Sunday, November 27, 2005


Beethoven: Symphony No.3

By the time Beethoven was ready to undertake his third Symphony, the heritage of his great predecessors, Haydn and Mozart, had fulfilled its mission, and scarcely a vestige of its influence upon Beethoven's methods of expression is here outwardly recognizable. The contrast between this third Symphony and the two that preceded it is amazing---unparalleled in the history of musical progress. It is as if the youth had suddenly attained to full manhood, and was now asserting himself, the true Beethoven, with all the originality, independence, supreme vigor of mind and spirit that proclaim the mighty genius of tone. This great work is commonly assumed to inaugurate his second, most fecund and joyous period.

The Third symphony, in E-flat, Op.55, written in 1804, was designed as a tribute to the life of a Hero, and Beethoven himself gave it the title of Eroica. The hero foremost in his mind was Napoleon, whose remarkably victorious military career excited the admiration of Beethoven and made him a worthy object of Beethoven's musical plan. To Napoleon, therefore, the Symphony was originally dedicated; but his subsequent acceptance of the imperial crown impressed Beethoven as a sordid act of personal ambition, and the dedication was withdrawn.

It is not easy to trace a definite connection between Beethoven's heroic design and the music of the Symphony itself. The first Movement, it is true, is of that extremely vigorous, manly type that is associated with heroism, and it is also "heroic" in dimensions: with the exception of the Ninth Symphony, this is the longest of Beethoven's symphonic Movements. Also, its prime thematic phrase is a bugle-call. The second movement is the only one of the four that refers explicitly to heroism: it bears the title Funeral March, on the Death of a Hero. The third Movement, a Scherzo, has been interpreted as depicting the bustle of a military camp; but it might quite as well be the commotion of a country fair---apart from the three-voiced bugle-call in the Trio. And in the Finale there is not a single episode that is specifically heroic; in fact, the gentle, winning Theme that runs through the whole Movement was conceived and used by Beethoven years before; it appears as concluding number in his early Ballet-music Prometheus, and is the subject of his piano Variations, Op.35 (1802). But, for all that, this vital Symphony fits the definition "brave, vigorous, venturesome" sufficiently well, and is therefore truly heroic in spirit.

Here, for the first time in his symphonic work, Beethoven dispenses with an independent Introduction; after two peremptory tonic strokes he intonates the bugle-call (in the 'cello) in 3/4 meter in which the first Movement centers. The Exposition is regular and unusually long; but its extreme length is matched by proportionate depth and breadth, so that, far from being a wearisome drawback, it is an essential, logical consequence; and the mighty plan unfolds with unfailing interest and unabated fascination through to the triumphant end. The preponderant heroic mood is softened by interspersed episodes of tender beauty---note the effective contrasts which the Themes and Codettas present. Note, also, the frequent assertion of 2/4 measure, which heightens the impetuous rhythmic effect by shifting (contracting) the accentuations. Despite its length, Beethoven insists upon the repetition of the Exposition. In the later course of the proportionately extended Development (in Section 8), after about thirty measures of his intensified 2/4 meter, culminating in four measures of fierce dissonance, he arrests the tumult and introduces a wholly new motive of great beauty.

Four measures before the Recapitulation begins, the horn softly intonates the first measures of the principal Theme on the chord E-flat, against the Dominant Seventh chord in the violins (pp, tremolando). This famous episode, so characteristic of Beethoven's daring, was at first regarded as a misprint!

The Recapitulation is nearly literal---with the customary transpositions. The Coda assumes proportions commensurate with the magnitude of the Movement as a whole.

The slow Movement, the Funeral March, is an irregular variety of the Second-Rondo-form. It is also very broad, profoundly moving, dramatic, filled with genuine pathos, throughout distinctive of the maturer Beethoven; and it is as replete with beauty as it is original. This may appear to be a meager showing, but it is an essential quality of Beethoven's genius that he prefers to evolve the most lengthy and finished products out of the simplest, smallest germs, and he possesses the faculty of so doing to an unparalleled extent---compare the first Movement of the Fifth Symphony; and of the Sixth; and Seventh.

In place of the Second subordinate Theme, prescribed in the legitimate Second Rondo, he inserts a genuine "Development," and therein lies the irregularity of the form. The first section of the Development is a fugato in Triple-counterpoint---with three Themes, combined in various mutual inversions. There is an impressive Coda (thirty-nine measures), the last ten measures of which consist in a most remarkable presentation of the first Period (eight measures) of the principal Theme---absolutely literal in tone-succession but in curiously distorted rhythmic form, that suggests the broken utterance of a dying person. It will repay the listener to make a minute comparison of the two forms.

For the third Movement Beethoven again adopts the term Scherzo, and here it is particularly appropriate; for this ebullient music, though thoroughly sound and earnest, fairly bubbles over with vivacity and good humor.

The Finale is a miracle (to ordinary minds) of tonal treatment and development. No other word adequately describes this musical creation. In structure it approximates the Rondo-form, inasmuch as a constant principal Theme alternates regularly with contrasting episodes. This principal Theme is a lyric Two-Part Song-form, beautiful of course (since a Beethoven conceived it), and at each reappearance it is variated-at times in different keys. But quite equal, if not greater, importance attaches to the Bass-part upon which the harmonic accompaniment of this thematic melody rests. (A playable version of this may be found in Beethoven's piano Variations, Op.35) The episodes which alternate with this Theme consist of: (1) a fugato (in theme), with an important addition, in C minor; (2) a contrasting Two-Part Song-form of vigorous character in G minor, built upon the first phrase of the bass-theme, again extended; (3) a recurrence of the fugato, this time in E-flat major. Between and around these episodes stand the double-counterpoint upon the first phrase of the bass-variated forms of the principal Theme. The Movement ends with a fairly long Coda, devoted chiefly to the thematic melody, from which, oddly enough, the former ubiquitous bass-part entirely disappears.

Another, and unique, function is assigned to the thematic bass-part in the Introduction to the Finale. This Introduction is divided in four Sections: (1) a torrent of tone, three measures on the tonic of G minor, and eight measures on the dominant of E-flat; (2) the bass-theme alone, full length; (3) the bass-theme as upper voice, with three or four melodies. Hereupon then follows the announcement of the actual Melodic (principal) Theme.

It was at that time unprecedented to select the Variation style for the final Movement of a Symphony, and it occurs since in only one other classic instance---in the Finale of the Fourth Symphony of Brahms.


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