On May 18 1804 Napoleon became Emperor of the French. The coronation ceremony took place at the cathedral of Notre Dame on December 2nd. As the Pope poured holy oil over the head of the usurper, all traces of the old Republican constitution were washed away. In place of the old austere Republican simplicity all the ostentatious splendour of the old monarchy reappeared to mock the memory of the Revolution for which so many brave men and women had sacrificed their lives.
When Beethoven received news of these events he was beside himself with rage. He angrily crossed out his dedication to Napoleon in the score of his new symphony. The manuscript still exists, and we can see that he attacked the page with such violence that it has a hole torn through it. He then dedicated the symphony to an anonymous hero of the revolution: the Eroica symphony was born.
The Eroica caused a sensation. Up till then, a symphony was supposed to last at most half an hour. The first movement of the Eroica lasted as long as an entire symphony of the 18th century. And it was a work with a message: a work with something to say. The dissonances and violence of the first movement are clearly a call to struggle. That this means a revolutionary struggle is clear from the original dedication.
Trotsky once observed that revolutions are voluble affairs. The French Revolution was characterised by its oratory. Here were truly great mass orators: Danton, Saint-Just, Robespierre, and even Mirabeau before them. When these men spoke, they did not just address an audience: they were speaking to posterity, to history. Hence the rhetorical character of their speeches. They did not speak, they declaimed. Their speeches would begin with a striking phrase, which would immediately present a central theme which would then be developed in different ways, before making an emphatic re-appearance at the end.
It is just the same with the Eroica symphony. It does not speak, it declaims. The first movement of this symphony opens with two dissonant chords that resemble a man striking his fist on a table, demanding our attention, just like an impassioned orator in a revolutionary assembly. Beethoven then launches into a kind of musical cavalry charge, a tremendously impetuous forward thrust that is interrupted by clashes, conflict and struggle, and even momentarily halted by moments of sheer exhaustion, only to resume its triumphant forward march (listen here). In this movement we are in the thick of the Revolution itself, with all its ebbs and flows, its victories and defeats, its triumphs and its despairs. It is the French Revolution in music.
The second movement is a funeral march – in memory of a hero. It is a massive piece of work, as weighty and solid as granite (listen here). The slow, sad tread of the funeral march is interrupted by a section that recaptures the glories and triumphs of one who has given his life for the revolution (listen here). The central passage creates a massive sound edifice that creates a sensation of unbearable grief, before finally returning to the central theme of the funeral march. This is one of the greatest moments in the music of Beethoven – or any music.
The final movement is in an entirely different spirit. The symphony ends on a note of supreme optimism. After all the defeats, setbacks and disappointments, Beethoven is saying to us: “Yes, my friend, we have suffered a grievous loss, but we must turn the page and open a new chapter. The human spirit is strong enough to rise above all defeats and continue the struggle. And we must learn to laugh at adversity.”
Beethoven Sym.3 “Eroica”
Mark Laycock Dirigent