About this Recording
8.550112 - BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 3 / Leonore Overture No. 1

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770- 1827)

Symphony No. 3 in E Flat Major, Opus 53 “Eroica”

Allegro con brio

Marcia funebre: Adagio assai

Scherzo: Allegro vivace

Finale: Allegro molto

Leonora Overture No.1, Opus 138

Napoleon exercised the strongest influence over the minds of many of his contemporaries in Germany, particularly in the earlier years of his remarkable career, during which traditional monarchies were overturned, to be replaced by republics. Beethoven’s attitude to Bonaparte seems to have remained ambivalent. On the one hand he was impressed by his rise to greatness and by his initial republican sympathies, but at the same time he continued to entertain feelings of admiration of the remarkable achievement even after Napoleon declared himself Emperor, a step that Beethoven condemned, since now his idol appeared fallible, like all the others.

The initial inspiration for Beethoven's third symphony seems to have come from the French envoy to Vienna, Count Bernadotte, who had visited the city in 1798, bringing with him in his entourage the virtuoso violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer, to whom Beethoven was later to dedicate his famous Kreutzer Violin Sonata. Bernadotte spent some time in the composer's company and apparently suggested the composition of a symphony in honour of General Bonaparte.

The score of the completed symphony was seen by Beethoven’s friends early in 1804, bearing on its title-page the name Buonaparte and the subscription Luigi van Beethoven. Ferdinand Ries tells how, at the news that Napoleon had proclaimed himself Emperor, Beethoven angrily tore up the page, leaving on his own copy the words Sinfonia grande, with the added pencil note, geschrieben auf Bonaparte. In the composer's mind, whatever the fate of the title-page, the work remained a Bonaparte symphony, although it was eventually dedicated to Prince Lobkowitz, for an immediate reward of 400 ducats. It has been suggested that any change in Beethoven’s plans for the dedication of the work may in part have been modified by his decision not to visit Paris. It is known that he had had plans of this kind and these had no doubt influenced his decision to dedicate his concertante violin sonata to Kreutzer, who occupied a position of importance in the French capital.

The first publication of the E Flat Symphony described it as Sinfonia eroica composta per festiggiare il Souvenire di un grand’Uomo, a heroic symphony composed to celebrate the memory of a great man. These words were followed by the dedication to Prince Lobkowitz. In 1805, of course, Napoleon was very much alive, and it was, in any case, said that the funeral march that forms the second movement had been written after the death of the British General Sir Ralph Abercromby, killed at Alexandria in 1801, or even, perhaps, intended for Nelson, who had just failed to die at the Battle of the Nile a few years before. Nevertheless the Eroica Symphony, as it has come to be known, remained for its composer inextricably associated with Napoleon. After Bonaparte’s death in exile, Beethoven remarked that he had already written the music for that occasion.

The symphony has a number of original features. It is, in the first place, a long work, leading Beethoven to suggest that it should be played near the beginning of a concert programme, anticipating, perhaps, his own later failure in concert planning with programmes of incredible length and weight. The slow movement is in the form of a funeral march, a scherzo replaces the classical minuet as a third movement, and the final movement is a set of variations.

The first movement of the Eroica Symphony, monumental in conception, summons our attention with two loud chords, followed by the principal theme, played by the cellos. There is a more elusive second subject, an adventurous development and a recapitulation that has a false start from the French horns, accused by one who heard the first rehearsal of a failure in counting.

The funeral march is grandiose in scale, the double basses suggesting the muffled drums of the dead march at its opening, thus making the entry of the timpani themselves even more effective. The tension engendered is interrupted by the soft notes that introduce the Scherzo, significantly extended in length, the Trio allowing the horns due prominence.

The finale makes use of a theme from the ballet Prometheus, completed in 1801. This is offered first in skeletal form, to be varied with contrasting fugal ingenuity and passing serenity, before the triumphant conclusion.

Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio, based on a French original and dealing with the rescue of a political prisoner, Florestan, from incarceration and imminent death, through the loyalty of his wife, Leonora, who disguises herself as a boy, Fidelio, to achieve her ends. The first performances of the work in November, 1805, at the Theater ander Wien, came ata bad time, a week after Napoleon’s armies had entered Vienna. Most of the composer’s patrons had left the city as the enemy drew near, and the new audience, largely made up of French officers, found nothing to admire in a German opera that altogether lacked the brilliance of Mozart or Cherubini.

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