“Music should strike fire from the heart of man, and bring tears from the eyes of woman.”
Ludwig von Beethoven
The gash remains on the manuscript like an open wound, evidence of frustration, perhaps anger. It is a sign of raw emotion when one erases what is written with such violence as to rip a hole in the page.
According to Ludwig von Beethoven’s student Ferdinand Ries, Beethoven idolized Napoleon Bonaparte. In early 1804, the composer had just finished his third symphony, which he had dedicated to the French ruler. When Ries advised Beethoven that Napoleon had recently declared himself Emperor of France, the composer flew into a rage. He is reported to have shouted, “So he is no more than a common mortal! Now he, too, will tread underfoot all the rights of man indulge only his ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men and become a tyrant!” At this point, Beethoven seized a pen and went over to where the score for the symphony sat on a table. He scribbled out the dedication to Napoleon with such violence that he tore through the paper. Beethoven would rededicate the symphony simply to the memory of a great man. The symphony would be called the Sinfonia Eroica - the Heroic Symphony. This incident would become part of the great composer’s legend. The composition inspired by revolution would itself become a revolution in music.
Beethoven was born into a musical family. His grandfather, whom Beethoven was named after, was a Flemish musician who had moved to Bonn. The elder Ludwig rose to the position of Kapellmeister for the court of the Archbishop-Electors of Cologne. Beethoven’s father, Johann, was also a court musician and teacher in Bonn at the time of Beethoven’s birth in 1770. Johann van Beethoven recognized his son’s musical talent and had aspirations of creating another Mozart. He promoted Beethoven as a child prodigy. Beethoven’s musical training began when he was very young, first from his father and then a series of local teachers. At the age of eleven, he started to study with Christian Gottlob Neefe, an eminent opera composer, and conductor. Neefe taught Beethoven how to compose, and the young student produced his first published work at 13 in 1783.
When Beethoven was growing up, Bonn was the center of progressive Enlightenment ideas. At the university, the philosophy of Immanuel Kant was the subject of much discussion. One of the critical components of Kant’s philosophy was human autonomy. Kant also spoke about the need for constitutional republics as necessary for world peace. Kant’s follower, Friedrich Schiller, was also a topic of discussion. Schiller’s poetry and plays, filled with idealism and heroics, would profoundly influence the young Beethoven. It would be Schiller’s poem “An die Freude” - “Ode to Joy” - that Beethoven would immortalize in the fourth movement of Symphony No. 9. Beethoven attended the lectures of Eulogious Schneider when he was a professor at the University of Bonn. Schneider was a fervent supporter of the French Revolution. In a poem, he jubilantly declared:
The chain of despotism has fallen,
Happy people! By your hand:
The princely throne has become a place of freedom for you
The kingdom has become a fatherland.
In the end, Schneider was too radical even for the highly liberal university. He was forced out of Bonn and worked for the revolutionary government in Strasbourg. But he, like many others, was swept up in the Reign of Terror and died at the guillotine.
The Austrian Empire, which Bonn was a part of, had become a seat of perceived enlightened rule. Emperor Joseph II had initiated what contemporaries would view as radical policies throughout the empire, one of the most important being the abolition of serfdom. The young Beethoven had a dim view of hierarchy, so he naturally sympathized with the emperor’s attempts to break the power of the Catholic Church and the Austrian aristocracy. Beethoven dedicated one of his first significant compositions to the emperor at the time of Joseph II’s death in 1790.
Beethoven, like many, got caught up in the revolutionary fervor, and he brought that republican zeal with him when he moved from Bonn to the Austrian capital of Vienna in 1792. He declared himself a democrat and vowed, “To do good whenever one can, to love liberty above all else, never to deny the truth, even though it be before the throne.” But Beethoven found the political situation in Vienna, like much of Europe, in turmoil in response to the events unfolding in France. Joseph II’s brother and successor, Leopold II, suddenly died after two years on the throne. His son, Francis II, became emperor. (The last to hold the title of Holy Roman Emperor.) The Reign of Terror, culminating in the beheading of Louis XVI, sent shock waves through the courts of the continent. In Vienna, Francis II reacted harshly. He looked upon any type of reform as being too radical. He cracked down on dissent and any opposition by creating a police state. He was determined to be the standard bearer against the French revolutionary forces. Any hopes anyone, such as Beethoven, had of spreading the revolution's ideals were dashed. Beethoven realized he needed to tread carefully in the capital, recognizing that his career as a musician depended on the patronage of the reactionary Austrian aristocracy.
Beethoven concentrated on his music. Vienna was the music city of Europe. Here Beethoven would be exposed to the giants of 18th-century classical music. Beethoven had met with Mozart before the latter’s death, and he studied with Joseph Haydn. Beethoven did very little composing during these early years in Vienna and focused on teaching and performing. He was establishing himself as a virtuoso on the piano. He had a reputation for improvisation. Improvising was an essential skill for a musician as they competed for patronage. Beethoven, in this time, gained the support of prominent Viennese nobles such as Prince Karl Lichnowsky, to whom Beethoven would dedicate the first composition to bear an opus number, three piano trios. He also had the financial support of Prince Joseph Franz Lobkowitz, who would be an important patron of the composer throughout his life.
After the events of 1793, many were disillusioned. It was not surprising then that Beethoven, his republicanism tempered, turned his admiration towards the young Corsican general who led the French armies in victory after victory: Napoleon Bonaparte. Here was a common soul in Beethoven’s eyes. A man whose success depended on his talent and not an aristocratic birth. According to his pupil, Ferdinand Ries, Beethoven held Napoleon in the highest esteem. In Napoleon, there was hope for a return to peace and order and back to the principles of the Revolution. Napoleon was named First Consul of France in 1799 as an echo of the Roman Republic. Napoleon set about several reforms during this time, including the educational system and the civil code. Though the consulship was a thinly veiled dictatorship, Beethoven recognized it as a necessary step in establishing political and social order. And this is what might have motivated him to dedicate the Third Symphony to the French ruler. (There is some debate about whether Beethoven decided on his own to do this or it was suggested to him.)
About this time, Beethoven began struggling with a more personal problem than his political leanings. As early as 1798, he realized that he was going deaf. The exact cause is not entirely known, and theories range from otosclerosis, meningitis, typhus, and lead poisoning from wine. In 1801, he began to confide in his close friends about the nature of his ailment. It would be a gradual decline accompanied by severe tinnitus. Beethoven became despondent with no desire to face what he felt would be the indignity of asking people to shout or talk louder. In the summer of 1802, a doctor, one of many whom Beethoven sought out for a possible cure, advised escaping into the country away from the stresses of Vienna. Beethoven, amid a depression, gladly took the excuse to retreat from society. He went to the small town of Heiligenstadt outside Vienna. Here, he penned what is referred to as the “Heiligenstadt Testament.” This document, a letter to his brothers that he never sent, is part confessional, part last will, part suicide note. It is in this that Beethoven pours out all his emotions into words and onto paper:
“What a humiliation when one stood beside me and heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone heard the shepherd singing and again I heard nothing, such incidents brought me to the verge of despair, but little more and I would have put an end to my life - only art it was that withheld me, ah it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt called upon me to produce.”
The experience must have been cathartic for Beethoven. He decided to struggle onward, reconciling himself to his condition for the sake of his art, his music. Beethoven desired to take his music in a new direction and pursue what he termed a “new path.” It was from this mindset that the Eroica Symphony was born.
Beethoven’s Third Symphony was groundbreaking. Beethoven had played with music conventions in some of his earlier efforts, much to the chagrin of Haydn. But with the Third Symphony, Beethoven completely breaks from the classical past in structure, technique, and reason for music. The symphony opens with two striking chords. These are both the cannons of revolution and a demand. They demand the listener to pay attention. This is music not to be enjoyed but experienced. This is not music for the frivolous courts of Vienna. This is to be serious music, epic in its scope. The first movement itself was longer than most symphonies of the day. The first movement is a story of struggle as the hero confronts his challenges. It is about the external struggle as well as an internal struggle. The second movement is a funeral march. The string basses echo the drum beats of funeral processions in Paris during the Revolution. It is a public state funeral and an expression of personal grief and loss. The following movement abruptly changes tone, throwing the listener off balance. This is the scherzo, the joy after the sorrow. Beethoven plays with time signatures and utilizes three French horns rather than the usual two for the embedded trio. In the final movement, he takes the familiar theme and variation structure and turns it on its head. The central theme gradually emerges from a mere skeleton.
The Third Symphony is raw emotion. It isn’t meant to be pleasant or make the audience go home whistling. In this case, music is about emotional conflict and contradictions. Beethoven uses the direction sforzando - attack- throughout the composition. There is no respite from the emotional roller coaster Beethoven takes us on. The entire symphony challenges the expectations of its audience. By taking music in a new direction, Beethoven opened the door to the later Romantic composers who would follow: Brahms, Berlioz, Mendelssohn, and Wagner, to name a few.
Much has been made of Beethoven’s sudden conservatism in the wake of Napoleon declaring himself Emperor of France. Beethoven’s newfound reluctance to express his political leanings is easy to understand. Napoleon had defeated the Austrian-led coalition and conquered much of Europe. He was an enemy of the Austrian state, and given the spies and secret police within the Hapsburg realms, it would not have been wise to show admiration for the French. Initially, the Third Symphony was titled Sinfonia Bonaparte until Beethoven furiously scribbled out Napoleon’s name. He dedicated it to his patron Prince Lobkkowitz, and it was premiered at a private performance at the prince’s palatial residence in Vienna. The hall is now known as the Eroica-Hall. Beethoven finally changed the symphony title to "Sinfonia Eroica … composed to celebrate the memory of a great man,” which is the title it was published under. But it is truly dedicated to all of us who struggle, like Beethoven, with the human condition. In this way, we are the heroes.
For an in-depth analysis of what makes the Third Symphony so groundbreaking, I recommend the following video:
Beethoven: The Relentless Revolutionary: John Clubbe
Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph: Jan Swafford