Beethoven lived in an age that celebrated the individual, innovation and sublime expression. This, together with his astonishing musical vision and the tragic affliction of his deafness, conspired to make him the supreme Romantic hero. And in music such as the Eroica Symphony, Beethoven gave us ambitious works that were shaped by powerful dramatic forces – music that echoes the fundamentals of heroism: conflict and strength.
Today, nearly 200 years after his death, Beethoven remains one of the most popular and important of all composers. In a tormented and troubled world he gives us music that springs from conflict, in which disorder resolves into order. Beethoven wrestles with Fate and triumphs; he believes in Freedom. ‘Beethoven is, above all things, the poet of heroism.’
THE TRAGIC HERO
Beethoven strides onto the stage with an imperious but hollow-sounding octave – all the strings are playing the same note: C. It’s a gesture that demands a response. Three times the demand is made, each time with a different answering chord, each time the tension thickens. The very next thing we hear is a kind of stuttering theme. Barely a minute has elapsed and Beethoven has revealed the deeply conflicted personality – the ‘tragic dithering’ – of his hero, the Roman general Coriolan.
The first proper melody in the overture represents Coriolan’s mother, Volumnia, and its transformations show the dilemma the hero faces. This is one of the earliest of Beethoven’s heroic works, completed in 1807, but unlike the Fifth Symphony or the Eroica, the Coriolan story means the music can’t possibly finish in triumph. Instead Beethoven takes the stuttering theme and slows it down until it’s hardly recognizable. Then there are three more octave Cs, but very different from the opening. It’s as if the music shares the fate of its hero and expires rather than closes.
There are two more things worth knowing about this overture. First, Beethoven took his inspiration not from Shakespeare’s Coriolanus but from a play by Heinrich von Collin. Collin’s Coriolan is more reflective and poetic, less violent, and in the end the hero commits suicide rather than taking the deadly action that leads to his assassination in Shakespeare. Second, although Beethoven was inspired by a play, this overture was never really intended for the theatre. Beethoven wrote it as a overture for his concerts and as such it becomes more than an exercise in mood-setting – this is music that intrinsically embodies the story of a tragic hero.
THE VIRTUOSO HERO
Beethoven’s Violin Concerto
Beethoven’s violin concerto stands quite alone. Completed in 1806, it was the only major concerto for the instrument between those Mozart wrote in 1775 and Mendelssohn’s of 1844.
Beethoven had never written a violin concerto before when Franz Clement, the popular leader of the orchestra at the Theater an der Wien, approached him with a commission for a benefit concert he was giving. After the event, the critics praised its originality and many beauties, but they were puzzled too. They were used to the brilliantly virtuosic concertos of composer-violinists such as Viotti and Spohr; Beethoven’s elegant concerto prefers to sing rather than indulge in empty technical display, and it highlights the inherent drama of its themes rather than the expected confrontation between virtuoso and orchestra. With its stature and mighty proportions – the first movement alone is 25 minutes – it gives the impression of a symphony in which the solo violin happens to take a principal part.
The concerto begins with five taps from the timpani. This turns out to be more than an announcement: the rhythm of the five repeated notes discreetly dominates the whole of the first movement (‘fast, but not too much’). The orchestra presents the main themes in a long and lyrical exposition, beginning with a radiant theme in the woodwinds, before the solo violin enters with a poised flourish and its serene interpretation of the same material.
Clement himself had written a violin concerto, which had been premiered in a concert on April 7, 1805, sharing the program with the new Eroica Symphony. This may have been a technical model for Beethoven, whose only real preparation had been the Triple Concerto. And tradition has it that Clement supplied the leaping refrain for the hunting rondo that concludes Beethoven’s concerto. This theme is played first on just the G string, a reminder of Clement’s fondness for party tricks – between the first and second movements of the concerto Clement played a piece of his own, on one string, holding the violin upside down.
Fortunately the second and third movements are linked by a cadenza-like transition, not only making it immune to such gimmicks, but emphasizing the contrast in mood between the beautiful and moving variations of the Larghetto (‘broadly’) and the dazzling finale.
THE ULTIMATE HERO
On the surface, Beethoven was an unlikely hero – unattractive, quarrelsome and uncompromising – but his patrons among the Viennese aristocracy recognised his musical genius. They encouraged him to disregard conservative criticism and to write music that was bold and audacious – music like the Eroica Symphony.
The Eroica was revolutionary. When it was premiered in 1805, the Eroica Symphony polarised listeners: on the one hand those who judged the symphony a masterpiece, on the other hand those who heard only a wilful and unnecessary departure from the style they’d enjoyed in Beethoven’s first two symphonies. It was twice as long as any symphony by Mozart, monumental in scope and rich in ideas. It was also the first of Beethoven’s symphonies to carry a title, ‘Sinfonia eroica’.
The inspiration was Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt, and at first Beethoven saw in the First Consul of the Republic an apostle of new ideas and perhaps a little of his own uncompromising will. But when Beethoven heard that Napoleon had crowned himself Emperor, the dedication was scratched out and replaced by ‘Heroic Symphony, composed to celebrate the memory of a great man.’
With this gesture the conflicts of the symphony became idealised; the Funeral March, supposedly prompted by the rumour of Nelson’s death in the Battle of Aboukir, grew in significance, ‘too big to lead to the tomb of a single man.’ The hero is not Napoleon – he had shown himself to be ‘nothing but an ordinary man’ – or any other individual.
In one sense the Eroica’s battles are entirely musical and music is the hero. When asked what the Eroica meant, Beethoven went to the piano and played the first eight notes of the symphony’s main theme. This simple but powerful idea – outlining the main chord of the symphony – is developed into a vast but detailed opening movement (‘fast with life’). The second movement, a funeral march (‘very slow’), draws on the rhetoric of revolutionary music and spoke powerfully to the first audiences.
Following this expression of intense grief, the third movement (‘fast and lively’) is blessedly playful and humorous, a Scherzo by name as well as by nature.
The Finale (‘very fast’) is based on a theme from Beethoven’s ballet The Creatures of Prometheus (1801) and the connection with another hero cannot be accidental. The theme as you hear it in that ballet version is simple and impulsive, but in the symphony Beethoven transforms it into a hymn to the generous sentiments of the Revolution: freedom and equality.
It’s risky to read too much of the personal life of a composer into the character of his music. Even so, the ‘heroic’ works from Beethoven’s middle period contain more than a little of Beethoven-the-man, or at least our conception of Beethoven-as-hero. And from that perspective, who can the unnamed hero of the Eroica be but the composer himself?
Yvonne Frindle © 2010
Illustrations by Charles Krenner © 2010
Ludwig van Beethoven
When he was just 32 years old and at the beginning of a brilliant career, Beethoven had to come to terms with a dreadful truth: he, a composer and piano virtuoso, faced a future without hearing. In pulling through this crisis he entered a new creative phase, his middle or ‘heroic’ period, during which he wrote the famous Fifth Symphony and many other masterpieces, including all three works in this concert.
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CityMusic with Heather Headley at Masonic Auditorium (May 28)
Mike Telin, clevelandclassical.com, June 2, 2015
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