Symphony No. 3
“Eroica” · Egmont Overture · Coriolan Overture
Bertrand de Billy
Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra
Precise realization of Beethoven’s tempo indications, i.e. the composer’s metronome
markings – which have been so often questioned –, are for Bertrand de Billy an important precondition for his own interpretory style, not out of pedantry or false musicological ambition, but because this is the only way to maintain a work’s true formal and structural relationships. In the first movement of Beethoven’s third symphony, for example, a tempo that is too slow disturbs the structure of the entire movement, which has led to the arbitrary tradition of not repeating the exposition – a repetition which Beethoven demanded. Bertrand de Billy conducts Beethoven’s Eroica – the result of intensive study of a score that due to its exceptional popularity is often performed without much reflection. As early as his recording of Schubert’s C Major Symphony (the “Great”, OC 339), de Billy – likewise with the RSO Vienna – proved that it is possible even today to interpret standard works of the classic period in a new, exemplary manner, and with a modern symphony orchestra. This album also includes the two “heroic” overtures, Egmont and Coriolan.
“God is not so caring that he would bestow someone who has no content with form”*
On Beethoven’s Prometheus Symphony: the “Eroica”
* Austrian sculptor Alfred Hrdlicka in a discussion during the 1970s on Joseph Beuys
In the 200 years since the publication of Beethoven’s great Symphony in E-flat Major,
his third, which was to become famous throughout the world under the title Eroica, so many completely different interpretations about the work’s content – as well as its form – have appeared as has seldom been the case with a musical masterpiece.
This is certainly due to the fact that the Eroica burst open the gates to further development
of the genre in every respect. It is Beethoven who laid the foundation for the symphony all the way to the monumental works of Bruckner and Mahler – as well as
for the comparatively insignificant symphonic creations brought about during the 20th century.
Although he essentially worked with the same orchestral forces as Haydn and Mozart, how Beethoven orchestrated the existing instruments was entirely new. A few illustrations
of this include the independent motivic and dramatic functions now found in the trumpets
and horns as well as the new individuality of the woodwinds. In the second movement of the Eroica, the tympani do nothing less than take on an important, melody-supporting function.
Although the sovereignty of the violins remains untouched, the lower strings now assume
an almost equal role – take for example the symphony’s first theme, intoned by the cellos
after the two legendary opening chords.
The fact that in Beethoven’s works, rhythm is at least equal to melody – often, however, superior – is generally known. In this symphony,
however, the composer exaggerates the preeminence of rhythm in the extreme. In the first movement alone, an unrivalled mass of syncopes, hemiolas and sforzati accumulates: in one place, 45 (!) sforzati follow one another without interruption! Today’s listeners, however,
are much less aware how revolutionarily Beethoven changed the use of dynamics in terms of their variety, precision, color and dramatic
function – after this symphony, nothing would ever be the same as before.
But above all, it is the work’s form that bursts all bonds, and it is not surprising that many of those at the work’s premiere were at first disgruntled by it, muttering about its shapelessness or excessive dimensions. In length, this symphony surpasses anything in the genre that had ever been previously composed.
Its form, viewed out of context, leads to no satisfying result. But one must remember the theme, the “content” that led to this revolutionary
creation. Here, we must first clear up several falsehoods about the work that still stubbornly persist.
First of all, the Eroica is still considered by some to maintain the tradition of the symphony whose primary weight is in the first movement. This is contradicted, for example, by conductor
Michael Gielen, who rightly proves that the Eroica is the first symphony ever written in which the last movement is more important than the first.
Second of all, the Eroica is not primarily a Napoleon symphony – and it is in no way a musical portrait of him. Although Bonaparte probably played a part in the work’s creation,
and Beethoven definitely had planned to dedicate the work to him at one point, the later emperor can not have been the initial impetus for or main focus of the work, as musicologists have since proven.
A short synopsis of the Eroica’s development
– according to the little established information we have – would have to begin in 1798 with the first inspiration for a new symphony. A plan showing at least some execution
of the new ideas may have existed as early as 1801; the earliest true sketches we have are from May 1802. Beethoven probably
began composing in summer or fall 1802, continuing on into 1803. The symphony was completed at the beginning of 1804 and the first private performances are known to have taken place from the middle of the same year onwards. The official premiere took place on April 7, 1805 in the Theater an der Wien. The symphony was printed exactly 200 years ago, in 1806, with the famous title Sinfonia Eroica … composta per festeggiare il sovvenire di un grand Uomo …, that is, with the originally planned dedication to Napoleon Bonaparte, Sinfonia grande intitolata al Bonaparte, already
eliminated. This course of events will be significant as we search for content and the form resulting from it.
In addition to the symphony’s relationship
to Napoleon and the fact that the second movement – for the first time in the history of the symphony – consists of a dirge, it is also generally known that Beethoven uses two musical
themes in the fourth movement that occur
in three of his other works, namely in the 12 Contradances WoO 14, the Piano variations op. 35 (written in 1802), which he composed immediately before the Eroica, and above all in the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus, a composition from 1801. These Contradances, which would become the governing theme of the fourth movement, are found in the very first sketches for the new symphony, and Beethoven would keep them in the work till the end – the only of the original ideas which actually remained in the work.
In and of itself, this fact supports the assertion
that Beethoven conceived the entire work as revolving around the last movement.
And this contradicts all early 19th century interpretations
according to which Beethoven was portraying a specific character. It is undeniable
that Beethoven did at times admire Napoleon, but his relationship to him was verifiably more ambivalent even before Napoleon’s
1804 coronation as Emperor than people later wanted to admit. What stirred Beethoven was the idea of the heroic per se. This ideal – which played an important role at the time not only in music, but in all other arts as well – originated essentially from the image of Antique mythology as generally seen at the turn of the 18th to 19th centuries. Beethoven, an enthusiastic reader of Homer, Plutarch or Plato, didn’t see things any differently.
This is where we now move to Prometheus
and to the Promethean in man, which the composer probably saw in the young Napoleon
and his comet-like ascension. Beethoven compared Napoleon “with the greatest Roman consuls”, finally linking him with the Titan Prometheus,
whose ideas in the end were supposed
to conquer even the gods themselves. A truly Beethovenesque subject!
Seen in this manner, the Eroica must be viewed primarily as a Prometheus symphony, in which the representation of the heroic, as Beethoven understood it, follows the Antique ideal. This reading corresponds more to the composer’s ideals than does the simple portrayal
of a character – as popular as such an interpretation may be.
This explanation is not all that new; Richard
Wagner had already admonished against too much simplification in his Eroica interpretation. As early as the mid-1800s, the brilliant musical critic and composer Hector Berlioz pointed out the connection between Beethoven’s creation and the ideas of Classical
Antiquity. But it wasn’t until 1978 when musicologist
Constantin Floros, in pathbreaking research, proved the essential truths of the above-mentioned connections. This makes it all the more astonishing – over 25 years after Floros’s work – that this knowledge has as yet reverberated so little in reception and interpretation.
With this knowledge about the content, one can go into more specifics about form, because – to go back to Hrdlicka’s statement
at the beginning of these comments – Beethoven was not bestowed his form as a gift from heaven, but rather, the dimensions of what he wanted to express caused him to create
a completely new form for the symphonic genre.
The first movement, an Allegro con brio, is one of the longest Beethoven ever wrote – even compared to his later symphonies. He brings the main theme three times in the exposition – after an introduction that could not be shorter
and more disturbing: two electrifying, forte E-flat Major chords, immediately followed by the theme in the cellos. An introduction that is minimalistic in the extreme? No – Beethoven was going much further: he placed the result of the entire work at its beginning in order to show us, in an unbelievably exciting process, how things could come to this. But it is not only this introduction, not only the sounding of the theme three times in the exposition that make this movement unusual. The secondary theme actually consists of two new themes before it leads into an extensive epilogue, and the development which now follows – which also contains a new theme – is the longest part of the movement (and the longest development
of any of Beethoven’s symphonies). Afterwards comes a coda which is almost as long as the exposition. It is easy to understand why Beethoven’s contemporaries were so disturbed: they had never heard anything like this before.
Beethoven expressly wanted the exposition
to be repeated, a direction the composer did remove at one point, only to specifically put back in later.
Disregard for this instruction, found astonishingly
often in public concerts, is all the more incomprehensible because Beethoven’s precise wish is well known. This brings us unavoidably to the question of tempo and metronome
indications in Beethoven’s symphonies,
a subject that one would have thought sufficiently discussed by now, if current interpretations
didn’t always provide evidence to the contrary. Purposely leaving out the repeat
of the exposition is directly related to the question of tempo. If a conductor – despite all available knowledge and information – is still not willing to accept that Beethoven’s tempos are not only desired, but are a decisive component
of the symphony and its effect, and chooses much slower tempos than what the composer wanted, repetition of the exposition is indeed problematic because a slower
tempo alters both the rhythmic as well as the dramatic
consistency of the work. If Beethoven’s desired tempos are observed (dotted half = 60; fast, but not exaggerated), his desire to have the exposition played twice before moving into the gigantic dimensions of the development is completely logical. Otherwise, the work’s architectural
structure becomes somewhat precarious.
(This generally applies to any neglect of repetitions in 18th and 19th century music.)
Even more important than observance of the tempos, however, is their relationship to one another. Use of the metronome does not mean a priori that the metronome indication must be slavishly followed throughout the entire piece, and that all musical expressivity
must be sacrificed. But it is the backbone of the main time measurement as well as the basis for every further tempo – and in these instructions, Beethoven was exceptionally precise. Changes in tempo relationships in performances of Beethoven are even worse than ignoring the composer’s desired tempos. There must be a reason why Beethoven’s first question to anyone reporting to him on performances
of his music was about the tempo – even in his later years.
But now we return to the first movement of the symphony, while simultaneously taking a short excursion to the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus, written shortly before the Eroica. This ballet is subtitled heroic-allegorical. The playbills at the premiere said that Prometheus was: “…a sublime spirit…, who found the humans
of his time to be in a state of ignorance, and who refined them by giving them science and art and also taught them morals…” What was Beethoven’s dedication of the Eroica? Doesn’t he say that the symphony was composed
“... to celebrate the memory of a great man”? The connections become even clearer when we know that there are noteworthy parallels
in the first movement – not only in structure,
but in treatment and rhythm – between the Eroica and individual numbers from The Creatures of Prometheus. After noting the obvious
connection between the description of the ballet and the dedication to the symphony, and then consulting the first sketchbooks, in which the composer tried to characterize the heroic through military, martial themes for the first movement, the similarities to the eighth piece of the ballet music, for example, a “danza
eroica”, can in no way be coincidental.
The second movement, the famous Marcia
funebre is designated as an Adagio assai. Even using a dirge in a symphonic movement was found quite disturbing at first. But the treatment of the movement’s form was even more disconcerting, for after the 68 measures of the minor introduction, a steady C Major crescendo painfully breaks in – although it is simultaneously a beam of utopian hope. Formally,
a recapitulation would normally come next. Beethoven actually does take up the funeral melody once again, but after very few measures begins a fugato with completely new themes, themes which could be seen as related to the following scherzo. Again, the expectation
is that the funeral march will return, but the composer thwarts this anticipation through an unexpected A-flat Major chord. This movement also ends with a lengthy coda, at the end of which the funeral march falteringly
and mournfully sinks. In preliminary versions
of The Creatures of Prometheus, two sketches exist in which Prometheus’s children
bewail their father (later not used). Here, too, we find clear parallels to the Eroica coda which could be interpreted as a lament sung for a “great man” and his intellect and vision. One could also say that the coda laments in general the (supposed) end of a “great man” and the demise of a great idea!
Beethoven apparently struggled greatly with the third movement. The first sketches show that he had planned a Menuetto serioso
that should follow attacca on the heels of the second movement, which was itself originally planned as a C Major Adagio. In his first sketches with the thematic material that was to become today’s third movement, Beethoven must have thought about writing a fast minuet before deciding on the solution we now know: the Scherzo Allegro vivace that includes a Trio. In this movement, he also goes beyond the conventional form. Any dance character expected in this part of a symphony is rejected. The listener waits for a theme before finally comprehending that the actual theme of this movement is those hastily
knocking quarter notes that are heard for 91 measures at a piano or pianissimo, only afterwards
to break into a sudden fortissimo in the entire orchestra. The Trio, which uses the unusual combination of three horns, is often incorrectly characterized as a “hunting trio”.
Horns were not brought into connection with the hunt until the romantic period, however; in Beethoven’s day they were linked more with the idea of the heroic. Here, too, the correct tempo plays the decisive role in understanding
form and content. But recently, unmistakable
and particularly clear associations to the final movement of the Prometheus ballet music have been found. Musicological investigation
clearly shows that both “movements” are exceptionally closely laid out, in dynamics, articulation, orchestration as well as in how the sound is organized. In the symphony, just as in the ballet after the scena tragica (which corresponds to the second movement of the symphony), a scena giocosa follows (parallel to the Scherzo/Trio), in which the dead Titan is called back to life. This type of correspondence
exists in the first movement of the symphony
with the “danza eroica”, and we will see that this conformity can likewise be found in the fourth movement.
The final movement forms, as we already know, the initial basis of the entire work: Prometheus.
While we have pointed out many formal innovations in the previous movements,
the Finale, designated Allegro molto, surpasses these by far; it is absolutely unique in Beethoven’s entire oeuvre. Even determining
the form alone is not easy, because the first semblance of a “theme and variations” is soon sullied by unexpected transitions; we find here fugatos next to an old Hungarian dance, the vérbunkos. Then there is the movement’s
seeming effortlessness, contrasted by the strict rhythmic and instrumental treatment,
or the fact that a sonata form can also be glimpsed in the overall construction.
The movement is constructed almost entirely
over the two themes already mentioned, which are primarily treated in variation form and show amazing parallels to the ballet music.
The finale of the latter is conceived as a “celebration in honor of Prometheus”. And what did Beethoven write in his final dedication
of the symphony? “Composta PER FESTEGGIARE
il sovvenire di un grand Uomo”.
Here we also find the last element that corresponds to the movements of the ballet music: “Danze festive” – a festive scene also in the symphony. This explains why the two contradance themes have a permanent place in the concept of the symphony from the beginning
on, and why Beethoven uses them in the most varied forms to shape the Finale. As the dedication promises, the composer uses festive dances to celebrate a great idea – by honoring and remembering a great man.
We see here that the unusual form of this work is intimately related to the demands of the subject material – which applies without exception for each of the four movements of this unusual creation. One can certainly derive
the work’s true content from a study of its form and creation, but one must be thoroughly aware that Beethoven invented this completely
new, even revolutionary form in order to adequately
represent with music that which he had to say. It is true: no one is bestowed form which is not dictated by the content.
For the idea and essential basis of this essay as well as important quotes, the author wishes to thank Constantin Floros and his work “Beethovens Eroica und seine Prometheus-Musik”, Wilhelms-haven: Heinrichshofen 1978.
Two heroes of another type
On the “Egmont” and “Coriolan” overtures
Beethoven’s overtures tend to be fairly similar to one another, at least in respect to their basic ideas.
If he creates complex intellectual structures
of tones, and occasionally completely new forms in his large-format works, whether symphony, chamber music or major piano sonatas
(all of whose rhythms and harmonies sometimes surprise), his overtures, on the other
hand, are usually a type of “minidrama”.
The most well known are the two recorded here, Egmont, named after Goethe’s eponymous
drama, and Coriolan, named after the tragedy by Heinrich Joseph von Collin.
Beethoven’s veneration for Goethe is just as well known as his later disappointment with the man himself after short encounters (both positions,
by the way, were completely mutual!).
The material of Egmont, his love of freedom,
sacrifice for his people, and finally, his vision of a better, freer world before his execution
– all of this must have been very close to Beethoven’s heart, for he tried to express
all of this in a piece which lasts barely eight minutes.
The dark, dramatic F Minor introduction could express the situation of the Netherlands during the Spanish occupation. In contrast, Beethoven composes a cantilena in the woodwinds
before handling the drama in classic sonata form. After the recapitulation, a horrifyingly
long silence occurs – Beethoven hinted that this signifies the Egmont’s death – and only after this comes the coda, which Beethoven uses to express the hero’s visions of freedom at the end. He did this later in his opera Fidelio as well: the story of Leonore and Florestan could, yes must end tragically – the rest is utopian.
Coriolan was not, as some still believe today,
composed after Shakespeare’s tragedy, but based on a contemporaneous piece whose premiere Beethoven saw. (He later hoped to win the poet as a librettist, but the poet chose a composer who is now unknown.)
This overture is also a drama in paperback format. At the same time, the Coriolan overture stands for itself and was first heard in concert even before the first performance of the new production of the tragic play in 1807. (The drama Egmont, in contrast, has an additional 30 minutes of music that includes two songs for soprano.)
As does Egmont, Coriolan also begins with violent accords – this time in the whole orchestra. The main section keeps to a somewhat
free sonata form that juxtaposes a lyrical theme against intense outbreaks.
But this work does not contain a triumphal end. The drama ends too darkly, too hopelessly, with the suicide of the hero, who is crushed between
his hate for Rome (which he had once served as a commander and is now threatening with his own army as revenge for his banishment)
and his feelings for his wife and mother (who were sent to him by the city as mediators).
Beethoven does not illustrate the action per se, but is interested in the hero, his feelings
and deeds – which brings us back to the work’s clear parallels with the Eroica.
Egmont – Coriolan – Prometheus (Napoleon):
despite all their differences, they have something in common: they are true upholders
of a utopian vision. And it was this utopia which Beethoven stood for with his music – and still stands to this day.
Translation: Elizabeth Gahbler