Some years ago, I heard a radio announcer (no one I knew) say, “Beethoven is one of the few composers you could make an All-Beethoven program with” – and while that may seem obvious, I think what he meant was that there's enough variety in Beethoven's music, you can create an interesting, varied program of great music all by just one composer. And that's not something you can do with every composer.
Though it's easy to be overwhelmed by it, too – too much of a good (or great) thing, perhaps. So usually programmers balance their concerts by selecting from the three basic food-groups: Early-, Middle- and Late-Beethoven.
Stylistically, you've got the very “classical lines” and leaner textures of Early Beethoven, still emerging from the shadow of his teacher, Haydn; the larger emotions and epic proportions of Middle Beethoven, the “Romantic Beethoven,” say; or the more internal, more spiritual explorations of Late Beethoven, particularly in the late Sonatas and Quartets, which never seem to have been duplicated since.
And then there's “Heroic Beethoven,” the hero striding across the landscape of history, larger than life, with an intensity that can be shattering to us mere mortals, the Beethoven of myth and magic – in short, a composer comparable to today's comic book action heroes out to save the universe from evil.
And yet this music – and the myths we associate with it – came from somewhere more normal. The fact that it transcends normality is what gave birth to the myths that surround it – (insert deep and deeply awed announcer's voice, here) – the suffering, misunderstood artist, the loner, the genius – the composer who went deaf. The one who must be approached with reverence and... well, awe.
What is it about Beethoven – more to the point, his music – that affects us like this over 200 years later? And for over 200 years, that's something people have been asking, something every composer since then has been dealing with (or ignoring). It's that idea of a “giant treading behind you,” the way Brahms felt his legacy.
It's the same thing, for many people, one can feel after an exceptional performance of Shakespeare: how could any man create something like that? And why has it rarely, if ever, been equaled since...?
Certainly, Beethoven's Eroica is a ground-breaking work of immense proportions, compared to what people were expecting when he wrote it in 1803, but it is more than a depiction of a historically significant person (and a perception that radically changed from the time Beethoven began it to the time the audience first heard it two years later). And part of the impact of this piece (calling it a “piece” sounds so trivial...) can be heard in the 4th Piano Concerto that opens the concert – and which he began not long after he'd completed the Eroica.
Music, somehow, was going to be different, now.
Beethoven had his fans and he certainly had his detractors. Most of the audience, then, supporters and otherwise, probably didn't "get" what it is we feel about Beethoven today. It's not like Beethoven wrote a new piece and every other composer went and did likewise. It took a while for his innovations to become part of the musical landscape. It's just that we don't know much about all the other composers who lived and worked during Beethoven's lifetime or even the generation that followed his death. Except for the last few years of Schubert's life, the Marvel Comics version of Classical Music tends to jump right from Mozart (who died in 1791) and Haydn (whose last symphonies were written in 1795) to Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Liszt, Wagner and Brahms, whose careers all began between the 1830s and the 1850s.
It's a bit sobering to think that, while Mendelssohn was 16 when he composed his Octet in 1825, two years before Beethoven died, Brahms' 1st Symphony (dubbed "Beethoven's 10th") wasn't finished until 1876.
Here's a performance from the 2012 BBC Proms with an orchestra created by Daniel Barenboim from young musicians of the Middle East including Israel, Egypt, Palestine and Iran, among others. I chose this particular clip as much for the performance (even the context of the performers) as for the interview segment that precedes it.
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The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra conducted by Daniel Barenboim (BBC Proms, 2012) (with interviews beforehand)
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If you're interested in finding out more about the world behind this music, check back for subsequent posts, including one featuring yet another BBC effort, a 2003 film called Eroica which is about the day Beethoven's new symphony was first heard.
Though I can't embed it here, you can also check out Michael Tilson Thomas' highly recommended “Keeping Score” episode from PBS with Beethoven's Third Symphony, here.
Here's a promo:
Within the comparatively small world of Classical Music, given the greater aspects of the Music Business in general, there's a whole “Beethoven Industry” out there that has turned the opening notes of Beethoven's 5th Symphony from the writer “E. T. A. Hoffmann’s vehicle of awe and terror [...] into a meaningless blur of disco beats, hip-hop samples, jingles, and ringtones.”
|an epic Beethoven monument by Max Klinger, 1902|
I'm quoting from Alex Ross' new column in the New Yorker magazine about the influence of Beethoven where he describes the final chapter of Matthew Guerrieri's book on the impact of Beethoven's most popular piece, a book called “The First Four Notes,” and I recommend both.
There are probably more books written about or inspired by Beethoven and his music than any other classical composer – no doubt the least of them being my own novel, The Lost Chord, a "classical music appreciation comedy-thriller" which you can read on the installment plan at my other blog – and in addition to Guerrieri's book, there's a new biography by Jan Swafford – appropriately entitled Beethoven: Anguish & Triumph – I can also highly recommend, as yet sight unseen, just on the basis of two earlier biographies, one of Johannes Brahms, the other of Charles Ives, that manage to make their subjects much more human than the typical, academic biographies that are generally available and generally of interest only to other typical academics.
I've just ordered mine and though it won't arrive before this weekend's concert – nor could I read much of its 1,100 pages in time, either – it is something I expect to enjoy in the coming months of what will no doubt be a dreary time of year for me.
And that's primarily because Beethoven is one of those composers who is a composer for all times and all seasons, not just the occasion of a concert.
Oh, I know there are more Beethoven Festivals and All-Beethoven concerts in the Classical Music World, but there are few composers who could reach more people (in whatever way one cares to “reach” people, these days) and few works that can be embraced by more listeners beyond those “classical music aficionados” that Beethoven's 5th and 9th Symphonies – or, for that matter, the 3rd, the one known as “The Eroica.”
The Heroic Symphony – it's one of those defining works that give us a glimpse of Beethoven the Creator, that epic genius, suffering and misunderstood, striding across the landscape of mortal mankind, the composer who went from being Haydn's student to become first a marble bust and then the God of Classical Music.
That mysterious journey from mere mortal to mythologized hero begins with the opening chords of his Symphony No. 3 in E-flat, Op. 55 which, admittedly, doesn't sound as grand as calling it “The Eroica,” does it?
It is difficult to separate the man from the deity he became.
How does one “come to terms with” this music when music, generally speaking, was rarely something one needed to “come to terms with” before him?
As well-crafted as a Haydn Symphony may have been, it was always perfectly entertaining. The difference between what Haydn and Mozart composed, at least in the best of their works, and all those works by their contemporaries whom we no longer know or bother to remember is similar to what might be considered “art” and what we regard as “kitsch,” the idea of seeing Leonardo's Mona Lisa at the Louvre and the ubiquitously reproduced image that has come to mean “art” hanging on someone's living room wall.
We have become addicted to Beethoven. Generations have been trained to “fear” Beethoven. As Ross mentions in his article, he walked into Boston's Symphony Hall as a young would-be composer and saw the “name BEETHOVEN emblazoned on the proscenium arch [–] 'Don't bother,' it seemed to say.”
It's like those signs at amusement parks that were the bane of many a child's existence: “You must be this tall to ride.”
How different Brahms' life would've been – or at least his music – if Robert Schumann hadn't crowned him “Beethoven's Heir” when he was 20 years old. "You have no idea how the likes of me feels with the tramp of a giant like him behind you!" That's why it took him over 20 years to complete a first symphony – no pressure, right?
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About 3½ minutes into the PBS program Keeping Score's episode about Beethoven's Eroica, Michael Tilson Thomas, the San Francisco Symphony's conductor, said how much of his life had been spent coming to terms with this piece while showing you an incredibly marked up score that leaves little uncircled, unhighlted, unquestioned.
Part of the problem is it's so often performed “ponderously, seriously, perhaps because it's called the 'Heroic'” and certainly because... well, after all, it's by Beethoven! But Tilson Thomas didn't think that way, studying the score: he found it at times “light, breezy, confident, frustrating, dangerous – even comic” and so we go from trying to depict Napoleon in the first movement to understanding a composer dealing with life and all the things that can affect one's life.
Of course, it's difficult to remove images of Napoleon – speaking of marble busts – from our minds, given the famous story of Beethoven dedicating his new symphony to Napoleon (originally, it was the “Bonaparte Symphony”) then tearing up the title page when he heard his hero had crowned himself Emperor, erasing the word “Bonaparte” so vigorously, there's a hole in the paper. Later, it became a work dedicated to the “memory of a hero.”
But was the music “about” Bonaparte, then “First Consul” of France following the revolution, or inspired by what he stood for, elements of freedom after years of tyranny under centuries of French kings? The fact he became Emperor a few weeks before Beethoven's new symphony was first played through is a historical detail: I'm talking about the writing process, when the symphony was being composed.
It's true that Beethoven viewed Bonaparte (to distinguish him from the Emperor Napoleon) as a hero bringing the ideals of the French Revolution to The People. The fact that Beethoven lived in Vienna, an imperial city, and depended on its aristocrats for their patronage, it seems counterintuitive that Beethoven should support what people considered the “anti-aristocratic” policies of the French. But politics – then as now – were more complex than that. Beethoven was most interested in what was good for Beethoven and the fact that Vienna was proving to be a dead end, financially, had him thinking about looking for a new place to live – perhaps Paris?
In 1798, he had briefly been befriended by the French Ambassador, Bernadotte – a general who would later become King of Sweden, by the way – and there's little doubt that at some point in their conversations, the ambassador might not have suggested the composer write a symphony “about Bonaparte.” That's at least what Beethoven's later secretary Schindler recalled, though much of what Schindler seemed to recall is always suspect.
But if Beethoven would go to Paris, how would he get Bonaparte's attention? How did an artist get anybody's “attention” except by dedicating a work to them? A copy of the score would be sent to the dedicatee with an appropriate letter and in return the artist hoped for some gift, some form of remuneration. The trick was being allowed to dedicate a piece to that person – seeing that name on the title page was like an endorsement and would influence people who would buy and/or perform his new work.
It was expedient, given the musical politics of the day, that a young composer like the recently arrived Beethoven dedicate his first piano sonatas to the Great Man with whom he studied, Franz Josef Haydn. The first violin sonatas were dedicated to another important composer in Vienna, in fact the most powerful composer in a very politically aware musical society – Antonio Salieri.
It also had very little to do with gratitude. Even when he dedicated a new symphony to his patrons Prince Lobkowitz or Prince Lichnowsky, the composer expected something in return usually in the form of a gift of money.
In 1803, Beethoven dedicated his Op. 30 Violin Sonatas to the Russian tsar, Alexander I, whom he'd just been introduced to by the Russian ambassador, Count Razumovsky (who would soon be asking for three new string quartets for his house musicians). Nobody calls these the “Alexander Sonatas.” Beethoven simply anticipated a gift in return – if not cash, perhaps a ring or a jeweled snuff box which the composer could then sell or pawn. It seems crass, but how, then, did a composer like Beethoven – essentially a free-lancer – expect to pay his bills?
I've never understood why people think the Eroica is “about” Napoleon. Those Op. 30 Violin Sonatas are certainly not “about” Tsar Alexander I nor are those three string quartets “about” their namesake, Count Razumovsky, though his being Russian instigated the use of some Russian melodies in the first two.
And wasn't that what Beethoven was doing with his third symphony – initially dedicating it to Bonaparte, the First Consul of France, hoping that, with a positive enough response, he might find it worth his while to move to Paris and perhaps receive patronage from France's ruler.
|1st Consul Bonaparte, 1801|
A “Revolutionary Piano Sonata” as had been suggested by the publisher Hoffmeister in 1798 wasn't going to cut it, nor, for that matter, would an ordinary Haydnesque symphony. No, it would have to be something on a scale unheard of in Vienna at the time, something immense – something, like the painting equating him with Hannibal (who, it was overlooked, lost the war when he invaded Italy with his elephants, by the way), something epic - something French: the musical equivalent of a painting by David!
People could hear the stature of the general in this dynamic and highly dramatic music, in the sheer scope of the piece, unlike any symphony written before – as people wrote after first hearing the piece, imagining great armies marching across battlefields and so on.
But was that what Beethoven was envisioning when he wrote this music? A heroic portrait in music of the great general, Napoleon Bonaparte?
According to the famous title page – which was not “ripped in two” upon hearing the news of Napoleon's crowning himself Emperor – the text reads
Intitolata Bonaparte (erased so roughly as to leave a hole in the paper)
804 im August
Louis van Beethoven
The lines in Italian were written by a copyist (and the date, 804 August, added by another hand) and Beethoven's name Ludwig was styled, as he often did, in French as “Louis” – at other times he used “Luigi” instead.
But the German lines – “Written for Bonaparte” – were added in pencil by Beethoven himself and were not erased.
To make it more complicated, though, even before he had completed the score Beethoven indicated to his would-be publisher, through his student-secretary Ferdinand Ries, he had planned on dedicated the symphony to Bonaparte but this created a problem because Prince Lobkowitz offered to pay him a considerable fee for six-month's “exclusive usage” – ultimately, the symphony was performed privately several times at his palace before its official public premiere on April 7th, 1805 – and so he would give the dedication to Lobkowitz in honor of the fee but entitle the work “Bonaparte.”
By this time, Beethoven may have thought less of the idea of leaving Vienna for Paris. Even so, in August of 1804, three months after removing Bonaparte's name from the title page's second line, he wrote directly to his publisher describing what he was working on, including the Triple Concerto, some new piano sonatas and a new symphony.
“The title of the symphony is really Bonaparte.”
By the time the work was officially published, however, it was called “Sinfonia Eroica, composed to celebrate the memory of a great man.”
Who Bonaparte had been in 1803 was different from the Napoleon who unleashed almost constant warfare on the rest of Europe for the next twelve years.
Napoleon crowned himself Emperor of the French in December, 1804, and then attacked and occupied the city of Vienna in September, 1805, before defeating them and their Russian allies at the Battle of Austerlitz that December.
It would hardly do to be the composer of a work bearing the name of Austria's enemy...
Still, in the autumn of 1808, Beethoven received an invitation from Jerome Bonaparte, youngest brother of Napoleon and newly named the King of Westphalia, created out of various German states with Kassel as its capital. It was a job offer – to become the royal court composer with a hefty salary. Jerome was intent on creating a great cultural center in his capital – the Brothers Grimm were already the royal librarians.
It was unrealistic for Beethoven to accept the position, given his by now anti-Bonapartist views, but he let it be known he was considering it. As a result, the Austrian emperor's youngest brother, the Archduke Rudolph (a student of Beethoven's), along with Prince Lobkowitz and Prince Kinski, guaranteed Beethoven a pension if he would stay in Vienna. He did.
But perhaps there's more to the “Hero” in this symphony than the name Bonaparte implies?
There is an old quote from Haydn which, at the moment, I can't verify or find, and which might just as well be one of those mythological details associated with Beethoven and his teacher.
It is used in the 2003 BBC film “Eroica,” set on the day the new symphony was first heard in a rehearsal at Prince Lobkowitz's – I'll get to this in my next post – in which Haydn, arriving late in the midst of the scherzo, tells his hosts afterwards,
“He's placed himself at the center of his work – he gives us a glimpse into his soul – I expect that's why it's so... noisy... but it is quite, quite new – the artist as hero – quite new... Everything is different from today.”
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continue reading Beethoven's Eroica: The Music & the Hero: Part 2....
- Dick Strawser
This essay is adapted from a series of posts written for the Harrisburg Symphony's first concert of the 2014-2015 Season, "Heroic Beethoven" which paired the 3rd Symphony with the 4th Piano Concerto (written the year after he completed the Eroica).