Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 55, Sinfonia eroica Program Notes

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)                                                                                                                                                            Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 55, Sinfonia eroica     

In 1792, France was declared a Republic. The following year, the Reign of Terror erupted, and as the promises of the French Revolution crumbled in its wake, Napoleon Bonaparte was increasingly seen as a leader who could save France and offer stability. During this time, Beethoven transferred from his native Bonn to Vienna to further his career. As his success grew, so did his realization that his hearing was failing. In 1802 he wrote the famous Heiligenstadt Testament, a letter discovered after his death in which he describes his deep struggle with deafness and his resolution to continue to strive for the sake of his art. Valiance in the face of darkness: this is the sentiment that came to define what is referred to as Beethoven’s “heroic period,” from 1802 to 1812.
Beethoven’s personal struggles, combined with his bold career aspirations, led him to identify with Napoleon: the military commander’s image as a self-made man resonated with the composer’s own ambitions and ideals. Such feelings, however, soon turned to disgust and disappointment. While writing his Third Symphony in 1803-4, Beethoven initially subtitled it “Bonaparte”—but angrily destroyed the title page when Napoleon crowned himself Emperor in 1804, declaring, “Now he will think himself superior to all men, become a tyrant,” according to Beethoven’s friend and pupil Ferdinand Ries. The symphony remained instead a “Sinfonia eroica” when printed in 1806, “composed to celebrate the memory of a great man,” and open to more ambiguous interpretation.
The first public performance of the Eroica was on April 7, 1805 in Vienna at the Theater an der Wien, conducted by Beethoven. The symphony overwhelmed audiences with its unprecedented length and density of ideas, leaving concert-goers daunted and in awe. It signaled not only a turning point in Beethoven’s career, ushering in his “heroic period,” but it also signified a shift in Western musical aesthetics, as the Classical orchestra of Haydn, Mozart, and a younger Beethoven gave way to the sublime sweep of the Romantic era.  
The symphony begins with two emphatic chords before soaring off into its famous main theme, heard first in the cellos. The first movement follows a typical sonata form, with the opening theme passed among the instruments in the exposition, at times tumbling into syncopated passages and exploring wide-ranging key areas. The development section begins quietly, with an air of trepidation, and gradually builds with fragments of the main theme. Beethoven breaks from convention in the middle of the last hushed, suspenseful passages of the development section, when the horn cuts in with the main theme as if it cannot hold out until the recapitulation; a pupil of Beethoven’s famously declared that the horn player had made a mistake when he first heard this “wrong” entrance. The movement’s closing coda is no mere afterthought to wrap up the movement, but is again of unprecedented scale, packed full of its own action and heralding a new standard in Romantic-era music.
The slow movement is a Funeral March. A mournful solo oboe is accompanied by a repeated drum-like figure in the strings. A brighter central section shifts from minor to major, the strings playing an upward, lilting figure under the wind instruments. After a triumphant build-up, the march returns, this time starting out as a fugue and with greater agitation and despair. In contrast, the third movement Scherzo is in a lively triple meter. Its momentum is relentlessly kept up with staccato strings, save for the central Trio section featuring horns.
The last movement provides a weighty ending to the symphony. Beethoven used material from his Opus 35 “Eroica Variations” for piano, itself based upon a simple contradance melody he wrote in 1800-1801. The melody is taken through a series of variations, leading up to a slow section that lends a heaviness to the propulsive energy of the finale. Only at the very end does the faster tempo return, and with it, triumphantly resounding horns to close the symphony with a heroism befitting its title.