Watch Discovering Music - Eroica
Watch an analysis of Eroica, with a complete performance and a graphical analysis of the music.Watch Eroica
These notes will not necessarily repeat what the presenter says in the programme. They are designed to enhance the listening experience by focusing in more detail on a particular work or genre that is featured in the programme.Sign up to receive Discovering Music Listening Notes by email
The Listening Notes are prepared by John Arkell. The views expressed are his and unless specifically stated are not those of the BBC.
Work in Focus: Beethoven Symphony No 3 in Eb major, ‘Eroica’
GENRE: Romantic symphony
‘I am not contented with my works so far. I shall take a new path.’
BACKGROUND TO THE SYMPHONIES
The nine symphonies of Beethoven are landmark works in the history of the genre and the fifth symphony is probably the best well-known of all works from the entire gamut of European classical music. The first two symphonies (1800 and 1802 respectively) were written during Beethoven’s early period and are very much in the Classical style and idiom. The key work, Symphony No 3, ‘Eroica’, marked a departure in Beethoven’s style away from purely abstract music to music that was essentially Romantic in spirit (in this case with the subject of the celebration of an heroic figure). Symphonies 4 to 9 were all written in the spirit and ethos of the Romanic Period. The last symphony - Symphony No 9, ‘Choral’ - is unique, too, in that a chorus and soloists are used in the last movement in which they sing Schiller’s setting of ‘Ode to Joy’.
The Fifth Symphony was written between 1804 and 1808 which was a long period of gestation but was equally a time in which Beethoven was particularly productive. In fact, the Fourth and Sixth symphonies were composed during this period as was the first version of the opera Fidelio, the ‘Appassionata’ Piano Sonata, three ‘Razumovsky’ String Quartets, the Violin Concerto and the Fourth Piano Concerto.
In the Fourth Symphony Beethoven contrasted the dual feelings of humour and joy, whereas in the Fifth he deals with the darker world of the man’s struggle for victory, as expressed in his own words, ‘I will grapple with fate; it shall not overcome me’ Beethoven’s personal battle, of course, was against his increasing deafness at this time. In the world at large too, the period saw much unrest with the Napoleonic Wars and Vienna occupied by Napoleon’s troops. These ideas of personal conflict and struggle to overcome, or become victorious ‘against the odds,’ are central ideas behind the notion of romanticism in the Arts.
THE THIRD SYMPHONY
The Third Symphony, in E flat, Op. 55, was written in 1804 and was intended as a tribute to the life of a hero, and Beethoven himself gave it the title of ‘Eroica’. The hero was Napoleon, whose victorious military career was greatly admired by Beethoven. The symphony was originally dedicated to Napoleon but his subsequent acceptance of the imperial crown was perceived by Beethoven as an act of personal ambition, and the dedication was withdrawn. Such was Beethoven’s fury that he not only crossed out the dedication, but a portion of the title page was ripped out in the process!
There are elements in the music that reflect the idea of the hero. The first movement, it is true, is extremely vigorous and powerful that it can be associated with the concept of heroism, and it is also ‘heroic’ in dimension, lasting some 20 minutes in performance. There is even a martial bugle-call! The second movement is the only one of the four that refers explicitly to heroism: it bears the title ‘Funeral March on the Death of a Hero’. The third movement, a scherzo, has been interpreted as depicting the business of a military camp. In the finale there is not a single episode that is specifically heroic; in fact, the gentle theme that runs through the whole movement was conceived and used by Beethoven years before; it appears as concluding number in his early ballet music Prometheus, and is the subject of his Piano Variations, Op. 35 (1802). Nevertheless, the symphony fits the definition of the heroic well.
Notes on the Music
2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 3 horns, 2 trumpets, strings and timpani
The work comprises four movements, with the first movement in sonata form (see below). The second movement is a rondo, the third movement is in ternary (ABA form) and the finale is a mixture of sonata and rondo form – a hybrid form called sonata rondo.
A typical sonata form movement consists of three main sections:
1 Exposition Begins with a main theme or first subject, followed by a second theme or second subject in another key (often the dominant)
2 Development Develops material from the Exposition, often modulating into one or more new keys; the last part of this section prepares for the Recapitulation:
3 Recapitulation Begins with a return to the main theme and the tonic key. It then restates some or all of the main material from the exposition, and the second theme is transposed to the tonic key.
The movement concludes either with a cadence in the tonic key paralleling the end of the exposition, or with a coda following the recapitulation.
Commentary on the music:
NOTE: a score will be useful in following the musical examples.
Melody: Expressive and dramatic melodies are the musical hallmarks of Romanticism. One of the most important techniques used by Beethoven in this work (and later adopted by Brahms and others) was the development and transformation of a short melodic idea (or motif) and then developing and transforming this idea throughout the work. This is a kind of organic growth or thematic transformation. The melodies in the sonata form movements (1 and 4) are also contrastingthemes, both in key and character. Contrast is also achieved in the different character of the two melodies of the Scherzo (movement 3).
One of the most common of musical devices linked to melody lines is the sequence.
Music example 1: movement 1 bars 468-474
Descending sequences (a repeated pattern – can be at the same pitch or higher/lower) in first violin part
Rhythm: As has already been mentioned in connection with the melodies, rhythm plays an important part in defining the character of the music. In the third symphony there are examples of the following types of rhythm:
Straight crotchet/quaver/ minim rhythms are effectively used too in lyrical melodies.
Music example 2:movement 1 bars 3 onwards in the cello part.
Dotted rhythms: In addition, Beethoven uses syncopated rhythms, triplet figuration, semi- and demisemiquaver passagework as basic rhythmic ideas throughout the symphony.
Music example 3: movement 2 bar 1 onwards
Good examples of dotted and lombardic (reverse dotting) rhythms. Interesting example too of the independent double bass part (from the cello)
Music example 4:movement 2 bars 69-101
Use of triplet figuration (figuration means a pattern of accompaniment) and then bars 191-209 we have some demisemiquaver figuration
Music example 5: movement 1 bars 250-277
In triple time, the notes are grouped in twos i.e. minim plus minim giving the impression that the music is speeding up. Hemiolaic rhythms are often found in the approach to cadence points.
Harmony: The music is essentially tonal with modulations to related keys in the main. Harmony features the diatonic primary (I, IV and V) and secondary triads (II and VI). Standard romantic harmony of the dominant 7th, 9th, 11th and 13thare used, as well as the diminished seventh and augmented 6th chords.
Texture: There are many types of subtle musical textures in the work. These textures constantly vary and change, but include many examples of:
Homophonic: Melody plus an accompaniment, often referred to as melody dominated homophony.
Music example 6: movement 3 bars 1-30 is homophonic chordal texture
Fugal: Fugato is a texture in the style of a fugue. It is not strict fugue, but is fugue like with imitative entries) section building up parts
Music example 7: movement 4 bars 278-348 is in fugato.
Contrasting textures: To achieve variety and hold the listener’s attention, it is common practice to vary the orchestral textures.
Music example 8: movement 1 opening bars 1-57
The opening section contains a good example of contrasting textures. Tutti (this is Italian meaning ‘full’ ie. everyone plays) chords followed by melody in cellos with tremolo (rapid repetitions of the same notes producing a wavering effect) string accompaniment. This followed by strings and then wind given as full homophonic (all parts moving together – tune plus accompaniment) texture. Towards the end of the excerpt a three note motif (a short melodic idea of a few notes) is passed between the wind instruments and violins.
Dialoguing: There are many short examples of the melody shared between instrumental families in the form of a musical dialogue e.g.
Music example 9: movement 3 bars 127-142 etc is dialoguing between woodwind and strings
Monophony: Some short unaccompanied solo passages are evident throughout the work.
Octaves: There are many examples of this particular texture.
Music example 10: movement 4 opening bars features strings in octaves.