Three things you need to know about Beethoven 3

Beethoven’s Third Symphony features in our Newstalk ZB Series, we look at three reasons why the ‘Eroica’ is one of music’s biggest deals.

When dedications go wrong

On 14 May, 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte declared himself “Emperor of the French”. Seeing as he was meant to be the great liberator of Europe, many of his most loyal supporters were incensed by this casual move from “freedom fighter” to “totalitarian”.

None more so than Beethoven – a man who believed in the inherent greatness of the human spirit, but spent his entire life furious that everyone fell short of his expectations. However, the composer was also in the somewhat awkward position of having just completed a symphony in Bonaparte’s honour.

In a gesture that shows Beethoven at both his most idealistic and curmudgeonly, he furiously crossed out the original dedication to Napoleon, replacing it with the premature epitaph ‘composed to celebrate the memory of a great man’. It’s still got the nickname ‘Eroica’ (literally Heroic), but the music itself fulfils that brief just fine without Napoleon’s help.

Throwing out the rule book

During the Classical period, the symphonic form had a reasonably stable template – the one used by Haydn, Mozart and the like. They tended to run for half an hour max, and nearly always started with a fast movement, then a slow movement, then a graceful minuet followed by an exciting finale.

In his first couple of symphonies Beethoven was already showing signs of moving away from this model, but the third marked a more audacious break with tradition than anything before (or possibly even since).

The most obvious thing is the length - the ‘Eroica’ clocks in at just over 50 minutes. Don’t be deterred though, the music’s so exciting that you don’t even notice. He makes the orchestra bigger, adding extra horns and woodwinds and whilst he sticks to the four movement structure, the audacity of his musical ideas and the way he develops them abandons the restraint and balance of the Classical period in favour of big, bold ideas.

Casting a shadow

This symphony was the work that moved Beethoven from being a notably talented composer to being the figure that towers over classical music more than any other. Johannes Brahms, who was seen by many as the most likely successor to Beethoven’s, was in such awe of the man that he didn’t write his first symphony until he was 40, swearing for many years that he would do no such thing.

I shall never write a symphony! You can’t have any idea what it’s like always to hear such a giant marching behind you!

Brahms eventually wrote four (superb) symphonies, but the footsteps of the giant are never far away. Leonard Bernstein, one of the great conductors of the 20th century, and Beethoven superfan, neatly summarises what sets Beethoven apart:

When you get the feeling that whatever note succeeds the last is the only possible note that can rightly happen at that instant, in that context, then chances are you’re listening to Beethoven… Our boy has the real goods, the stuff from Heaven, the power to make you feel at the finish: Something is right in the world. There is something that checks throughout, that follows its own law consistently: something we can trust, that will never let us down.

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