EROICA. The Sinfonia Eroica is the third of Beethoven's Symphonies, the greatest piece of Programme music yet composed. The title is his own—'Sinfonia eroica composta per festeggiare il sovvenire di un grand' uomo dedicata a Sua Altezza Serenissima il Principe di Lobkowitz da Luigi van Beethoven. Op. 55. No. III. Partizione. Bonna e Colonia presso N. Simrock.' (N.B. the Italian: the titles of Symphonies 1 and 2 are in French.) But its original title was simply 'Bonaparte. Louis van Beethoven.' The subject was suggested to him—perhaps as early as 1798, two years before the known completion of the 1st Symphony—by Bernadotte, the French ambassador at Vienna; but there is no trace of his having set seriously to work at it till the summer of 1803. On his return to town in the autumn of that year he played the Finale to Mähler and Breuning (Thayer, ii. 236). Early in 1804 the work was finished, and the MS. lay on Beethoven's table with the title-page as just given, waiting for transmission to the First Consul at Paris. But the news of Napoleon's assumption of the title of Emperor reached Beethoven; his faith in his hero was at once destroyed, and he tore off the title in a rage. The cover of the MS. now in the Library of the 'Gesellachaft der Musikfreunde' at Vienna—a curious medley of ink and pencil—stands as given on page 183 of this work, and thus appears to have been an intermediate form between the original and the present title. But this point has not yet been investigated.
If we might venture to assume that Beethoven weighed his words as carefully as he did his notes, we might infer from the word 'sovvenire' in the final title that to him Napoleon, by becoming Emperor, had ceased to be a 'hero' or a 'great man' as much as if he were actually dead.
The work is in 4 movements:—(i) Allegro con brio, E♭. (2) Marcia funebre. Adagio assai, C minor. (3) Scherzo and Trio. Allegro vivace, E♭. (4) Finale. Allegro molto; interrupted by a Poco Andante, and ending in a Presto. E♭.
Under Bastien the curious coincidence between the subject of the 1st movement and that of an early overture of Mozart's has been pointed out. This movement may be a portrait of Bonaparte; it is certainly one of Beethoven himself. The Coda forms an epoch in composition.
The subject of the Scherzo is said by Marx (L. v. B. Leben & Schaffen i. 273) to be a Volkslied, beginning as follows:—
But this requires confirmation. There is reason to believe that Beethoven used the Austrian Volkslieder as themes oftener than is ordinarily suspected; but this one at least has not yet been identified with certainty.
The Finale is a set of variations, the theme of which, whether a Volkslied or not, was a singular favourite with Beethoven. He has used it 4 times, in the following order:—(1) in the finale of Prometheus (1800); (2) in a Contretanz (1802); (3) as theme of a set of variations and a fugue, for Piano solo (op. 35, 1802); and (4) in the Symphony. The intention of this Finale has been often challenged, and will probably never be definitely ascertained; but the Poco andante, which interrupts the Allegro molto, and to which all the latter might well be a mere introduction, is at once solemn enough and celestial enough to stand for the apotheosis of a hero even as great as the one portrayed in the first movement.
The Symphony was purchased by Prince Lobkowitz. There is an interesting story of its having been played three times in one evening by the Prince's band, to satisfy the enthusiasm of Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia, passing through Vienna in strict incognito; but the first known performance (semi-private) was in Dec. 1804, when it was preceded by the previous 2 Symphonies and the Pianoforte Concerto in C minor. The first public performance was at the Theatre 'an der Wien' on Sunday evening, April 7, 1805, at a concert of Clement's, where it was announced as in D♯, and was conducted by Beethoven. Czerny remembered that at this performance some one in the gallery called out 'I'd give a kreutzer, if it were over.' In England it was played by the Philharmonic Society at the 2nd concert of the 2nd year—Feb. 28, 1814—and is announced as 'containing the Funeral March.' In France it was the opening work of the first concert of the Société des Concerts (Conservatoire), March 9, 1828. It was published by Simrock of Bonn, the publisher of the first 4 Symphonies, Oct. 29, 1806.The unusual length of the Eroica is admitted by Beethoven himself in a memorandum prefixed to the original edition, in which he requests that it may be placed nearer the beginning than the end of the Programme—say after an Overture, an Air, and a Concerto—so that it may produce its proper and intended effect on the audience before they become wearied. He has also given a notice as to the 3rd horn part, a very unusual condescension on his part.
[ G. ]
- Nohl, 'Beethoven nach den Schilderungen minor Zeitgenossen,' 1887, p.56.