BEETHOVEN'S THIRD SYMPHONY
CREATION HISTORY
MUSICAL GENESIS


 



Eroica Title Page
 

 

INTRODUCTION

 

In our consideration of the wealth of the topic of the Eroica, we first looked at its conceptual aspects, be they of Napoleonic or Promethean nature, to subsequently consider the creation history of this work. A further aspect of its creation is, of course, its musical genesis.  

In turning to this genesis, as lay people, we can only do so by considering available comments on the part of Beethoven researchers and musicologists, and the most sensible way of proceeding is the chronological one, meaning in the chronological order of Beethoven's life, leading up to and including the time of his composing of the Third Symphony.   Therefore, we should, first of all, look out for early traces of the Eroica's musical genesis.   

 

MUSICAL GENESIS

 

Here, we can mainly turn to Solomon and Kinderman.  With respect to early traces, Solomon offers us the following comment: 

"The death of the hero--a theme which was to become a prime component of Beethoven's musical vocabulary--was central to the subject matter of Revolutionary music.  This theme, which we will meet in the slow movement of the Piano Sonata, op. 26 (Funeral March on the Death of a Hero); Christ on the Mount of Olives, op. 85; the Eroica Symphony ("Composed to Celebrate the Memory of a Great Man"); Fidelio; and the Incidental Music to Goethe's Egmont, makes its first major appearance in Beethoven's funeral cantata" (Solomon: 51). 

"A number of motifs, passages and dramatic ideas from the Joseph Cantata recur in the middle-period symphonies--the Eroica, the Sixth, and the Seventh--and in the overtures to Coriolan and Egmont.  Of particular interest are several anticipations of passages in the funeral march of the Eroica Symphony which reveal Beethoven's association of certain musical ideas with the concept of death.  For example, the extramusical meaning of the "disintegrating" passage in the closing measures of the funeral march movement is confirmed by Beethoven's use of a similar passage in the cantata to accompany the word "Todt" (dead). (11: Denis Arnold and Nigel Fortune, eds., The Beethoven Reader (New York: Norton, 1971), p. 205)" (Solomon: 49).

As we know from our Biographical Pages and from our creation history of the Imperial Cantatas, the Joseph Cantata offered Beethoven an opportunity to express personal grief in this public work commemorating an 'enlightened' absolutist monarch.    

What gave Beethoven the necessary artistic strength to do so is expressed by Solomon, in the following manner: 

"The stunning importance, then, lies in the light which they cast upon the unfolding of style elements of unmistakable Beethovenian cast.  It is not far-fetched to see in the Joseph Cantata one of those extraordinary leaps in Beethoven's creative powers such as we see in the Eroica Symphony of 1803-04 and the Hammerklavier Sonata of 1817-18.  Ultimately, such an event is not fully explicable, but it may be worthwhile to sketch the confluence of biographical and historical factors which plays some role in its genesis" (Solomon: 50).

In our opinion, the following comment by the same author also appears to be confirming this contention:  

"There was no shortcut from the Joseph Cantata to the Eroica Symphony" (Solomon: 70).

Therefore, let us also trace the natural path of the musical genesis of all relevant element in Beethoven's development towards the composition of his Eroica.

Here, we can first ask ourselves where Beethoven would attain the style elements for the next leap forward, in the creation of the Eroica and beyond.  With respect to this, Solomon writes:  

"Beethoven needed musical collaborators to help create his revolutionary, "heroic" music.  The high-Classic Viennese style, as we have previously noted, had essentially been completed (or exhausted) with Mozart, Haydn and the early Beethoven.  " (Solomon: 137).

"If these signs of Beethoven's revolutionary style shift were perceptible to Beethoven's contemporaries several years before the Eroica Symphony, they certainly had long been apparent to Joseph Haydn.  Thus it became evident to Beethoven that, unless he were willing to write numerous Septets and First Symphonies, his "new path" (as he termed it) would mean creating music that could not be to Haydn's taste and would not meet with his approval" (Solomon: 75).

In order to return to the question as to what Beethoven needed for the creation of his new style elements and where he found inspiration for it, we should consider the following comments by Solomon: 

"It would require an infusion of fresh elements from a previously untapped source to transcend this style and to open up new avenues for exploration.  Beethoven discovered some of these elements in contemporary French music.

The influence of French Revolutionary music upon Beethoven was no secret to his contemporaries and early admirers. . . .  it took the researches of twentieth-century scholars--Kretzschmar, Bücken, Botstiber, Sandberger, Schiedermair, Schmitz, Einstein, Boris Schwarz and others--to establish and trace in some detail the breadth of these influences in the formation of Beethoven's post-1800 style.  For example, Schmitz offers many examples of parallels between Beethoven's music and the works of Gossec, Gretry, Kreutzer, Berton, Mehul, Catel, and Cherubini . . .  He documents the clear use of French material in such works as Beethoven's First, Fifth and Seventh Symphonies, the Egmont and Leonore overtures, the Funeral March Sonata, op. 26, and the Violin Sonata, op. 30 no. 2.  .  . . 

The highly ordered yet flexible structure of sonata form readily expanded to embrace the driving, ethically exalted, "grand style" elements of French music . .  . " (Solomon: 137-138;). 

After Solomon's comments on the general influence of French revolutionary music on Beethoven's creation of a new style that emerged after 1800, William Kinderman offers us comments on the musical relationship between Beethoven's ballet music The Creatures of Prometheus and the Eroica, which we already considered from a conceptual aspect, in our first section:

"Further indications of Beethoven's psychological realignment around this time come from the immediate background of the Eroica Symphony.  Its genesis is bound up with the now obscure ballet music to Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus ('The Creatures of Prometheus') op. 43, written by Beethoven in collaboration with the dance master Salvatore Vigano.  The Promethus music was Beethoven's first major work for the stage and one of his earliest public successes, with more than 20 performances given at Vienna during 1801 and 1802.  After the initial run, the choreography was lost.  There have been practically no attempts to revive the ballet; concert performances of the music are rare.  . . . 

Because of the unfamiliarity of the ballet music, the extent of its relationship to the Eroica Symphony has remained obscure, in spite of the obvious reuse of an important theme from the ballet in the symphonic finale.  Complicating matters further is the fact that Beethoven first elaborated some ideas derived from the ballet in a work for piano: the Fifteen Variations and Fugue in E-flat op. 35 from 1802.  Together with its companion work, the F major Variations op. 34, this innovative variation set helped to launch Beethoven's so-called 'new way'.  But behind both the piano variations and the symphony lies an inspiring mythic source that until recently had been largely forgotten.  Only in the 1970s did Constantin Floros succeed in largely reconstructing the choreography and related symbolism of the ballet from Beethoven's surviving musical sketches.(4: Beethovens Eroica und Prometheus-Musik; see especially chapters 4 and 6)  Since Beethoven made notations about the stage action in these sketches, the association of music and dance can be largely reestablished.

Floro's work has shown that the links between the ballet and the symphony are more substantial than has usually been assumed.  Floros traces various rhetorical and formal parallels between the opening Allegro con brio of the symphony and, in particular, the eighth piece of the Prometheus music, the 'Danza eroica'.  Still more important is the affinity of the two following pieces of the ballet, the 'Tragica scana' (no. 9) and 'Guiocosa scena' (no. 10, in which the dead Prometheus is restored to life), to the progression from the Marcia funebre to the scherzo in the symphony.  This part of the Eroica has often proven a stumbling-block for commentators:  Paul Bekker even suggested that the work would be more effective if the inner movements were interchanged, with the scherzo preceding the slow movement.(5: Beethoven, p. 223)  The symbolism of the 'heroic-allegorical' ballet--as it was described in the programme at the premiere--can help here to supply a more convincing basis of analysis of the symphony.

. . . 

Ultimately, a reconciliation is achieved in that final section of the ballet that has always been understood as a link to the Eroica Symphony.  The shared material is the lively tune that Beethoven employed as the seventh of his 12 German contredanses WoO 14.  He recycled the contredanse three times:  in the ballet, the E-flat Piano Variations, and the Eroica finale.  The original audience for the symphony would surely have recognized this theme in the finale, but that is not all they are likely to have recognized.

The dramatic and symbolic elements incorporated from the Prometheus myth are by no means confined to the finale.  The overall narrative progression of the four movements of the symphony outlines a sequence--struggle, death, rebirth, apotheosis.  The parallel with Beethoven's own despair, thoughts of suicide, and discovery of his new artistic path is scarcely accidental.  But the heroic symbolism of the Eroica is too deeply embodied in the artwork to be adequately interpreted in terms of Beethoven's biography, or in relation to any other historical figure such as Napoleon.  What Beethoven explores in the Eroica are universal aspects of heroism, centering on the idea of a confrontation with adversity leading ultimately to a renewal of creative possibilities.  Variants of this narrative sequence surface again and again in Beethoven's music up to his very last years" (Kinderman: 87-90).

Since also Kinderman, in the second-last paragraph of his comment, refers to the reception of the Eroica by its first audiences, we should now turn to considering the chronological development of the first private, semi-private and public performances of the Eroica.


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