Beethoven first performed his third symphony in 1804 at a private gathering at the Lobkowicz Palace. Apparently it didn’t go well even though the excellent BBC drama ‘Eroica’ had the bemused orchestra playing it perfectly after one bad start. Those musicians, patrons, and the well to do attendees to this private premiere really didn’t understand what they were hearing. Nothing like this had ever been composed before, and there really was no indication that something quite superlative would arise.
If you look back at Beethoven’s previous works, especially the 2nd symphony you can trace a path where he is slowly starting to break away from the status quo. The 2nd is in places a powerful symphony but it lacks a simple and catchy motif, or 1st subject to make it anything more than a ‘nice’ symphony. It certainly doesn’t give an indication of what was to follow. I would say though that Beethoven’s first two symphonies are certainly breaking way from the world of Haydn’s late ‘London’ symphonies and Mozart’s last three especially the ‘Jupiter’ symphony. The emergence of the Eroica is just so far detached from anything ever written. JS Bach composed some phenomenal music and his Brandenburg concertos are possibly the pinnacle of Baroque orchestral music. I would conjecture that Beethoven writing the Eroica from no where is akin to Schubert composing Mahler’s 1st or 2nd symphonies in 1826.
What is it about the Eroica that makes it so special? It has no slow introduction like the previous two symphonies and opens to two powerful tonic chords before the main theme is played by the cellos. This theme is so simple it is astonishingly absurd. It is almost a contradiction in musical terms. How can just playing a broken tonic chords result in such a grand success? Why didn’t all the composers before Beethoven spot this theme? Of anyone you would have thought Mozart may have struck upon it. Yet this is the pattern across most of Beethoven’s compositions. Simple themes or motifs that might be a bar or two long but enough information to write a 15 minute movement with. It is like a DNA strand very simply changing/mutating the code of an RNA strand to make a new protein that changes the path of evolution. The Eroica ushered in a new era yet no one had a clue how it got here. Did Herr Beethoven know what he was achieving? The aforementioned BBC drama doesn’t really give much insight into Beethoven’s mind during the process of its composition. All he says in the film is that it is original from start to finish and that he doesn’t want a beautiful sound. Whether he said this at the time or not I don’t know.
It certainly is original though, he was right there. I am still baffled as to how managed it. I have of late been seriously studying the complete score and I do so in bewilderment at its amazing complexity yet perfect simplicity at the same time. This is where Beethoven and JS Bach differ. JS Bach wrote difficult music and that was that, yes it was beautiful but complex in a different way. His music wasn’t as ground breaking and musicologists generally accept that JS Bach didn’t force music into a new era, but he took baroque music to its zenith and it is a job he did incredibly well. So, why did this strange musical paradox arise? Was it simply just luck or coincidence? Seems unlikely really, to be that lucky as every part of the symphony is groundbreaking all 50 odd minutes of it. That was another thing that people became wary of almost immediately, its length. Most symphonies at the time would never top 30 minutes accept maybe Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony coming in at around 35 minutes long. Haydn’s last symphony barely manages to get past 25 minutes long. So, yes the length of the Eroica was astonishing for its time. Also, it was not a piece to be played as a pretty background symphony, it demanded to be listened to, and you are demanded to be moved. Beethoven wasn’t fucking about when he wrote this; this would change everything as Haydn supposedly said.
I have come backwards and forwards in writing this blog and as if common my attention has moved from the mighty Eroica to a position where I am straddling both JS Bach and Beethoven. Music is one of the few arts that you can enjoy again and again and it can actually improve with each listen if there is some perseverance. I can honestly say that apart from the Grosse Fugue I have never seriously listened to Beethoven’s last 5 string quartets. I have seriously missed out. I now can’t believe what I am hearing and may times I have be moved to tears by listening to them. I imagine a very poorly Beethoven, profoundly deaf, nearing the end of his life yet he produces these masterpieces.
Still, regarding the fact that Beethoven wrote many important pieces after his Eroica symphony can I still argue conclusively that it was indeed the most original piece ever composed? I can look at what competition he had before that and it was in the form of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony and maybe his C minor Piano Concerto No. 24. While both very fine pieces I have to say the Eroica easily trumps them as it is whole new way of composing and thing about how to compose.
This is a prelude into more in depth blogs I will produce at a later date. Not only am I interested in original music but also what makes one or two particular composers more special then others.