Beethoven’s Heroic Beginnings

Program Notes by Laney Boyd

Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Ludwig van Beethoven wrote his First Symphony in the final years of the eighteenth century and premiered and published it in the opening years of the nineteenth. This timing during the shift from the Classical to Romantic eras is fitting; the work bears unmistakable signs of symphonic traditions established by two of the greatest names in classical music and Beethoven’s most influential predecessors, W. A. Mozart and Joseph Haydn, as well as clear indicators of where Beethoven would take the symphonic genre in the years to come. Mozart and Haydn had together transformed the symphony from a relatively light and simple form of entertainment to something weightier and more musically complex. However, the genre would not reach its true zenith until the mantle was passed to Beethoven.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 premiered alongside works by Mozart and Haydn on April 2, 1800 at a benefit concert that served to announce the young composer and his music to Vienna. Compared with his revolutionary later symphonies, the First is often heard with modern ears as surprisingly cautious, conservative, and reserved. But alongside the typical classical forms, instrumentation, and four movement structure are the sudden and unexpected shifts in tonality, the inclusion of the not-yet-standard clarinets, and the more prominent use of the woodwind section at large that pointed toward Beethoven’s later ingenuity. Context is key: with the benefit of some two hundred intervening years, we can now hear the symphony as the remarkable combination of tradition and innovation it is.

Beethoven’s First Symphony begins with a slow, searching introduction that evades the home key of C major until the very end. It then launches directly into the energetic first theme of the Allegro proper, emphasizing the point by driving the tonic C home over and over. The lyrical second theme features the woodwinds in striking contrast to the strings of the first theme. An adventurous, almost aggressive coda closes the movement. The slow second movement provides some respite from the force of the first. Its mood is both pleasant and elegant, though the conspicuous timpani and trumpet sonorities are quite unusual for a classical slow movement.

The third movement is labeled a minuet, but its swift tempo stamps it as the first of Beethoven’s symphonic scherzos. Wit, energy, and a driving momentum propel the movement forward into the finale. This closing movement starts off with another slow introduction made up of snippets of scales that go on to build the main motivic material. Playfulness and spirited energy tempered with strict adherence to classical form shows Beethoven’s indebtedness to Mozart’s and Haydn’s influences, but the victorious conclusion boldly asserts his own character and foreshadows his innovation to come.

Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 55, Eroica
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

 The opening years of the nineteenth century were transformative for Beethoven. 1802 saw the writing of the composer’s famous Heiligenstadt Testament, a letter written (but never sent) to his brothers in which he expressed despair over his growing deafness and related his contemplations of suicide, but in the end asserted hope for the future and a desire to overcome his demons and establish a profound dedication to his art. This personal breakthrough gave way to Beethoven’s second compositional period, sometimes called his “heroic” phase, which lasted until about 1812. The first major work to launch this stage was the revolutionary Symphony No. 3, also known as Sinfonia Eroica (“Heroic Symphony”).

Beethoven had originally titled his Third Symphony “Bonaparte” in honor of his personal hero, Napoleon, as he believed the military leader perfectly embodied the democratic ideals of the French Revolution. However, when Beethoven learned that Napoleon had declared himself Emperor in 1804, the composer is said to have torn up the title page upon which Bonaparte’s name was emblazoned in a fit of disillusioned rage. His passions cooled a bit by the time the work was published in 1806, and the composer himself suggested the title Sinfonia Eroica along with the inscription “composed to celebrate the memory of a great man.”

Reviews upon the Third Symphony’s first public performance in 1805 were markedly mixed: while some hailed the work as the composer’s greatest artistic achievement to date, others bemoaned its exhausting length, technical complexity, and overall weightiness. Over time, however, it has become a particularly well-loved and respected contribution to the symphonic genre. It is no doubt a revolutionary work: massive in scope and twice as long as most of the symphonies by Haydn and Mozart, it also features an unprecedented range of emotions, shifting moods several times within single movements. With Eroica, Beethoven really began to push the limits of what a symphony could be, say, and do, and the work thus marks an important turning point between the Classical and Romantic eras.

Spanning four vast movements and boasting a performance time of nearly 50 minutes, Beethoven’s Third Symphony is unquestionably monumental. Two bold tonic chords open the first movement, giving way to a cello melody in which a striking C-sharp that does not belong in the established key creates strong harmonic tension. The movement proceeds in a whirlwind of motivic development, unexpected rhythmic passages, and staggering harmonic shifts that coalesce into a characteristically Beethovenian lavish and lengthy coda.

The second movement takes the form of a funeral march, its somber opening eventually leading to a somewhat sunnier passage before ultimately moving into a fugal section that serves to augment the musical intensity to a magnificent pitch. A fragmented version of the opening theme repeats at the movement’s close, driving home the overarching grief. The third movement, an energetic scherzo brimming with brilliant melodic passages and playful metric choices, offers a complete contrast in mood to the second.

The finale, an expansive theme and variations, is a musical event in and of itself. It begins with a brief introduction before the quiet theme appears. The ten variations that follow feature a remarkable array of stylistic and emotional variety; they include such diverse forms as a fugue, a dance, and a hymn with moods ranging from solemn to humorous and everything in between. The movement concludes with a truly glorious coda ending with an ecstatic passage and three towering chords that provide a fitting close to this victorious symphony.