Saturday, October 18, 2014

Beethoven's Eroica: The Hero Within the Music

Another Heroic Monument
This weekend, the Harrisburg Symphony, conducted by Stuart Malina, presents Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 in E-flat, the Eroica, on its opening program of the new season. The concerts at the Forum are Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm with Truman Bullard's pre-concert talk an hour before each performance. You can read the previous posts in this series - about the program in general (complete video performances included); about Beethoven and Bonaparte the Hero; and about hearing the Eroica for the first time. And they can be read before or after (but not during) the performance.

While Bonaparte – that is, First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte (born Buonaparte), not the Emperor Napoleon – was the impetus behind the Symphony in E-flat Major Beethoven began working on in 1802, I'm wondering if Haydn wasn't closer to the mark when he allegedly said, “He's placed himself at the center of his work. He gives us a glimpse into his soul. ...But it is quite, quite new – the artist as hero – quite new... Everything is different from today.” (– quoted as it was used in the BBC/Pro Arte film Eroica which was imbedded in the previous post.)

Haydn (from BBC's "Eroica")
The idea of the “artist as hero” is entirely antithetical to the “artist as craftsman” of the Classical Era of which Haydn is generally considered the ultimate example. Yet he had already begun pushing these boundaries, now that he had retired after nearly thirty years as a court composer for Prince Nicholas Esterházy and had few requirements to fulfill for his successor. He composed two immense oratorios – completing The Creation in 1798 and The Seasons in 1801 – and six monumental masses between 1796 and 1802, his last major works. And there is certainly something of the sublime far beyond the classical craftsman in these works.

Haydn teaching Beethoven
Beethoven arrived in Vienna in 1792, a year after the death of Mozart – whose own music, especially in things like his D Minor Piano Concerto and the opera Don Giovanni challenged 18th Century Classical proprieties with an abundance of Romantic emotions – and studied with Haydn until he left once more for London in 1794. Though their relationship was never friendly – in fact, Haydn treated the young composer with some disdain if not jealousy and didn't seem to take these lessons seriously (Beethoven refused to list Haydn as his teacher on his first publications because he felt Haydn had taught him too little; another composer, examining Beethoven's counterpoint notebook, found several errors that Haydn had not bothered to correct) – Haydn was, after all, the most celebrated living composer in Europe at the time. One could point out many similarities in their works – the opening of “Winter” in Haydn's Seasons and the introduction to Beethoven's 4th Symphony, both in the same key, for instance – but then the “common language” of 18th Century classicism was so “common,” it is difficult to say how much of this is influence or coincidence much less imitation.

But there was something so startlingly new in the Eroica for 1803, it's impossible not to ask “where did that come from!?”

Yet if we examine the symphony in terms of its overall structure, it turns out not to be that different from the models that inspired Beethoven's first two symphonies between 1800 and 1802: instead of a slow introduction, typical with Haydn, Beethoven uses two peremptory chords to get out attention (no chance to settle comfortably into “listening mode,” here), but after that, the overall concepts are not unfamiliar – just incredibly expanded, especially in the middle section's development which is the hallmark of Sonata Form (in the 18th Century, this might be so brief as to be no more than a digression, but in Beethoven, it becomes the dramatic focus of the struggle between leaving the tonic key and its eventual return.

This first movement – full of excruciating dissonances and nearly as long as any of Haydn's earlier symphonies entirely – is followed, as expected, by a slow movement, but again one of immensely expanded proportions and intense drama – a funeral march, no less.

Haydn's third movements are often earthy and more dance-like than the standard courtly minuet of his earlier works, but Beethoven's takes this peasant-like energy to a new and often frenetic level, a return to life after the slow movement tragedy.

Haydn's finales were often light-hearted, full of tricks or jokes, but also capable of hiding intellectual details, but none of them were ever as long or as commanding as the Eroica's finale: here, a set of variations on what seems to be a simplistic, almost inane idea later turns out to be the bass of a theme introduced almost as an afterthought, but simple or not, it is full of “learnèd counterpoint” and out-and-out fugues, the culmination of the intellectual.

And it was the tradition in the 18th Century approach to variations that the next to the last one would be in a slow tempo (a way to inform the audience the end is near) which is exactly what Beethoven does here except, again, it is greatly expanded, almost into a slow movement of its own. It becomes an emotional climax if not of the whole piece, then at least the second half of the symphony (nothing could be more emotional that that funeral march's final disintegration). And how to end it? With an uproarious “happy ending,” a triumphal dance that, to a proper 18th Century classicist, would be vulgar in the extreme, pounding away at the final resolution to the home tonic – repetitive but also drunk with joy!

The skeleton of the classical symphony is still there but the surface of it – its scope and dimensions and what activates it as a work of art – are almost unrecognizable, certainly on first hearing. Yet it is not so revolutionary as we tend to think, embedded in the past as it is.

So it is interesting to read someone writing about the “sublime” in music:

= = = = = = =
“In music, only that can be sublime which exceeds the conceptual powers of the imagination: which appears too large and significant, too foreign and strange, for the imagination to grasp it easily...”

“The feeling of sublimity in music is aroused when the imagination is elevated to the plane of the limitless, the immeasurable, the unconquerable. This happens when such emotions are aroused as... prevent the integration of one's impressions into a coherent whole.”

– Christian Friedrich Michaelis, “Some Remarks on the Sublime in Music” (Leipzig, 1805) quoted in James Webster's essay, The Creation, Haydn's Late Vocal Music and the Musical Sublime in the Bard Music Festival Series, Haydn and His World (Princeton, 1997)
= = = = = = =

It is interesting to read this because it very much describes the music we associate with the huge emotional – indeed, “sensual” – leap into 19th Century romanticism which, as any music student has been told, essentially began with Beethoven's Eroica in 1803. Outside of a close circle of friends of Prince Joseph Maximilian Lobkowitz, no one else heard this symphony until April, 1805, when it was first performed at Vienna's Theater an der Wien.

And yet Michaelis published his “Remarks” in Leipzig in 1805: had he been in Vienna and heard Beethoven's startling new music? It's almost as if he were describing the Eroica's impact on its listeners:

= = = = = = =
“Firstly, by uniformity so great that it almost excludes variety: by the constant repetition of the same note or chord... by long, majestic, weighty, or solemn notes, and hence by very slow movement; by long pauses holding up the progress of the melodic line, or which impede the shaping of a melody, thus underlining the lack of variety. Secondly, by too much diversity, as when innumerable impressions succeed one another too rapidly and the mind is too abruptly hurled into the thundering torrent of sounds, or when (as in many polyphonic compositions involving many voices) the themes are developed together in so complex a manner that the imagination cannot easily and calmly integrate the diverse ideas into a coherent whole without strain. Thus in music, the sublime can only be that which seems too vast and significant, too strange and wonderful, to be easily assimilated by it.”

– Michaelis, ibid
= = = = = = =

The first idea certainly seems to pertain to Beethoven's epic Funeral March – even to that mysterious, unexpected D# interrupting the 1st Movement's opening cello melody, though not a “long pause,” which holds up the progress of the melodic line and expands it in such a way, there is this harmonic hiccup before the phrase cadences where it's expected to.

And the second idea – too much diversity – is another element of Beethoven's development sections, one thing after another thrown at you – melodic fragments, harmonic implications, striking dissonances and rhythmic irregularities – before you're back on any kind of solid (expected) ground.

Yet Michaelis is no doubt responding to elements of Haydn's oratorios – especially The Creation which already begins pushing beyond mere craftsmanship: the opening depiction of chaos was, to an 18th Century listener, sheer chaos, harmonically; the appearance of Light a stroke of brilliance that, though obvious to us (especially tame compared to today's special effects we witness daily in television, movies and video games) was thrilling to first-time listeners.

But it's all about expectations and how they're met: how did Beethoven get from being the Student beginning his studies with Haydn at 21 to the Master who wrote the Eroica at 32?

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Cherubini & Muse (by Ingres)
It is tempting to write about the influences on Beethoven' style we don't usually think about, especially composers of his time whom we no longer know. There was a whole school of French artists active in post-Revolutionary Paris who painted, sculpted and composed on an epic scale, composers like Cherubini, an Italian transplant who became the leading French composer and dominated the musical style of his generation. Beethoven's sole opera, Fidelio, premiered in 1805, is based on a French "rescue" drama and heavily inspired by Cherubini.

But the musical style of Gossec, Gretry and Mehul was known to Beethoven whether or not he was aware of the paintings of David and Ingres. But this would take another sizable post of more interest to scholars than listeners, so let's leave that for now. It is, however, an area little written and less talked about in the Beethoven literature.

After producing six string quartets by 1800, his first symphony and a series of piano sonatas – including the very Romantic “Pathetique” in 1798 and the so-called “Moonlight” in 1801 (which could easily have been called the “Tempest” after its stormy finale) and the very next sonata, the placid “Pastoral” – Beethoven said to a friend, “I am only a little satisfied with my previous works. From today on I will take a new path.”

The next works he composed were the 2nd Symphony, the three violin sonatas of Op. 30 (dedicated to Tsar Alexander I), the “Eroica” Variations for solo piano which made use of a successful dance tune from his ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus of the previous year (a view of Creation from the perspective of classical Greek mythology, by the way), and the three piano sonatas that includes the very unusual one actually known as the “Tempest” (from a chance remark he made about Shakespeare's play when asked what its opening movement meant without ever really explaining how it applies). And then he started working out some new ideas for another symphony.

But something else happened in Beethoven's life that year.

A far from heroic-looking Beethoven walking in the woods
He had begun experiencing symptoms that indicated something was wrong with his hearing and the idea of a concert pianist, indeed a composer, going deaf came at a time just as Beethoven's reputation was growing, that his new pieces were bringing in a good income. He was nearly 30 – what did it mean if he would soon go deaf and all this would come to a sudden halt?

In October, 1802, in the midst of the last movement of the 2nd Symphony, Beethoven wrote a heart-rending letter to his two brothers, intended to be opened after his death, which is known as “The Heiligenstadt Testament.” In places, it reads like a suicide note.

He had been troubled by the first symptoms around 1796, enough to worry about it. In a letter to a friend back home in 1801, he wrote “I will seize fate by the throat; it shall certainly not bend and crush me completely.”

When he wrote his 5th Symphony – which he started sketching probably while he was working on the Eroica and had completed the opening movements before he'd begun the 4th Symphony – he used that famous motive he described to his student Ferdinand Ries as “fate knocking at the door.” This gives rise to the idea the symphony is clearly about Man overcoming Fate and celebrating a great victory in the finale. It doesn't matter if that Man is actually the man Beethoven because the music itself transcends whatever inspired it, but certainly his own experiences dealing with what Fate has dealt him – in this case, his deafness – might have given him the dramatic inspiration whether he's writing an autobiographical piece or not.

Another fanciful image of Beethoven
And just as the Hero of the Eroica Symphony probably isn't a musical portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte – after all, how do you make sense of a hero who has a funeral in the second movement when the hero it is supposed to be dedicated to is very much alive? – is it any more possible the struggle in this music is the first stage of Beethoven coming to terms with his own deafness, becoming his own hero in grabbing Fate, two quick knocks at the door to start the symphony on its way?

Perhaps not. It's always dangerous to read anything into what Beethoven may have been thinking because he never told anyone what was specifically on his mind – even the reference to the “Tempest” is so vague, it hardly begins to answer the question.

But whether it is a musical portrait of Beethoven – or more likely his state of mind – or of Napoleon Bonaparte, First Consul of France, is immaterial. You may hear great armies marching across battlefields in the first movement or hear in it a portrait not of Bonaparte but of Alexander the Great (as one writer insisted) but that may have nothing to do with what Beethoven was thinking about when he composed it.

What it comes down to is more like what Arturo Toscanini said: it is Allegro con brio, the tempo Beethoven gave to the first movement. It is about music and how it's put together: what you make of it is your own side of the equation.

- Dick Strawser

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