Monday, July 23, 2007

Reading Beethoven's 3rd

Ludwig van Beethoven's 3rd Symphony in E-flat, nicknamed "Eroica" (which means "heroic" in Italian), was a major turning-point in the history of the symphony. It also remains one of the greatest symphonies ever written. Even a surface-oriented hearing will probably tell you that it is music of awesome power, pith, and depth. But a closer, more analytical approach to listening to it may reward you, at first, with frustration. This is because, in this symphony, Beethoven tried a lot of new things that shook people up.

This is revolutionary music, befitting an age of revolution. Written in 1804, it is said to have been dedicated to Napoleon, until the latter declared himself an emperor in May of that year. Then, the story goes, Beethoven ripped out the dedication page and penned a new title: "Heroic symphony, written to celebrate the memory of a great man." Of course, this story is probably greatly exaggerated; in the end, the piece was dedicated to a nobleman named Lobowitz, who was one of Beethoven's financial backers. Blah, blah, blah.

This is also revolutionary music in the sense that music historians mark it as the place where one must "turn the page" from the Classical Period of Haydn and Mozart, to the Romantic Period which brought forth, in its time, the likes of Wagner, Liszt, Brahms, and Verdi. It was the end of a period that prized balanced proportions, clear forms, and genteel restraint; and the beginning of an era of grandiose effects, intense emotions, exoticism, archaism, nationalism, and fashionable excesses ranging from the maudlin to the macabre.

To put it another way, the passage from Classic to Romantic came at a time when the symphony, concerto, and opera were transmuted from the private parlors of the type of people who wore silk doublets and powdered wigs, to the public concert hall and theatre frequented, mainly, by the growing middle class. It was the end of the time when the things most of us take for granted were exclusively enjoyed by the rich and powerful (who pretty much owned everyone else), the beginning of the era when all these things (art and culture, as well as property and political power) were within the reach of the average person. This didn't happen overnight; but Beethoven's 3rd is considered the first symphony that had completely crossed over into this new world order.

So be prepared as these four movements steer us through some unexpected symphonic territory. This isn't Papa Haydn's symphony any more!

Movement I begins with two loud bangs. Then the cellos announce a theme that circles around a broken E-flat-major triad. Almost immediately, Beethoven starts disrupting classical expectations: the first movement is in a triple time (only slightly unusual); by measure 6 it is already dabbling in harmonies outside the key of E-flat. Then there is a brief switch to the dominant key (B-flat) within the first theme; a transitional passage containing a theme that undergoes a lot of development later; powerful rhythms that disrupt the 3/4 pulse; a second thematic area containing tons of material and climaxing in six powerful chords.

That's just the exposition; the development is even more radical! Tunes from the transition passage combine with the first theme in a disproportionately long development. Using rich and often surprising harmonies, beyond anything his contemporaries were writing, Beethoven steers the piece through an exciting fugato section, followed by a build-up in which the 3/4 rhythm again breaks down, and climaxing in five shatteringly loud, dissonant, and rhythmically unstable chords. (Peter Schickele once did a gag in which these chords "murdered" his radio jockey character, like a musical bludgeon dealing out Beethoven's righteous wrath.)

After this musical scream, the strings play a transitional passage that reminds one how it feels when all the blood drains out of your face in a moment of shock and horror. Then everyone takes a breath, and Beethoven violates the last orthodoxy of sonata form by presenting a very pleasant, but entirely new, theme in the oboes, first in E minor and then A minor - as far from E-flat major as you can get - and long after the end of the so-called exposition!

By now the audience has loosened their neckcloths and some of them are fanning themselves with their powdered wigs. But it ain't over yet! The first theme reappears in a transformed state, accompanied by an orchestra that is trying to play in 3/4 and 2/4 at the same time (and yet, miraculously, stays together). Then, after a quietly mysterious moment, the development section ends with a weird horn entry in the tonic (E-flat) - weird, because the harmony is in the dominant (B-flat), so it sounds as if the horn player made a mistake and came in four bars early for the recapitulation. Looking at Beethoven's scowling face, you would never have guessed he had such a sense of humor. Of course, if you thought the horn player goofed, the joke was on you!

The recap seems pretty straightforward - or as straightforward as it can be, given its staggering wealth of material, its daring harmony, its rhythmic changeability, and its six crashing chords, and even a tonic cadence (though not the strong, V-I kind you expect at the end of the symphony)...but because it couldn't seem to come to a solid enough conclusion, the music keeps going. This isn't just a coda; this is actually more development going on, as the recap breaks another taboo and starts exploring other keys. That mysterious new theme from the development comes back, first in F and then in B-flat, doing its part to lead back to the transformed version of the first theme that debuted near the end of the development. This version of the theme finally does the trick, and drives the first movement to a big, noisy, heroic, solidly E-flat finish.

It's totally original. It breaks all the rules. But I think it is just about perfect.

And then comes the second movement, titled Marcia funebre. You might be thinking, "What, did Beethoven name this piece after his girlfriend?" But no, that just means Funeral March. It is, again, a virtually perfect piece of music, which Leonard Bernstein once described as an example of musical inevitability. I think, though, that point of view downplays Beethoven's immense originality in this movement. Oppressively slow, yet too fascinating to ignore for even a moment, the movement unfolds in a highly individual version of a sonata-rondo form. The long subject in C minor takes the form of an expansive rounded-binary piece, with a secondary theme in E-flat. This is followed by a bright C-major episode; then the minor-key material comes back for a long "development," including some good old fugato treatment, and occasional (somewhat altered) returns to the C-minor march theme. Towards the end there is some frankly weird stuff going on; the final statement of the C-minor theme seems to come out in a series of dying gasps.

Movement III is titled Scherzo, a type of piece that took the place of the Minuet in symphonies from this point onward. You definitely wouldn't want to dance to a scherzo, which is very fast and mercurial compared to a minuet; and this scherzo is very undancelike, with its sudden changes of rhythm leaving would-be dancers tripping over their own feet. A playful tune emerges out of an indistinct musical cloud, leading to some pretty strong statements. The outer part of the scherzo is shaped, structurally, like a classic minuet; there is even a central "trio" section emphasizing the French horn section. Then the outer scherzo comes back, with some alterations, leading to a wry little coda.

Finally, of course, there is the Finale. This is yet another movement that blurs the boundaries between musical forms; in this case, between the Theme and Variations and the Sonata. Opening with a descending flourish, the movement quickly begins to treat a theme that Beethoven had also used, in 1802, in a set of 15 variations and a fugue for piano known today as (guess what!) the Eroica Variations. The first thing you hear is actually just the bass line of the theme, then two variations based on it. It isn't until the third variation that you actually hear the theme itself - a sort of delayed exposition foreshadowed, perhaps, by the late appearance of a theme in the first movement. No sooner has the theme been introduced than the variations break off and something rather like a development section kicks in. In the course of this development, you hear the theme in a variety of ways: in different keys, nestled in a fugato passage, etc.

The variations return as the movement changes to a slower tempo. Several slow variations follow, each one a bit freer with the theme than the previous one, until we reach a level of abstraction from which it is virtually impossible to pick out the theme. Then the tempo takes off with another loud, descending flourish, introducing one of Beethoven's long, blustery, final-movement codas that sometimes make you want to scream: "Isn't he done yet?" And then he is. I reckon he emphasizes the closing chords so much, just to make up for all his harmonic adventures along the way - so, in the end, there is no doubt in your mind that E-flat major is "home free."

Beethoven's 3rd is a gigantic symphony, both in its proportions and in its rhetoric. It is also a gigantic monument to the heroism of Beethoven, as he continued to fight back against the silence that increasingly enveloped him. (I'm talking about deafness, silly.) But above all, it is a huge work of musical art; in my opinion, it is the best thing Beethoven ever wrote. But the runners-up are numerous and very, very close behind.

And by the way, don't let the idea that Eroica was the first fully Romantic symphony deter you from experiencing Beethoven's 2nd. It might not make it over the top of the hill, but you can see the other side from there...and the view is great!

IMAGES: a statue of Beethoven in Vienna; the house where Beethoven wrote parts of the Eroica Symphony; the title page of the Eroica Symphony in Beethoven's hand; pages of the autograph score with Beethoven's ear trumpet. EDIT: Here is a video of Herbert von Karajan performing the first half of Beethoven's Third. It's a pity that the video cuts off in the middle of the second movement, but what can I do?

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