A musical revolution: Beethoven's Eroica, Symphony No.3

In what is a first for Escala Partners, we are very proud to be able to provide an insight to a musical masterpiece soon to be brought to us by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra; Beethoven’s Eroica, Symphony No. 3.

The article is courtesy of Scott Robinson, a history and philosophy student at the University of Melbourne (who is part of the Escala family by virtue of being the son of our Chief Investment Officer, Giselle Roux).  An abridged version of a much larger study, the work for this article was undertaken while studying French Revolutionary and Counter-Revolutionary culture while on exchange at Durham University in England.

For those with a taste or passion for music, for history and culture generally, or for those attending the performance or who might be tempted, we hope you enjoy this remarkable piece of writing (and of course the concert, if you can make it!)



A musical revolution: Beethoven's Eroica, Symphony No.3

Osmo Vänskä with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, 27th and 28th November performing Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No.3 in E Flat Major (Eroica), Op.55, (1804-05)

Audiences in early-19th century Vienna had much to be shocked by when Beethoven’s Third Symphony, Eroica, exploded into their concert halls. And explode it did, coming to earn a reputation as the fulcrum upon which Western music history is levered. Perhaps the stunned audiences should have been better prepared; Beethoven was, after all, already regarded as one of the greatest living composers, even before much of what we now regard as great had been composed.

This reputation was undoubtedly hard-earned. Beethoven succeeded the generation of Haydn and Mozart, whom, it was thought, none could surpass. Yet critics today look upon this triumvirate as seemingly planned in advance, so perfectly does it reflect the progression of musical genius. It was Beethoven’s peculiar genius to remain within the classical style, and then to expand and refine it beyond previously conceivable boundaries. This leads some to mistake his music for the Romantics, who in their eagerness burst the already-inflated balloon of classicism. Instead, Beethoven sat between the generations adopting the sententious earnestness of classicism, and incorporating the enthusiasm and energy of the new century.

Vienna, where music history lives in this era, was a perfect environment for Haydn and Mozart – filled with musicians and, more importantly, patrons. But Beethoven had to contend with the nobility’s gradual decline against the growing commercial class, and Vienna’s waning relevance against the French and Germanic nations that would dominate the 19th century. On the other hand, there was a flourishing of public concert halls and opera houses and a growing literate public, thanks to the Enlightenment, to fill them with discerning ears.

This public had the sounds of revolution and war in their ears as they sat down to hear Eroica for the first time. In fact, so closely tied to the French Revolution was the piece that the ‘hero’ of the title was originally intended to be Napoleon. But Beethoven’s assistant recounts him dramatically tearing up the title page upon hearing the news that Napoleon was to have himself crowned Emperor. Perhaps there were more pragmatic reasons for this outburst than republican sympathy however. Many wealthy patrons fled the city in anticipation of a French invasion, which subsequently occurred in 1805, including Prince Lobkowitz, who funded the Symphony. Regardless of the details, critics agree that there is a fated synchrony between Napoleon’s coronation and Eroica as both kicked away the past and largely determined the course of the century in their respective realms.

Protected by Lobkowitz’s patronage, Beethoven was able to spend nearly a year perfecting the work and having recovered from illness in 1801, was experiencing a productive surge as we can tell from his frequent quarrels about publication and payments. Following a musical expansion in his early works, Eroica is the first in a series of monumental compositions, sharing its capacious architecture with the likes of the Ninth Symphony and the ‘Emperor’ concerto. After the apparent interruption of the opening, Eroica surges into activity proving athletic for the musicians. Not only is it energetic, the piece also challenged orchestras and listeners alike with its length, but it was equally confronting in its ceaseless mobility from one part to the next. In the Leipzig-based journal, Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, a critic wrote simply: ‘long composition, extremely difficult in performance, in reality a tremendously expanded, daring and wild fantasia… but it often loses itself in lawlessness’.

The question of what this composition means, normally difficult for music critics to answer with any certainty, is relatively clear in this case. It is ‘about’ a hero. There is no need to agree on who in particular this hero is, because it can be Napoleon, Prometheus or Beethoven himself, or any hero for that matter. The title immediately suggested Napoleon, but as did musical references, particularly in the second movement, to funeral and military marches of 1790s France. Beethoven also references the theme of his own ballet, Die Geschopfe des Prometheus (The Creatures of Prometheus) in the finale. This presents the artist as the saviour of civilization, at the cost of his own exile and punishment, just as Prometheus stole the gods’ fire and was brutally condemned thereafter. If this is not self-serving enough, many have seen the Symphony as unashamed auto-biography on Beethoven’s part – presenting himself as the hero, and his art, the heroic act.

Beethoven would later recall Eroica and continue its power in the Fifth Symphony, then the Ninth even as he slowly went out of fashion. The generation, except perhaps Schubert, that replaced him fled his towering legacy, and not until the German late-Romantics such as Brahms or Wagner would anyone be so presumptuous as to attempt to claim him as a precedent. Even if the Symphony has lost its revolutionary scandal and impertinence, when the MSO, led by Osmo Vänskä performs the piece in November, none of its grandeur or majesty will be lost.

*Photography by Lucas Dawson.