Beethoven250, Dec 16, 2019-Dec 15, 2020
(For the celebration of the 250th year since Beethoven’s birth, I’ll be reposting updated archival writing on the man, and posting new entries in this series all year.)
Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony, the “Eroica,” premiered the night of April 7, 1805. And thus began Romanticism, with what sounds, still, like cannon fire.
If the Classical Style of Vienna presents a composer’s thoughts on music in the form of a Haydn Sonata or a Mozart Serenade, the Romantic style presents the composers thoughts about . . . everything. It is not, “listen to my music,” but “listen to me.” A command, an imperative. And Beethoven begins not at the periphery of this idea, but at the core. In the “Eroica,” Beethoven demands that we consider what he means, and what he means he does not exactly know—he means many things, all at the same time, and many of which conflict. In other words, Beethoven is the artist not as Platonic ideal, but as human being.
This is a part of the “heroic” style which begins with him. Another component of it is the endurance, but not always the triumph, of the human spirit against general adversity and especially internal struggle. The title of the work tells the tale; a crisis of belief without a neat resolution. Beethoven was no admirer of France, but did see in Napoleon Bonaparte the possibility of an Enlightenment Revolution sweeping across Europe. He initially thought of dedicating the work the work to Bonaparte, but as his biographer Maynard Solomon relates, he began to have his doubts when that meant losing a fee from one of his patrons, then was further enraged by Napoleon declaring himself Emperor. That story is well known, at least apocryphally. The tale continues, though; after completion, Beethoven still considered calling the symphony Bonaparte, and the work did not received the title “Eroica” until 1806. It had become the symphonic depiction of an abstract “Hero.”
This matters, because the work presents a world of musical, intellectual and emotional conflict; sensation, hope, turmoil, questions without answers, a conclusion but not necessarily a resolution and, most of all, it juxtaposes life and death and describes a journey from one to the other and back again—Romanticism! It is a hero’s life and thoughts, and we can think of that hero as Bonaparte.
I had been thrilled by the verve, pathos and passion of the symphony, but it didn’t mean much to me until I read Anthony Burgess’s incredible Napoleon Symphony, a novel that is quite faithfully modeled after the music. The marcia funebre takes on a new life when the narrative depiction is of a group of freezing French soldiers trying to make their way back alive from the gates of Moscow in 1812.
But what Beethoven ultimately felt about Bonaparte was ambivalence, and the symphony is anything but that. It is conflicted to the nth degree. It’s an internal portrait of a hero who is really just a man. Beethoven easily fits that, but so can we all. This heroic idea has nothing to do with power, fame or notoriety, the decadent idea of heroism that ‘conservatives’ are so enthralled by, and likewise that of MCU and Star Wars fandom, where the most obvious and predictable super-powered feats are worshipped as somehow revelatory. This is heroism as the daily struggle between human impulse and indulgence and our ethical and moral sense, the struggle to find our place in the community and the universe, and at least do no harm.
The work bursts with energy and seems to wander into traps and travails, falling into extremely unstable dissonance almost at the beginning, and following nothing like classical harmonic structure—like extreme heavy metal, it smashes mis-fitting materials against each other, and then stands briefly, looking at their shards, before turning with a sigh towards some random direction and, hopefully, some light. And that’s just the first movement. The funeral march is heavy with the tread of pall-bearers accompanying the casket, carries some wistful memories of happier times, before falling apart in grief. The scherzo is a wild, almost drunken peasant dance, interrupted by the distant hunting horns of the aristocracy. The finale is Beethoven himself, impudently making fun of a peer, turning the other’s banal melody into a moving journey via a dazzling set of variations. Musically, this comes through clearly in an excellent new recording led by Andrew Manze with the Helsinborg Symphony:
I find the tempos ideal. There is a tremendous effect at the opening, where the first chords are played with the force that implies a fast pace, and one is left anticipating the second chord, which builds immediate tension. This is a reading where the music really speaks for itself, and the small size of the orchestra allows clarity of internal detail. I’ve never heard the kind of delineation of dissonance in the internal voices as with this performance. Manze seems to be viewing this work from a point in the classical period, and is full of subtle wonder about the shift in possibility the symphony produces. The newness is there.
Michael Tilson Thomas also covers the work in great musical detail. Between the two conductors, one can get quite an education into what makes the Eroica revolutionary. My own thought is that with this work, you have an idea that becomes essential to Romantic music, which is of music as a memory art. The classical style, generally, describes a musical journey from a home key and back again. It is the journey of a technique. Romanticism is a personal journey, mainly between degrees of light and dark, and frequently between life and death. The territory covered is internal, and the method is through memory—the hero can only return to life by recalling moments, experiences, joys and sorrows, and by that means reconstitute himself again. This is true in Berlioz, who could not exist without Beethoven and who is the most faithful follower of Beethoven’s aesthetic values, and in the art of Courbet, who himself only cares about telling you what he thinks, whether in the famous self-portrait above or his portrait of Berlioz.
The composer did not like the painter at all. Two willful artists together, not surprising. It’s a great picture though, the composer full of the same type of creative conflict and turmoil that Beethoven used as his fuel. We admire, even exalt their work, and frequently disparage their personalities, expecting some kind of easy, shallow psychological correlation between the ‘goodness’ of art and that of the people who produce it. But this is based on a strange idea of goodness—a combination of saintliness and agreeability. Beethoven was not a saint, and often not particularly agreeable. He was a man, and that makes him the artist, Hero.