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The Meaning of Beethoven's 3rd Symphony
Beethoven's 3rd Symphony was a landmark instrumental work for its time. Titled Eroica, which means heroic, the 3rd Symphony looks to capture heroic ideals or the ideals that a hero should possess.
Each movement of the symphony represents one of the heroic ideals Beethoven believed was essential in creating a true hero. A lot of the heroic ideals in this symphony deal with overcoming the odds. This was something that Beethoven related to on a very personal level due to his continued hearing loss while trying to be a successful composer.
The first movement of the symphony focuses on the hero's triumph over adversity; the second movement focuses on the death of the hero and later overcoming loss; the third movement focuses on the adventures of the hero, and the fourth movement focuses on the hero's work towards improving the world for the benefit of humanity.
Although the symphony mentions the work was composed in the memory of a great man, it's the ideals of the hero that are more important than any one single hero, as the ideals frequently show up in the music. The fact that the man remains unnamed supports the claim that it is the ideals, not the man, that is the important subject here.
Looking into the events leading up to the writing of this symphony and at events current to Beethoven's time further supports the argument that Beethoven's 3rd Symphony is about the ideals of a hero.
A quick note, this is a personal interpretation of the message (or the program) I believe Beethoven was trying to convey when he wrote his 3rd Symphony.
Heiligenstadt, Heroism in the 19th Century, and Title of the Symphony
In 1802, Beethoven visited the town of Heiligenstadt, just outside of Vienna, in a desperate attempt to try to improve his worsening loss of hearing. Beethoven had aspired to be a concert performer, something he was currently doing; however, he knew that being a professional performing pianist would be impossible if he could not hear.
With the treatment in Heiligenstadt not going well, Beethoven penned a letter to his brothers (a letter that remained unsent and was found after his death) that was primarily about Beethoven's resolve to continue living so that he could compose, rather than perform. Beethoven's aspirations to overcome his inevitable deafness would inspire the compositions of his middle period.
This letter, now referred to as the Heiligenstadt Testament, was written shortly before Beethoven began working on the 3rd Symphony in earnest. With Beethoven's decision to personally overcome the odds and compose music while going deaf, the topic of heroism, which dealt a lot with overcoming the odds a lot in the 19th century (and to a certain extent today), became one that Beethoven started to become drawn to.
Heroism in the 19th century was different from today's conception of the hero. The hero in the 19th century was a model for virtue, a person who always made the right decisions, worked for the benefit of mankind and was a model citizen that a person could aspire to be. It was these ideas that Beethoven sought to incorporate directly into the 3rd Symphony.
Beethoven initially had a person in mind to dedicate this symphony to while he was composing it, Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon's work in the French Revolution had made him a hero in the eyes of many, Beethoven included. Beethoven sought to honor the characteristics that Beethoven thought made Napoleon extraordinary by dedicating his 3rd Symphony to him.
However, once Napoleon crowned himself emperor, the ideals of the Revolution were lost, and Beethoven's faith in Napoleon destroyed. Beethoven's furiously scratched out the dedication to Napoleon on the 3rd Symphony shortly after hearing of his coronation as emperor. Sometime after this Beethoven chose to call the 3rd Symphony Eroica. When or how Beethoven decided to change the name of the 3rd Symphony remains undocumented.
The Creatures of Prometheus
The Creatures of Prometheus is a Greek mythological tale that served as the setting for a ballet Beethoven wrote shortly before starting his 3rd Symphony. Beethoven uses the same theme that makes up the finale of the Creatures of Prometheus Ballet as the main theme in the final movement of the 3rd Symphony. The final movement of the 3rd Symphony is where Beethoven first began to work on composing the entire symphony, and thus it can be said the entire symphony spawns from this theme.
The story of Prometheus can be summed up as the following: Prometheus, a Titan from Greek mythology, creates man from clay. He then steals fire and gives the knowledge to humans. Zeus gets mad and sentences Prometheus to an eternal torment where he binds him to a rock and has an eagle eat out his liver. At the end of each day, Prometheus's liver grows and back, and the eagle returns, on and on this goes for eternity.
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Prometheus's sacrifice and his bringing of fire to mankind gives him the reputation of being very intelligent and being a champion, or a hero, for mankind. The heroic spirit that is present in this story is transferred to Beethoven's ballet, which is in turn passed on to the 3rd Symphony.
Instrumentation in the 3rd Symphony
Flutes, Oboes, Clarinets, and Bassoons
Trumpets and Horns
Violins, Violas, Cellos, and Basses
Heroism in the Symphony
It's very helpful to have a score of the music on hand in order to better understand the specifics of the symphony. The good news is that this symphony is in the public domain, so it is possible to obtain the music for free. A link is provided in italics below:
This website imslp.org has most of the scores and music that can be found in the public domain, all of them are free to view, and many can be downloaded as PDFs. This is a great resource; it comes highly recommended.
One more note, the abbreviation mm. or m. will be used in place of the word measure.
The heroic trait that is focused on in the first movement is overcoming adversity. Beethoven does this musically by having thematic content relating to heroism and to adversity. A theme for each concept is introduced quickly. After a brief two-bar introduction, the heroic theme is introduced in the cellos; this theme can be seen to represent the idea of heroism or a heroic figure.
After the theme is repeated a few times by other instruments in the orchestra we are then taken to another theme that begins in mm. 24-25. This theme will represent adversity throughout the symphony. Both the heroic and adversity themes, along with variations of these themes, will battle one another throughout this movement for prominence.
Focusing on the heroic theme that begins in the cellos at the start of this symphony, the theme starts strongly playing off a major chord, but it ends quite weakly. This ending suggests that the hero, or triumph, is not complete or has not overcome the odds just yet. It's also important to note that this theme is rhythmically organized in 3's, like the meter which is in 3/4, and that it is in the home key of E-flat.
The adversity theme begins in B-flat, and although the meter marked at the beginning indicates 3 the adversity theme has a 2 feel. The contrast of keys and the 2 feel opposing the 3 feel creates a startling contrast between the adversity theme and the heroic theme. The adversity theme also features the use of a lot of sforzandos (marked sf in the score). The sforzando is an extremely forceful accent, it gives the adversity theme the feeling like it is punching through the orchestra.
Shortly after the first appearance of the adversity theme, the heroic theme quickly reemerges, this time with the full orchestra playing it, but again it ends on a note of weakness. This is followed by a number of variations on the heroic theme. A lot of these variations of the heroic theme get cut off by variations of the adversity theme.
As Beethoven moves between the variations of the heroic theme and adversity theme, the adversity theme declares itself in a climactic fashion at mm. 252-287. (For those just listening, this is the most dissonant part or harshest sounding part of the symphony). This bold statement of the adversity theme would have you think that the heroic theme was just killed, however, beginning in m. 288 a far removed variation of the heroic theme starts up in the oboes, signifying the heroic theme is still alive but transformed.
Throughout the remainder of the development, the heroic theme slowly begins to rebuild itself and finally right as it comes to the beginning of the recapitulation, the heroic theme completely reemerges at m. 402 in the cellos. The reemergence of the heroic theme here is played just like at the beginning of the symphony, signifying we are back to square one. However, the heroic theme is still ending in a state of weakness, triumph has not been achieved yet.
After the heroic theme is restated. Variations of the heroic theme begin to alternate with variations of the adversity theme; however, the heroic theme keeps growing stronger and stronger. It isn't until m. 659 that the heroic theme finally emerges in full orchestra with a new stronger ending that launches the symphony into its coda. The hero has finally triumphed over adversity.
The second movement of this symphony focuses on remembering the death of the hero... and later overcoming it. This movement primarily functions as a slow, dreary, funeral march. A ternary form, or an ABA form, is used to help establish the feeling of loss, while also contrasting them with moments of heroic remembrance.
The first A section has two themes. The first theme starts the movement and is played by the violins. It is quiet, like a whisper, and it plays over a slow march like accompaniment by the other strings, someone has died, and it is causing a great deal of grief. The second theme begins at m. 16 and it is a more emotional theme, further suggesting this is a sad affair. Both themes work with one another to showcase the tragedy of the situation.
The B section begins at m. 69 where a new theme is introduced to showcase a more heroic sound. This new theme builds to two climactic sections during this part of the movement at m.76 and at m. 96. This new theme feels like a memory that is showcasing the greatness of the fallen hero. It adds a lot of contrast to the first part of the second movement, being in a major key as opposed to a minor key and with the loud dynamic passages, but the slow funeral march aspect is still present in this section.
The A section returns with the first two themes being restated. This movement ends with the first theme slowly dieing in incomplete fragments as if the loss of the hero has broken the watcher of this funeral march into pieces. Overcoming the loss of the hero will not be addressed until the final movement of this symphony.
The third movement of this symphony focuses on the adventurous aspects of being a hero. The third movement is set up as a fast-paced scherzo, and again, like the previous movement, an ABA ternary form is used.
The A section comprises of one fast-paced theme in three. It is kind of like a gallop, as if the hero is riding a horse at a brisk pace. Horseback riding was certainly considered an adventurous aspect of living in the early 19th century.
The A section is contrasted by the theme used in the B section, which is played by the horns. The theme in the horns, m. 171, mimics the calls of hunting horns that would have been used around this time. Again hunting was another aspect of adventure, and adventure during the 19th century was an aspect of life that was central to the life of a hero.
The A section returns, and the galloping theme comes back, leading the movement to a fast, positive, uptempo finish.
The fourth movement is about the hero's role in working to build a better society. The use of the theme from the finale of the Creatures of Prometheus ballet suggests the theme of the fourth movement of the 3rd Symphony may be tied to the same idea. To recap, Prometheus, creates humans and gives them the knowledge of fire, all while defying Zeus. Prometheus's sacrifice makes him a hero, and his willingness to improve society can be seen as a model for a hero and this symphony. Ultimately, this movement focuses on ideas that Beethoven thinks are important to improving society.
This movement begins with an extended two-part introduction that periodically returns to bridge various variations of the Creatures theme together. The Creatures theme itself is introduced in a slow manner at m.45, with additional instruments slowly joining it as it progress throughout the movement. This creates a building effect that ties nicely into the idea that the hero has a responsibility to help society grow and build itself. The shifting variations on the theme would suggest that many ideas will be necessary in order to build society, but they all mostly stick to the same theme.
The final movement also acknowledges past forms while working towards new forms. Incorporating past and future forms symbolizes the importance of these ideas in building and improving society. The fugue in m. 119 is a great example of a form from the past, while the entire movement is written in a fairly indescribable form, a form for the future? Yes, calling it a theme and variations is possible, but with the introduction reinserting itself periodically throughout the movement and a restatement of the first theme from the second movement, the form doesn't follow the theme and variations in a true sense; it has become something that's all on its own, something new.
The first theme from the second movement of this symphony reappears in a slightly varied form at m. 350 in the oboes. As the loss theme from the second movement grows, it is finally stopped by the return of the Creatures theme in the horns at m. 382. When the Creatures theme does reappear here in the horns, it appears sounding the strongest it has ever sounded, and it is also not varied (the accompaniment is, though). It's also important to note how similar the Creatures theme is to the Heroic theme in the first movement, and this is most evident at m. 382. Overcoming loss and adversity are also important ideas when trying to improve the world.
This is the moment where loss feels like it has been overcome in this symphony, it just took the Creatures theme to help finally get past loss. From here, the symphony dies back down and builds up one more time to its climactic finale and coda that again urges the Creatures theme on. With all doubts removed, the hero or heroic spirit has triumphed, built, adventured, and overcome loss.
Beethoven's 3rd Symphony is a cohesive piece of music for its time. Despite this, there are certain issues with the Heroic narrative and finding a meaning for this symphony that make it difficult to get a more precise interpretation of the symphony.
Beethoven would make his 5th, 6th, and 9th symphonies even more cohesive and unified than the 3rd, but this was an excellent start on having a possible narrative spanning across four movements of orchestral music. Overcoming the odds was an idea that Beethoven would explore in various other compositions, including other symphonies.
For More Information About Beethoven
Here are a few more biographical articles I have written about Beethoven. They are divided into three parts based on his changing style of writing music. The articles are:
This article focuses on Beethoven's early life and his rise to prominence in Vienna's musical society. Beethoven looks to learn from Mozart and Haydn while he begins developing his own musical style that will be more famously realized in his writing periods. Famous works from this period include the Moonlight and Pathetique Sonatas and the first string quartet.
This article focuses on the prime of Beethoven's life in Vienna as he struggles to accept his increasing deafness, while trying to push the boundaries of music. Famous works from this period include Symphonies 3, 5, 6,7, Piano Concerto 5, and the Waldstein and Appassionata Sonatas.
Beethoven's Late Period of Music Composition
This article focuses on Beethoven's period of writing music when he was all but completely deaf. Although his musical output slows he pushes the boundaries of music very far while writing his most ambitious musical compositions. Famous works from this period include the 9th Symphony, Missa Solemnis, and Diabelli Variations.
The Meaning of Beethoven's 9th Symphony
Beethoven's 9th Symphony has been called the greatest piece of classical music ever written. Being the longest symphony written at its premiere, and being the first symphony to use vocals, Beethoven's 9th Symphony transcends the genre of symphonic writing forever... but what was the musical meaning that Beethoven was trying to get across in this timeless composition?
Below is a video called Eroica done by the BBC that depicts the first performance/rehearsal of Beethoven's 3rd Symphony. The 3rd Symphony is performed in its entirety through the movie while the musicians, nobles, and servants react to hearing/performing this symphony for the first time. The film provides some insight into what made this symphony so unique and special; it is an entertaining movie.
What Do You Think The Meaning of Beethoven's 3rd Symphony Was?
Music-and-Art-45 (author) from USA, Illinois on November 22, 2012:
Hello Carol. Thanks for stopping by and reading I really appreciate it, glad you found this informative.
carol stanley from Arizona on November 22, 2012:
I really enjoyed reading this and I love the piano and play a very little. You are certainly knowledgeable ...and I will enjoy reading your current and past hubs. Voting up...