Beethoven’s first two symphonies were fine works, well in line with the standards of the Classical era.
And then came the Third, the Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, subtitled the “Eroica”.
This was one of those epochal works that pretty much signaled an entirely new way of doing business, a new way of looking at things, an upping of the ante that seemingly came out of nowhere. Here was a symphony more than twice as long as usual, whose first movement alone is as long as many “standard” symphonies. Here was a work that plumbed emotional depths rarely touched by any composer; here was music composed on an epic scale. The premiere of the Eroica has always been one of those events in music history I would like to attend, if anyone were to ever a musical time machine.
Beethoven was quite the idealist and humanist, and the famous story about the dedication of the Eroica is one of the great musical legends. He originally dedicated the symphony to none other than Napoleon Bonaparte, but then, upon learning that Napoleon had declared himself Emperor, an enraged Beethoven is said to have torn away the title page and renamed the work. This story is quite possibly apocryphal, or an enlargement of whatever did, in fact, happen. There is an autograph copy of the score with the original dedication to Napoleon scratched out, however.
The Eroica‘s epic scale is evident right from the very start, when Beethoven eschews all introductory material in favor of two huge E-flat major chords before immediately stating the melody (which also introduces a hint of chromaticism that was also unusual for the time period). That movement covers an enormous amount of ground, and is immediately followed by a slow movement that is not gentle or lyrical, but is rather a funeral march that is equally epic and vast in scope. The final two movements — the scherzo and the theme-and-variations finale — are also uncompromising and original.
Beethoven’s Third has never been my favorite of his works, but its power and majesty cannot be denied. It’s an amazing work that changed everything. Many musical historians date the beginning of Romanticism in music to this work, and it’s hard to disagree with that assessment.
The performance video, by the way, is occasionally marred by a fault in the recording. Don’t let this bother you. The performance is wonderful.