Showcase March-April 2015 - page 39

Ludwig van Beethoven
Born:
December 16, 1770, Bonn
Died:
March 26, 1827, Vienna
Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Opus 55,
Eroica
n May 1803, Beethoven confided to a friend: “I am
only a little satisfied with my previous works. From
today on I will take a new path.” Over the next six
months, he sketched his massive new Third Symphony,
a revolutionary work of art that dumbfounded early
audiences at private performances and the public
premiere on April 7, 1805—almost exactly 210 years ago.
Everyone knows the story of how Beethoven had intended
to dedicate the symphony to Napoleon, whose reforms
in France had seemed to signal a new age of egalitarian
justice. But when the composer learned that Napoleon
had proclaimed himself emperor, he tore off the score’s
title and angrily blotted out Napoleon’s name. When
published in 1806, the title page bore only the cryptic
inscription: “Sinfonia eroica—dedicated to the memory of
a great man.”
allegro con brio.
The “new path” of which Beethoven
wrote is evident from the first instant. The music explodes
to life with two whip-cracks in E-flat major, followed
immediately by the main ideas in the cellos. The theme is
built on the notes of an E-flat major chord, but it settles
on a “wrong” note, C-sharp, and the resulting harmonic
complications are resolved only after much violence.
Rather than the duple meter customary in symphonic
first movements, Beethoven chose 3/4, the minuet
meter, which had been thought lightweight, unworthy of
serious music. But this is music of the greatest violence
and uncertainty: in it, what Beethoven’s biographer
Maynard Solomon has called “hostile energy” is admitted
for the first time into what had been the polite world of
the classical symphony. This huge movement introduces
a variety of themes and develops them with a furious
energy; in the powerful coda, the main theme repeats
four times, growing more potent on each appearance, and
finally it is shouted out in triumph. This truly is a “heroic”
movement, raising serious issues and resolving them in
music of unparalleled drama and scope.
39
MARCH / APRIL 2015 MINNESOTA ORCHESTRA
apr
2, 3, 4
Program Notes
marcia funebre: adagio assai.
The second movement
brings another surprise—it is a funeral march, something
else entirely new in symphonic music. Beethoven moves
to dark C minor as violins announce the grieving main
idea over growling basses, and the movement makes its
somber way on the tread of this dark theme. The C-major
central interlude sounds almost bright by comparison—
the hero’s memory is ennobled here—but when the
opening material and tonality return Beethoven ratchets
up tensions by treating his material fugally. At the end,
the march theme disintegrates in front of us, and the
movement ends on muttering fragments of that theme.
scherzo: allegro vivace.
Out of this silence, the
propulsive scherzo springs to life, then explodes. For
all its revolutionary features, the
Eroica
employs what
was essentially the Mozart-Haydn orchestra: pairs of
winds, plus timpani and strings. Beethoven makes only
one change, adding a third horn, which is now featured
prominently in the trio section’s hunting-horn calls. That
seemingly small alteration is yet another signal of the
symphony’s originality: the virtuosic writing for horns, the
sweep of their brassy sonority—all these are new in music.
finale: allegro molto.
The finale is a theme-and-variation
movement, an old form that Beethoven transforms into a
grand conclusion worthy of a heroic symphony. After an
opening flourish, he presents not the theme but the bass
line of that theme, played pizzicato, and offers several
variations on this line before the melodic theme itself
is heard in the woodwinds, now accompanied by the
same pizzicato line. Beethoven puts the theme through
a series of dazzling variations, including complex fugal
treatment, before reaching a moment of poise on a
stately slow variation for woodwinds. The music pauses
expectantly, and then a powerful
Presto
coda hurls the
Eroica
to its close.
With this symphony, Beethoven made an extraordinary
leap to an entirely new conception of what music might
be. Freed from the restraint of courtly good manners, he
found in the symphony the means to express the most
serious and important of human emotions.
It is no surprise that over the next century, composers
would make full use of this freedom. Nor is it a surprise to
learn that late in life, Beethoven named the
Eroica
as his
favorite among the eight symphonies he then had written.
Instrumentation:
2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets,
2 bassoons, 3 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings
Program notes by
Eric Bromberger
.
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