About this Piece
Each of Beethoven’s first two symphonies pushed the envelope of the Classical symphony, as defined by Mozart and Haydn, but his Third Symphony was the real game changer. Objectively, it basically doubled the length of previous standards. And if it were possible to measure subjective expectations of the genre, it probably doubled those too, increasing expressive tolerances across the board.
Beethoven began work on it shortly after the premiere of the Second Symphony and completed it in 1804. It was first performed in private at one of the residences of Beethoven’s patron Prince Lobkowitz and publicly premiered April 7, 1805. The work originally was titled “Bonaparte,” but after Napoleon had himself crowned emperor in 1804, Beethoven scratched that indication out on his manuscript. It was published (in 1806) under the title (in Italian) “Heroic Symphony…composed to celebrate the memory of a great man.”
Whether that “great man” is an idealized Napoleon or perhaps the composer himself, the heroism of the piece–making revolution personal–is undeniable. In musicologist Paul Henry Lang’s estimation, Beethoven’s Third Symphony is “one of the incomprehensible deeds in arts and letters, the greatest single step made by an individual in the history of the symphony and in the history of music in general.”
Where Beethoven’s first two symphonies began with a slow introduction, the “Eroica” springs to life from just two brusque chords, launching a seemingly impetuous play of harmonic and rhythmic tension. The slow movement is a polyphonically intensified funeral march of profound grief and fury, which gives way to a massively energized Scherzo.
For his finale, Beethoven recalls another hero, the mythological titan Prometheus. Beethoven takes a theme from his ballet The Creatures of Prometheus and creates an intricate yet immediately engaging set of variations on its bass line as well as a fugue on the theme, capped with further development and a dashing coda. —Program note from the Philharmonic’s archive