This Week in Music History: The premiere of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony (1805)

Classical music has such a long, storied history, that it can be difficult to know where to start. Each week, we’ll be exploring an important event that left its mark.

This week? The premiere of Beethoven’s Eroica was described as being “shrill and complicated”. Napoleon ceased to be Beethoven’s hero, but the Eroica Symphony boasts a heroism of its own.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Joseph Karl Stieler (ca. 1820)
Ludwig van Beethoven, Joseph Karl Stieler (ca. 1820)

How much would you say the Eroica Symphony was worth? In October 1803, Beethoven tried to sell it to the publisher Simrock for the sum of 100 gulden. His pupil Ferdinand Ries made the sales pitch in a letter. He wrote:

In his [Beethoven’s] own opinion it is the greatest work that he has yet written. Beethoven played it for me recently, and I believe that heaven and earth will tremble when it is performed.

In fact, the reaction that the Eroica Symphony provoked in its early days—its first public performance was in Vienna on April 7, 1805—was bemused, rather than tremulous. It was unusually long and grand. “The symphony would improve immeasurably [if Beethoven] could bring himself to shorten it,” wrote one critic. Another said it was “shrill and complicated.” Still, its eventual influence on both composers and listeners would prove immense. In a sense, we are still trembling before it today, more than two centuries later, whether for the might of its first movement, above, or the poignancy of its second, a funeral march, below.

Certainly, we treat it with more respect than the man who inspired it, and to whom it was originally dedicated. Beethoven’s Third Symphony was originally inspired by Napoleon, and the initial intention was to call it the Bonaparte Symphony. Napoleon, at this time, was considered by some as a figure of hope, a powerful and ambitious ruler who would bring peace to Europe. But as early as May 1904, Beethoven seems to have become disillusioned—furiously so. Ries later wrote:

I was the first to tell him the news that Bonaparte had declared himself Emperor [on May 14, 1804], whereupon he broke into a rage and exclaimed, “So he is no more than a common mortal! Now, too, he will tread under foot all the rights of man, indulge only his ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men, become a tyrant!” Beethoven went to the table, seized the top of the title page, tore it in half and threw it on the floor. The page had to be recopied, and it was only now that the symphony received the title Sinfonia eroica.

Portrait of First Consul Bonaparte, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1803)
Portrait of First Consul Bonaparte, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1803)

It is one of classical music history’s great stories—and undoubtedly Ries’s masterpiece. Is it entirely true? Perhaps not in so many words, although a title page with the title angrily scratched out does indeed exist. But these days the legend has taken on a force of its own. Napoleon may have ceased to be Beethoven’s hero, but the composer has become one himself, thanks to his fiery political beliefs, and his passionate belief in the power of his own music. The Third Symphony ushered in the middle period of Beethoven’s career, sometimes called the “Heroic” period.

 Beethoven's title page which shows his erasure of dedication of the work to Napoleon
Beethoven’s title page which shows his erasure of dedication of the work to Napoleon

Music is never a truly abstract art form. Beethoven’s initial desire to dedicate his work to a political leader is proof enough of that. But so is the legend that has grown up around this dedication and Beethoven’s furious change of heart. The story is just as much a part of musical history as those rousing opening chords, that noble, tragic funeral theme, that joyful, triumphant finale.

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