, but for what we had to overcome in order to create and bring forth anything at all.

Beethoven always regarded this work as among his greatest and it was long one of his favorites.  Today, and especially with performances like this, the Eroica still stands out as among the greatest achievements in the history of music.


1st movement – Allegro con brio [fast with brilliance]

2nd movement – Marcia funebre: Adagio assai [funeral march: always slow]

3rd movement – Scherzo: Allegro vivace [A humorous dance: fast and lively]

4th movement – Finale: Allegro molto [The end: fast throughout]


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