Beethoven’s “Eroica” program notes

Saturday, July 31, 2021 , 6:30 PM

Beethoven: Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43

Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 in E-Flat Major, Op. 55, “Eroica”

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43

Composed: 1800-1801
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings

Beethoven was commissioned to compose the music for the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus to be presented at the Burgtheater in Vienna in March 1801. Italian choreographer Salvatore Viganò created the ballet for presentation to Queen Maria Theresa and tapped Beethoven as his creative partner in hopes of maximizing the impact of his work. The moment was significant for the still-young composer: a high-profile commission that would provide him with exposure and much-needed financial reward. Creatively, it was also an excellent opportunity to work on his first major stage work—Beethoven composed over an hour of music for the piece—and it would end up being the only full-fledged ballet he would compose in his lifetime.

The exact scenario of the ballet is lost to time. However, a brief synopsis from the premiere performances gives us a clue. The mythological Prometheus is centered in the drama as the source for imparting the essence of humanity through the performing arts:

…The ballet presents two animated statues who, by the power of harmony, are made susceptible to all the passions of human existence. Prometheus takes them to Parnassus, to receive instruction from Apollo, god of the arts, who commands Amphion, Arion, and Orpheus to teach them music; Melpomene and Thalia, tragedy and comedy. Terpsichore aids Pan, who introduces them to the Pastoral Dance, which he has invented, and from Bacchus they learn his invention—the Heroic Dance.

By contemporary accounts, the ballet was a moderate success, running for 28 performances, and was presented in New York in 1808.

The Overture begins with a 16-measure adagio introduction. It opens with a sequence of chords that closely resembles that of the shocking opening of his Symphony No. 1, completed the previous year. Both works are cast in C major but begin with powerful, full orchestral sonorities encompassing a C major chord with an added B-flat, a so-called seventh chord that points to F major as a tonal center instead of C. This harmonic ambiguity creates a sense of drama and tension from the very start and immediately builds anticipation for the main Allegro, among the most tightly wound sonata-form movements Beethoven would compose. Violins scurry in perpetual motion, Rossini-like, ushering us all the way to the second subject in the flutes, itself a melody derived obliquely from the wind theme in the introduction. In lieu of a full development section, Beethoven substitutes a humorous dialogue between the oboes/bassoons and the strings/flutes, each insisting on major and minor keys, respectively. This exchange returns at the end of the overture, where Beethoven ornaments and extends it, leading to a punchy, emphatic coda so typical of the composer.

The music from the Overture would appear later in Beethoven’s score, notably in the final number, where the scurrying violin theme mixes with a theme that Beethoven would eventually use as the basis for the Finale of his “Eroica” Symphony, which is next on tonight’s program.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Symphony No. 3 in E-Flat Major, Op. 55, “Eroica”

Composed: 1803-1804
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 3 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings

A true watershed work, the “Eroica” marks a turning point not only in Beethoven’s career but in the whole history of modern music.
–Joseph Kerman


Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 is universally acknowledged as one of the two or three most important works in all of Western classical music. It is longer and more complex than any symphony written before it. Beethoven’s use of motive and theme in the work were wholly unique at the time. The masterful development of his motivic ideas, so thoroughly complete, seems so natural to us now only because of the influence the “Eroica” had over future composers. Beethoven’s treatment of form is also entirely original, expanding the breadth of Classical sonata form and introducing a new take on theme and variation form (not to mention including a funeral march movement in a symphony, which was unheard of at the time). Perhaps the only important aspect of the symphony Beethoven did not significantly alter with the Third was the instrumentation. The Festival’s opening Chamber Orchestra performance of Haydn’s 1795 final symphony had roughly the same personnel (with an extra horn and a few extra strings to add some heft).

The story of the “Eroica” dedication is well known. The original title Beethoven gave to the symphony was “Bonaparte” in honor of Napoleon, whom Beethoven idolized for his republican ideals. However, on May 18, 1804, Napoleon’s newly ratified constitution stipulated that the government of the “Republic” was to be led by a hereditary emperor, Napoleon himself. Upon hearing this news, Beethoven flew into a rage, saying:

Then he’s nothing but an ordinary man. Now he’ll trample on all the rights of men to serve his own ambition; he will put himself higher than all others and turn out a tyrant!

The symphony’s dedication was rescinded, the title furiously erased from the manuscript.
In its place, Beethoven gave the symphony the heroic title by which it is now familiar, including the further subtitle: “To celebrate the memory of a great man.”

With this history of the work as a backdrop, many musicologists have attempted to ascribe a program to the symphony, usually tracing a narrative thread involving the journey of a hero toward his ultimate victory. Others have argued that with a second movement funeral of the heroic subject, any such narrative is bound to fall flat, and that the piece is so musically rich, overlaying a story upon it is superfluous. In his groundbreaking book Beethoven Hero, Scott Burnham discusses the “Eroica” as the ideal battleground between programmatic and formalist approaches to musical interpretation. According to Burnham:

[The] fundamental view of the musical process is constrained in the same ways [for both approaches]. The overmastering coherence heard in works like the “Eroica” Symphony has both inspired the use of the heroic metaphor and encouraged the coronation of such coherence as the ruling musical value of the formalist agenda.

Therefore, it is the unity of the music itself that impresses us no matter which vantage point we take (or which narrative we read into the music). For Burnham, the “Eroica” represents a landmark because it raised the value of musical “coherence” to new heights, changing forever our underlying view of what music is. As for Beethoven himself, he was most concerned with having his contemporary audience pay attention through the entirety of his new symphony, writing:

As the symphony somewhat exceeds the usual length, it should be played rather nearer the beginning than the end of the concert…. Otherwise it might lose some of its effect on an audience that is somewhat fatigued by what has gone before.

After two percussive bursts, the first theme slips in ephemerally in the cellos. The theme itself is utter simplicity: essentially an arpeggio, an unlikely candidate to sustain a long and complex movement. But Beethoven begins developing it immediately, gradually unraveling its hidden potential. There is a rich array of secondary themes, really just motivic fragments, that neatly fit together. The monumental development section powerfully spins out themes introduced in the exposition. In addition to combining themes and presenting them in a fugato (a fugal section, where a theme is repeated and developed by successively entering voices), Beethoven’s masterstroke here is the introduction of a completely new theme in minor, the most lyrical gesture in the entire movement. Just before the recapitulation, a single horn enters with the first theme a few bars “early,” creating a surprising dissonance and foreshadowing the expanded role of the horns in the recapitulation. The coda is nearly as long as the exposition, keeping scale with the massive movement and giving Beethoven an opportunity to bring back the lyrical minor theme from the development.

The main theme of the C minor Funeral March is stated in a repeated exchange between the violins and the oboe. The marching triplet rhythm of this theme is transformed into lilting memories of a happier time in the C major middle section. When the main theme returns, it quickly melts into a passionate fugato that is capped with a complete return of the theme with full orchestration. At the end of the coda, the main theme begins to fragment in the violins, giving us a hint at what is to come in the final movement.

The exciting Scherzo builds on a rhythmic element from the first movement. Both in 3/4, the first movement plays with metric ambiguities by leaving out notes on downbeats, accenting off-beats, and presenting duple patters in the triple meter. The Scherzo uses the same techniques, starting with the opening figure that alternates two one-beat notes in the 3/4 context. Thematic fragments in the winds clarify the meter, but they pass by so quickly there’s hardly time to get comfortable. The contrasting trio section is built around an inspired horn fanfare resembling a hunting call.

A quick introduction to the Finale is followed by an odd pizzicato (plucked) pattern in the strings. Of course, this turns out to be part of the variation theme: the bass portion in isolation. But this bass line has enough melodic interest of its own to serve as a countermelody to the main melody of the variation. This melody is the one that was mentioned above: it had been swirling around in Beethoven’s head for a number of years, originally forming the basis for the finale of the full Creatures of Prometheus ballet score. He also used the theme for his piano variations (the so-called “Eroica” Variations) from 1802. In both the symphony and the piano variations, Beethoven withholds this main melody, here until Variation 3, where it finally appears in the oboe. The following variation immediately pushes the envelope with a shift to C minor and a fugato on the bass melody, and groups with the next three modulatory variations to form a kind of development set. Variation 8 continues the development with an ingenious fugato on an inversion of the bass melody. The final three variations, including a glorious wind chorale and a majestic horn adaptation, serve the role of the recapitulation. A wild presto coda puts a final exclamation point on this groundbreaking work.

Program notes by Jon Kochavi