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Symphony No 3 in E flat major 'Eroica', Op 55

'Beethoven: Symphonies' (CDS44301/5)
Beethoven: Symphonies
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Beethoven: Symphony No 3
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Movement 1: Allegro con brio
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Movement 2: Marcia funebre: Adagio assai
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Movement 3: Scherzo: Allegro vivace
Movement 4: Finale: Allegro molto – Poco andante – Presto
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Symphony No 3 in E flat major 'Eroica', Op 55
At the time Beethoven left his home town of Bonn to settle permanently in Vienna the French Revolution was barely more than a year old. Beethoven must have found himself largely in sympathy with the ideals that had given rise to that momentous event, though in the years that followed, his attitude towards the rapidly rising figure of Napoleon was at best ambivalent. In 1802 he decided to compose a symphony in honour of the Frenchman; but when, some two years later, Napoleon declared himself Emperor, Beethoven flew into a rage, and seizing the title-page of the Symphony No 3 ‘Eroica’, tore it in half and flung it on the floor. On the copyist’s score (Beethoven’s original has not survived), the composer struck out the words ‘intitolata Bonaparte’ with such fury that he tore through the paper; and when the work appeared in print it bore a rather different legend: ‘Sinfonia Eroica composta per festiggiare il sovvenire di un grand’ uomo’ (‘Heroic Symphony composed to celebrate the memory of a great man’). The description, firmly locating the work’s subject in the past, could be taken as referring to Napoleon before he betrayed his ideals; but the presence of a funeral march as the symphony’s second movement suggests that Beethoven had a more generalized tribute to heroism in mind.

In marked contrast to Beethoven’s first two symphonies, the ‘Eroica’ dispenses with a slow introduction, but the opening movement is nevertheless conceived on a vast scale. The main subject provides a famous instance of Beethoven’s long-range harmonic planning. The theme’s confident surface is undermined almost immediately by the introduction of a ‘foreign’ note which, together with the restless syncopation of the violins above it, casts a momentary shadow over the music. Only much later, at the start of the recapitulation, does Beethoven seize on the ambiguity of that same note in order to take the music in an entirely new harmonic direction.

For a piece of such large dimensions, the first movement’s exposition is remarkably concise; but with the central development section Beethoven expands his canvas in unprecedented fashion. Following the first overwhelming climax, with strident discords hurled out by the full orchestra, a series of stamping chords on the strings gradually recedes, to raise the curtain on a new theme in a remote key. The theme reappears in the coda; and it is in the coda, too, that the movement’s main theme at last achieves a stable form, sweeping its way through the closing pages in a vast arc while trumpets and drums superimpose a fanfare which allows the music to reach a conclusion of overwhelming grandeur.

Another famous moment in the opening movement is the approach to the recapitulation. This is the point in his symphonic movements where Beethoven often favoured a moment of hushed mystery, followed by an explosive outburst at the start of the recapitulation itself. In the ‘Eroica’ the suspense proves too much for the second horn, which enters prematurely with a fragment of the main theme in E flat major before the violins’ mysterious tremolos have actually resolved onto that key. Even Schoenberg thought the resulting harmonic clash was a mistake, though it is one that propels the recapitulation with tremendous force.

The second movement is not Beethoven’s only funeral march. Some three years earlier he had written a similar movement, significantly entitled ‘Funeral March on the Death of a Hero’, for his piano sonata Op 26—a relatively straightforward affair with a middle section in the major followed by a reprise of the opening march theme. The ‘Eroica’ Symphony’s slow movement appears at first to be following a similar plan: after the consolatory C major middle section, the main theme returns—but even by this stage the piece has run considerably less than half its course. The reprise is actually restricted to a mere ten bars, before Beethoven launches on an austere fugato, and once this extended section has reached an end the music plunges unceremoniously into a new key, while horns and trumpets thunder out a repeated-note fanfare. As the intensity subsides, cellos and basses introduce a ‘winding’ figure that had previously formed a plaintive pendant to the main theme, and Beethoven proceeds to provide the full-scale reprise he had so conspicuously withheld following the earlier C major passage. At the end, the music appears to dissolve in grief with halting scraps of the main melody dying away to nothing—an effect Beethoven was to invoke again in his Coriolan Overture, also in C minor.

The scherzo begins in highly original fashion, with the strings playing staccato and pianissimo; and there is a further surprise in store for the trio, where the orchestra’s three horns—an entirely novel piece of scoring—come into their own, in a ‘hunting’ piece par excellence. Following the reprise of the scherzo the brief coda begins with distant drum-taps, before the hunting-horns make their appearance again, to bring the piece to a forceful conclusion.

Some three years before he began work on the ‘Eroica’ Symphony, Beethoven composed music for a ballet entitled The Creatures of Prometheus. The ballet’s final apotheosis contains a theme Beethoven later used not only in a set of orchestral contredanses, but also for a much more ambitious set of variations for piano, Op 35, as well as the finale of the symphony. The symphony’s last movement bursts in a with a series of rushing scales and emphatic chords, as though to announce some portentous event. What ensues instead is one of Beethoven’s most outrageous jokes, with the pizzicato strings quietly giving out the bizarrely empty-sounding bass-line of the ‘Prometheus’ theme to come. Two variations on the bass-line follow, before the theme itself at last makes its appearance. However, from this point on the finale is no straightforward set of variations; instead, Beethoven welds variations and fugal developments into a weighty symphonic argument. Near the end, an extended slow variation seems to recall the mood of the funeral march’s middle section, until it is eventually cut short by the return of the rushing scales from the movement’s beginning, now in a faster and more emphatic form. This time the scales herald exactly the sort of triumphant event they so strikingly failed to announce the first time round.

from notes by Misha Donat © 2007

Track-specific metadata
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Details for CDS44301/5 disc 2 track 3
Scherzo: Allegro vivace
Recording date
15 August 2006
Recording venue
Usher Hall, Edinburgh, Scotland
Recording producer
Bill Lloyd
Recording engineer
Matt Parkin & Mike Hatch
Hyperion usage
  1. Beethoven: Symphonies (CDS44301/5)
    Disc 2 Track 3
    Release date: September 2007
    5CDs Boxed set (at a special price)
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