The stories behind the most memorable classical music compositions in history.
I am willing to place a rather sizeable bet, that if I were to survey a crowd of one hundred people who claimed to know absolutely nothing about the world of classical music and asked them to name any one individual composer that they might know, the one name they would be able to come up with would be that of Ludwig van Beethoven. In a world of talented composers, Beethoven easily rates as one of the most talented of them all. But more to the point, he has created works of such importance and magnitude that even non-classical music fans can recognize their worth. The two compositions that spring most readily to mind are his 5th and 9th symphonies (which we will discuss in more detail in future posts). But, for those who admire Beethoven and who know him best, the consensus is that his most important work is a symphony that has become known simply as “Eroica”. “Eroica” translates roughly as “Heroic”. There are times when great artists rise up to meet the temper of the times in which they find themselves. This is surely the case of “Eroica”. It was a symphony composed in times that many felt were the most glorious in European history, composed for a man who Beethoven and many others first believed to be a saviour, Napoleon Bonaparte. In time, this symphony ended up causing the world to reevaluate the life’s work of one of Beethoven’s most admired contemporaries, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It also ended the Classical era of compositional style music with a declarative bang, ushering in the era of Romanticism. As if this wasn’t enough, “Eroica” is a piece of music that many claim helped to save Beethoven’s life. In short, “Eroica” changed the lives of two major composers and changed the world of classical music forever. It is simply one of the most important pieces of music ever created. This is the story of Beethoven’s “Eroica”.
Ludwig van Beethoven was born at the right time. Some people are lucky that way. He was born in Bonn, Germany in 1770. As he grew up, he did so in the brotherly shadow of another musical child prodigy, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Beethoven was a full generation younger than Mozart. But Beethoven, being born into a musical family, was well aware of who Mozart was. In fact, Beethoven’s earliest days were spent in mirror image to those of Mozart. Like his musical compatriot, Beethoven’s talent was noted at a very young age. In addition, like Mozart, Beethoven had a father who pressured him relentlessly in an attempt to bring recognition to the family through the prodigy-like reputation of his child. However, that is where the similarities ended. Despite being a prodigious composer, Mozart lived most of his life in near poverty. Beethoven, on the other hand, began life as the grandson of the Kapellmeister (Musical director) of Bonn. He was afforded the most capable of mentors simply because of his family’s connections in society circles. While Mozart composed over 800 pieces of music by the time he had reached his mid-thirties, Beethoven hadn’t formally published almost any original works until he was well into adulthood. Instead, Beethoven grew up studying the works of Mozart and Hadyn with an eye to making a career out of being a classical pianist or, more succinctly, a performer of the works of others he admired. In fact, the career of Ludwig van Beethoven is generally broken down into three distinct periods. In the first phase of his career, he composed some original works, but those were mainly steeped in the classical traditions of those composers who had come before him. The period in his life prior to 1802 is best noted as being that time when he learned to be a highly trained musician. It was while emulating the greatest works of other musical geniuses that Beethoven learned how to play the piano with great skill. As he did so, that knowledge became innate and provided him with the foundation necessary to begin writing piano-based compositions in his own hand. In this formative stage of his career, he most admired the work of Mozart. When he played compositions on the piano that had been created by Mozart, Beethoven was sufficiently skilled to recognize how innovative these works were. That experience of performing Mozart’s works inspired Beethoven to trust his own instincts when it came to creating original works in the future. That future looked bright for Beethoven until 1802. That was the year he began to go deaf.
Like a dancer who becomes lame or a painter who becomes blind, losing one’s hearing can be a career-ending turn of events for a musician and composer. When Beethoven first started to turn deaf, he sought advice as to how to best deal with this situation. One of the first things he was advised to do was to move away from larger centres such as Bonn or Vienna and move to the countryside where there would naturally be less ambient noise. So, Beethoven moved to the village of Heiligenstadt. This is noteworthy because, after his death in 1827, a group of letters that he had written while in Heiligenstadt (but never mailed) was discovered. These letters became known as Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament. In these letters, Beethoven disclosed that the onset of deafness had brought on a state of depression that was leading him to think suicidal thoughts. He quickly added that what allowed him to carry on was his belief in his ability to create dynamic, original Art. Beethoven stated that his entire catalogue of music up until that point now left him deeply unsatisfied. He ended off by making a vow to live with greater boldness going forward. A second group of letters was discovered. These letters were addressed to a mysterious figure referred to only as “My Immortal Beloved”. The identity of this mystery woman has never been revealed. That didn’t stop many from speculating, which led to the creation of a movie entitled “Immortal Beloved” starring Gary Oldman as Beethoven. (You can watch a scene from that movie here).
As Beethoven forced himself to rise up from the depths of his despair, two important historical events happened. The first was that the French Revolution had ended, and the second was that Napoleon Bonaparte became the leader of France. Without writing an entire essay on the subject, the French Revolution was a watershed moment in world history because it helped usher in a period of reforms that in many ways formed the foundational principles of a system of governance called Democracy. After having lived under centuries of oppressive Monarchist rule, the notion that ordinary citizens might come to have a greater say in how they lived their lives was a thrilling notion to many, including to a thirty-something young man named Ludwig van Beethoven. When the Napoleonic Wars spread across Europe and into Russia, the idea that democracy might come to the entire continent was breathtaking. So, just as Beethoven was committing himself to a bolder future as a composer, the image of Napoleon Bonaparte as a liberator of the oppressed appeared before him. Beethoven channeled those feelings of admiration and hopefulness for a better tomorrow for himself and for the citizens of Europe into a new symphony that he called “Symphony No. 3 in E♭ Major, Op. 55”, or as he wrote across the top of his original manuscript, “Eroica”. He dedicated this new symphony to Napoleon.
“Eroica” was a symphony unlike any the world had seen before. Like many of the works of Mozart, Beethoven took the best parts of the classical form in which he was so well versed and turned them on their ear. “Eroica” was twice as long as any other symphony in history. But most importantly of all, Beethoven’s symphony did not rely on the usual odes to God or to nobility; instead, it laid bare the emotional story of his own life. Never before had such emotion been interwoven into the score of a symphony. When “Eroica” was first performed, audiences were confused and upset. It was too long. It was too personal. What was Beethoven trying to say anyway?! But in time, “Eroica” became well known and respected precisely because of the emotion it contained. Beethoven’s vulnerability was being displayed for all to see because a new age of personal freedoms was dawning all across the land. His emotional display was actually symbolic of the freedom that a whole continent was set to experience for themselves and enjoy. It was the dawn of a new age, and as a result, nothing less than a reinvention of classical form was called for. That’s what “Eroica” really was. It heralded a new beginning in European history by being new and fresh and completely innovative in the structure of the composition and in the substance of its musical expression.
In many ways, Beethoven didn’t do anything with “Eroica” that Mozart hadn’t done with countless compositions a generation earlier. The difference was that the time and circumstances weren’t right for Mozart to have been credited with ushering in a new era of music prior to the start of The French Revolution. In the 1760s, life in Europe was dictated by the ruling classes, and for them, the introduction of revolutionary concepts in music was not welcomed at all. This accounts in large part for why Mozart lived much of his life in poverty and why he ended up being buried in a pauper’s grave. For Beethoven, the rampant optimism that existed across central Europe, in particular, as the 1800s began was the perfect opportunity to have something as new and inventive as “Eroica” accepted by audiences (which it eventually was). His “Symphony No. 3 in E♭ Major, Op. 55” changed the way composers approached their craft from that point onward. This symphony is said to have initiated a period in classical music known as the Romantic Era. This era is characterized by a general acceptance of the idea that composers are free to follow their muse when it comes to creating new works. They are no longer forced to follow rigid parameters as established by those who first practiced their craft centuries prior.
As time progressed, “Eroica” underwent one fundamental change and had another aspect of it endure and become symbolic of Beethoven’s genius as a composer through to these modern times today. The one thing that ended up changing was that Beethoven became disillusioned with Napoleon. Specifically, when Beethoven found out that Napoleon had unilaterally declared himself to be Emperor (i.e., singular ruler with authority over all other citizens or, in other words, the opposite of being a democratic ruler who is elected by the people and who serves at their will), he angrily withdrew the part of “Eroica” where he had dedicated it to Napoleon. The original manuscript now bore a hole where the name “Napoleon” had once proudly stood.
But over time, one section of “Eroica” has emerged to stand as one of the great moments in musical history. In the second movement of “Eroica”, Beethoven included a three-minute funeral march. Some claim that this three-minute section of music is the saddest and most sombre music ever created. So much so that it has been played as the official funeral music of such public figures as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, German General Erwin Rommel, composer Felix Mendelssohn and most poignantly, at the funerals of the twelve Israeli athletes killed at the 1972 Summer Olympic Games in Munich, Germany.
When personal challenges present themselves we, as humans, can either face them or flee from them. Deafness is an almost catastrophic challenge for anyone who bases their life on arranging sounds in ways that move the hearts and minds of others. That “Eroica” was just the beginning of the most prolific chapter of Beethoven’s professional career stands as proof of his motivation and of his creative genius. We will delve more into how he managed to make such beautiful and important music while existing in a world of silence in future posts when we examine his 5th and 9th symphonies. Until then, please enjoy this incredibly innovative and important composition (especially, the very moving second part which you should be able to find time stamped in the video’s description section). Ludwig van Beethoven is the world’s most recognizable name in classical music history for a reason. “Eroica” is the reason many consider him the most important and talented composer as well. Enjoy.
The link to the video for the composition “Symphony No. 3 in E♭ Major, Op. 55” or, as it is better known, “Eroica” by Ludwig van Beethoven can be found here. ***The funeral march begins at the 16:13 mark of the symphony if you wish to only listen to that proton of the entire symphony.
The link to the Beethoven Museum in Heiligenstadt can be found here.
The link to the official website for Heiligenstadt, Austria (where Beethoven stayed when he first began to develop deafness) can be found here.
The link to the world’s best classical music station…Classical 103.1….streaming to the world from my hometown of Cobourg, Ontario, Canada can be found here.
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