Week Four Essay
Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in Eb Major Op. 55, or famously known as the “Eroica Symphony,” is one of the composer’s most celebrated works. This piece marks the beginning of the composer’s second of three musical periods and is considered to be a significant turning point in classical style composition for a plethora of reasons and objectives.
Consideration for this work took place when Beethoven was living in the small village of Heiligenstadt; a small village outside of Vienna. This village was where Beethoven wrote a letter to his brothers, Carl and Johann, explaining his increasing despair of impending deafness and uncertainty of whether or not he would be able to complete his artistic vision as a composer. This letter, now known as the Heiligenstadt Testament, is believed to be a great source of inspiration of the emotional depth to which Beethoven succeeded in expressing with the Eroica symphony, thus creating a milestone piece which would influence the transition into the Romantic period
In terms of the form and instrumentation of the work, if one studied the score and paid attention to the length of the symphony, they would immediately notice that the work is almost twice as long as a traditional classical symphony of the same time period. The first movement itself, which ranges from 12-18 minutes in performance, could be considered to be the length of a traditional classical symphony. As a result of this, audiences considered this symphony to be a large-scale work unlike anything they had heard before from the then 33-year-old composer. However, Beethoven received mixed reviews throughout early performances of the symphony as some concertgoers believed it was a masterpiece while others thought of it as extremely difficult to comprehend and contained an endless duration to which an amateur would simply not be able to handle in its entirety. The instrumentation of the work calls for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets in Bb, two bassoons, three horns in Eb, C, and F, two trumpets in Eb and C, timpani in Eb and Bb, and strings. This instrumentation required 22 extra musicians to be added to classical style ensemble dramatically increasing the size with the single piece.
The first movement of this symphony is quite different from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 in C Major as the Eroica begins with two giant block chords that establish the tonality of the piece. The Symphony No. 1 however, begins in a completely different tonality than the home key before establishing the key. These characteristics pertaining to each symphony surprised people nonetheless in different styles although the two symphonies were written only around two years apart. The exposition of the Eroica is in triple time, in a sonata form containing a coda, and is marked Allegro con Brio as Beethoven was a fan of writing in a fast triple meter. The second movement is a funeral march in a ternary (ABA) style, and is marked Adagio assai. This is the movement to which many critics believe to contain a vast amount of emotional range from the composer and has been played at the funeral of Felix Mendelssohn and has been performed to mourn the deaths of presidents such as Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. The third movement is a fast Scherzo occurring in triple meter, and is marked Allegro Vivace. Again, one sees that Beethoven is abandoning the traditional Minuet and Trio for a more rapid style to which a Scherzo is known for. The final movement is a theme and variations off of a theme to which Beethoven used in earlier works also in the key of Eb major. This movement is structured like the style of Piano Variations and also contains fugal counterpoint of the main theme throughout the finale as well.
There is a reason as to why this symphony is considered to be the greatest symphony of all time by BBC Music Magazine. Beethoven wrote this piece to remember the memory of a great hero. Through this piece, one sees an emotional output and change in symphonic structure so vast and grand that it single handedly ignited the flame of the transition into Romanticism influencing dozens of composers for decades to come in the 19th century onward.