Does music have meaning outside of its context? That is, when a piece is so revolutionary, so very different from everything that came before it, can we hear that difference, or do we have to be trained to hear it? Even with training, even with a knowledge of what came before, doesn't the "new" piece still sound to us like it is decidedly old, that is doesn't even begin to capture the things that came later in the composer's career, much less the things that came after the composer's death?
Those are some of the questions I struggle with when trying to explain Beethoven's Eroica Symphony. It's unlike anything written before it. The first movement alone takes about 15 minutes, making it as long as some Haydn and Mozart symphonies in their entirety. The second movement is another 15 minutes. The thing as a whole takes over a quarter hour, so long that Beethoven advised it not be performed late in a concert program lest the audience become restless.
Length, however, is not always indicative of a revolution. War and Peace is a long book, but it doesn't feel like a particularly revolutionary book as you read it. Don't get me wrong, it deserves its reputation as a great work, and it is extremely ambitious in its storytelling, but it did not fundamentally alter the way that books were written, as far as I know. The Eroica, on the other hand, well, it did fundamentally alter the writing of music. Or, if it did not alone, it was the capstone of a set of works that did.
Can you hear what makes it so outrageous, so different, so offensive, so intense, so awesome? Here's a rendition from the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, conducted, at the time, by the incomparable Gustavo Dudamel.
There's a lot in this piece, too much to talk about all at once, so let's start with the beginning. The big, fat, E-flat Major chords that open the piece are perhaps a tad jarring, but it's not unusual for a composer to signal what key he's in to start off a piece. No, what's really odd is what comes after those two chords. Take a listen to the first few seconds of the piece again.
The melody that Beethoven introduces here doesn't sound particularly odd to our modern ears, but it would have been jarring in its time. What's more, it was uncharacteristic even for Beethoven. Why? Because it has a flatted seventh (Db or C#) in it.
After the two chords, what you hear is an outline of the Eb Major triad: Eb - G - Eb - Bb - Eb - G - Bb. That is followed by a chromatic descent to the 7: Eb - D - C#. This is jarring because that C# is not a part of the Eb Major scale. It destabilizes the key, making Eb feel like a dominant, and not a tonic.* As a result, we're pulled away from the tonic, and you can hear it quite clearly in the clip; it sounds incomplete, it sounds like it's going somewhere, and it's not entirely clear where.
* Quick theory 101 lesson: tonic is, generally, the key the piece is in. It feels restful and complete. Think of a simple piece like Mary Had a Little Lamb, or Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. The tonic happens at the very beginning and ending of those pieces. The dominant, meanwhile, is usually the chord on the 5th of the tonic. It feels unstable and pulls you back towards the tonic. Try singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and stopping on the "how I wonder what you" without singing the "are." That "what you" is the dominant.
Analyzing the experience of hearing this opening harmonically is only a beginning, however. More important is the meaning: what is Beethoven trying to accomplish with this C#? This symphony is called - by Beethoven himself - Eroica, "Heroic." Famously, it was originally written for Napoleon Bonaparte, but rededicated after the French Consul declared himself Emperor to Beethoven's chagrin. Is this a Napoleonic symphony, then, a story of the French Revolution? Or is it, perhaps, meant to stand for an ideal instead? Was it ever, really, about Napoleon at all?
Those are questions we can't answer yet, and some of those questions may not be easy to answer from the music alone. Instead, we need to dive into the narrower questions posed by the infamous C#. What kind of heroism is this piece going to be about? Martial heroism? Political heroism? Populist heroism? Artistic heroism? And what does it mean to have the tonic - the core of the piece - destabilized so early? Perhaps the heroic is a result of instability. We, as listeners, are invited to understand musically the context in which heroism takes place.
On the other hand, some listeners want to make the opening theme stand for the hero, and not heroism or the hero's situation. In that account, the C# is perhaps some kind of Greek tragic flaw, hubris, or a failure of self-awareness. If the piece is about Napoleon, there could be a kind of accidental truth to this interpretation: while it was written before Napoleon's ambition became clear, the piece might nevertheless anticipate his arrogance.
For my part, I do not think there is meant to be a single correct interpretation. Music is not, after all, denotative. There is, however, intent. Beethoven intends, regardless of specific imagery we apply to his C#, to make us uncomfortable, to make us wonder what is going on. This effect is compounded by the meter of the piece. The opening movement, here, is in 3/4, despite its "military march" feel. Indeed, the opening two chords are wholly ambiguous - they could just as easily be in 4/4 - and it is only with the introduction of the very theme that destabilizes harmonically that we realize our rhythmic expectations have been violated as well.
Regardless of specific interpretation, it is worth recognizing that the movement as a whole is very warlike. Particular motifs and themes suggesting a battlefield are frequent. For example, there's this "galloping horses" motif:
And a passage many liken to cannon fire:
This latter passage is particularly notable thanks to the extended "4/4" at the end of it. After a series of "1-2-rest, 1-2-rest" chords we hear a bunch of big fat "bam rest bam rest bam rest" chords that betray the time signature.* This is a particularly warlike device, because it shakes the rhythmic foundations of the piece.
*This moment of undermining the time signature is worth keeping in mind as we progress, because it is a tool Beethoven will use in every movement of the symphony.
These motifs we'll come across as we progress through the first movement, but for now they can lend a hand to our understanding of the opening. In short, there is a revolution afoot. What kind of revolution? It's hard to say. Certainly a musical one - for nothing quite like this symphony has ever been written before - but perhaps a political one and a spiritual one as well. What that looks like, how music can convey that or - perhaps more to the point - help to create that is the question that we'll be confronting throughout this series of posts. For now, it's sufficient to recognize that the opening of the Eroica sets us up to go on a long journey. The destabilization of the tonic here is not something easily resolved, and it may take quite some time to put everything back together again. Indeed, as we wrap up the first movement (in the distant future) we'll have cause to ask whether or not the questions raised by our C# have really been resolved: can you return to the tonic - to the way things were - after such a piece of music? Is the hero of this piece redeemable? Is heroism itself? Is there such a thing as a great man in an egalitarian society?
Beethoven, in his idealism, believed that Napoleon would bring about a Europe filled with equality and freedom and opportunity. But there's more than just boundless optimism in the Eroica, because Beethoven recognized the innate contradiction in Napoleon's project: forcing equality on the world. He believed the General could do it, but his symphony - from its very outset - is very much aware of the challenge. That Napoleon himself did not live up to Beethoven's expectations - or, more properly, his dream - does not change the very nature of the project. If anything, it only reinforces how extremely difficult it is to accomplish what the Eroica suggests: transforming a society for the better.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. For now, we've set off on the heroic journey of the 3rd Symphony. It's not always pretty, and it's not always easy, but it is exciting and stirring and intense. The fear and indignation with which many of Beethoven's listeners - those disciples of Haydn and Mozart who believed music should be just so - was countered by the excitement and expectation of those listeners who could tell that this was a new, and altogether more powerful kind of music.
If powerful, then also dangerous, perhaps? That's another question we'll have to pursue as we go along. Before we get there, however, let's first learn how to hear the optimism, the idealism, the joy, along with the frustration and the violence in the Eroica. Without hearing those things, first, the question of danger and power is meaningless.