Stellar Music Not For an Emperor by Beethoven

Oct 15, 2015

If you're a fan of the original Star Wars films, imagine how you would have felt if Luke Skywalker suddenly changed his allegiance and joined the evil Galactic Empire near the end and took Darth Vader's place? 

Now, imagine how Beethoven felt when he heard that Napoleon Bonaparte, the great military leader and a hero of the French Revolution, declared himself emperor.

Yes, I know, a whimsical example perhaps, but Beethoven had seen Napoleon as a great liberator of mankind when he wrote his Third Symphony and dedicated it to him, giving it the title, "Bonaparte."  As the story goes, when Beethoven heard about Napoleon's declaration, he tore out the dedication page of the symphony and scratched out his name.  The hero had become just another tyrant.

A year after the first public performance in Vienna in 1805, the Third Symphony was  published with the title "Heroic Symphony, composed to celebrate the memory of a great man," or as we know it today in the shortened form of the original Italian title, Sinfonia Eroica, or just the Eroica.  So, just what makes this symphony so heroic?  If we take the time to listen to this piece that changed music forever and ushered in the Romantic Era, we are still struck by the sheer power and weight and brilliant creativity of this remarkable symphony.  There was nothing like it before.

Though still cast in the traditional four movements, the scale of this work is unprecedented.  It's longer than any previous symphony by far, even the greatest of Haydn and Mozart, and yet the rigorous development of the thematic ideas leads it dramatically and relentlessly toward its inspired conclusion.  The great theme of the finale is drawn from Beethoven's earlier ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus, based on the story of the Greek deity who became humanity's greatest benefactor by stealing fire from Mount Olympus and bringing it down to Earth for mankind to use.

In the story from Greek mythology, Prometheus's great deed represented for Beethoven the same boon to mankind that Napoleon represented in furthering the ideals of "Liberty, equality, fraternity" of the French Revolution, ideals he felt were undermined by Napoleon's self-elevation to a god-like status.  Despite the betrayal, the music of this symphony represents the struggle for and hopeful acheivement of those high ideals.  

You can hear Symphony No. 3 in E-flat, the Eroica by Ludwig van Beethoven this evening on Symphony @ 7 on Classical 101 with the Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vanska.  Experience what makes this old war horse of the repertoire so revolutionary and still exciting.  "The Force" was strong with Beethoven.