|Beethoven in 1804 by Horneman (L); Napoleon in coronation costume by Robert Lefebvre1807.|
Beethoven called his Third Symphony Eroica (“Heroic”). The Eroica is two hundred years old yet still seems modern.
In this symphony Beethoven began to use broad strokes of sound to tell us how he felt, and what being alive meant to him. The piece caused a sensation and changed the idea of what a symphony could be.
When Beethoven called this piece “heroic,” he wasn’t kidding. It’s bigger, longer than a symphony had ever been. It’s confessional, even confrontational.
Just the scale of it was huge, unprecedented—and daunting for its first listeners. It foreshadowed the world that Wagner and, ultimately, Sigmund Freud would explore—the realm of the unconscious. That’s what was so revolutionary.
By late 1803, Beethoven had sketched out his new epic symphony, the Eroica. It was inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution and dedicated to its hero, who then seemed to be the great liberator of the people: Napoleon.
Beethoven thought of himself as a free spirit, and he admired the principles of freedom and equality embodied by the French Revolution. He thought he recognized in Napoleon a hero of the people and a champion of freedom, which was why he intended to dedicate a huge new symphony to him.
But when Beethoven heard the news in late 1804 that Napoleon had crowned himself Emperor of France, he was disgusted. “He’s just a rascal like all the others,” he exclaimed.Beethoven violently erased Napoleon’s name from his manuscript—so forcefully, in fact, that he erased his way right through the paper, leaving holes in the title page.
So this revolutionary piece of music that was originally to be The Bonaparte Symphony became simply Eroica—the heroic.
But if the hero of the music was no longer Napoleon, who was it? The Eroica explores what it means to be human. In facing his own demons and choosing to continue making music, to continue living, Beethoven embraced the heroic in everyman and, ultimately, in himself.
Beethoven said that this symphony was his favorite. In it, he envisioned where his music was going and in fact where the music of the future was going.
All the works that followed it—by Schumann, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Mahler—would have been impossible without the pathfinding steps that Beethoven took in this symphony.
Read more about the movements of Beethoven's Eroica