In writing this essay, I have set out to try and remove some of the barriers (perceived or otherwise) that prevent individuals who want to learn more about and unlock the secrets of classical music but who felt somehow inhibited by taking that step.
Where most other essays on classical works will focus heavily on scholarly analysis or musical theory, this guide – which I hope will be the first of many – will attempt to go directly to the heart of what the composer was trying to convey, the emotional meaning behind the notes, at least as I perceive them to be. There is undoubted value in understanding and admiring the more structural and aesthetic aspects of classical music, but I personally believe it is more important to feel the human emotion and power behind the sound than it is to mechanically deconstruct these monumental works into an academic type instruction manual.
For this first essay, I have attempted to walk the listener through one of my very favourite symphonies – Beethoven’s Eroica symphony which was composed between 1803-04 and literally changed the landscape of western music forever. Contemporary accounts provide something of an interesting story behind the genesis of this composition – Beethoven was known to be a great admirer of Napoleon on the understanding that here was a man with a mission to bring equality to the masses and someone who showed the same distrust and lack of admiration for royal figures as Beethoven himself. As the story goes, when word reached Beethoven of Napoleon’s decision to crown himself Emperor, he reacted with typical fury and tore a great hole in the dedication page of his new work, immediately denouncing Napoleon as just another tyrant who betrayed all that had supported him.
Whilst many hundreds of recordings of this great symphony exist, I have selected one which I feel captures the right balance of elements, namely emotion, power, orchestral balance, tempo and clarity. Herbert von Karajan was a celebrated Austrian conductor who made many highly acclaimed recordings throughout his career until his death in 1989. In musical circles, many critics have spoken of the “Karajan sound” – he was known for his obsessive attention to detail and rich, warmth of recording quality and I believe that this shows through in the recording which can be accessed by the link below:-
Two sudden and explosive Eb major chords open this ground-breaking work, shattering the preconceived form of all that had gone before it in Western music. Conceived against the background of Napoleon’s inexorable toward European domination, this was almost certainly a shock to the ears of contemporary audiences, Beethoven’s innovative 1803-4 work ushered in a new era in the development of the symphony. Nothing quite like this had ever been heard before.
Each of the four movements display all of those distinctive characteristics which we associate with Beethoven: powerful aggression, defiance and the sheer force of will in the struggle for triumph over adversity.
The opening theme appears (0.08) immediately after those two opening chords; taken up by the cellos, this is effectively a tritone of Eb major which drifts to an instantly unfamiliar and dissonant C# thus creating an early sense of tension. The violins take hold of the reins (0.19) and guide us back to the safe and orderly home ground of Eb major. The overall scene doesn’t stay calm for long however – through the use of some sharp accents and offbeat rhythms, Beethoven rallies the orchestra into a unified restatement of the opening theme (0.46.)
Next, a new downward theme appears which is passed like a baton between oboes, clarinets and flutes and provides the genesis for more sparks of energy. A moment of solace and reflection in the new key of Bb major (1.39) leads before long into a passage containing scampering notes that seem to be searching for the right conclusion – a quiet beginning gradually increases in volume, building with an unmistakable crescendo toward a series of weight laden chords that seem to demand aggressively of the listener “which one?” until 6 forceful, stabbing sforzandos (loud & sudden notes) press for a release valve (2.33.) Beethoven refrains from providing a resolution at this stage, opting instead to allow the music to play on and reach an eventual cadence in Bb major, 3 doom laden chords thrown in to underline the serious nature of the subject matter (2.56.)
At this juncture, conductors have the option either to repeat from the start or to push on into the development section of the 1st movement.
Developmental, probing passages lead up to an anxious section (4.40) where scurrying violins bump into some obscure but frightening event on the horizon – almost blocking out the light in its eerie advance toward us. Beethoven responds in the only way he can – he fights back with fire and fury – crashing timpani and diminished chords (5.14) reveal the battlefield before us; David bludgeons Goliath (perhaps a metaphor for the composer’s own impending battle against increasing deafness.)
In the end, it’s a stalemate – the fight will be resumed later – harsh, piercing trumpets push the tension to the maximum (5.34) before foreboding slashes across the bows of the assembled string instruments seem to say “this has gone far enough!”
The music continues in the more subdued key of E minor with a new, forlorn sounding melody taken up by the oboe. Important seeds are planted here, the significance of which will become more apparent later on in the work. This new section builds and the theme is layered and developed gradually until the music seems to run out of energy….the orchestra takes a pause for breath until the horns (8.01) gently lead us into the recapitulation.
We are now back in the home key of Eb major, only this time the C# is met with a different treatment and we find ourselves with a clever, temporary shift of key. We are led back toward the opening theme once again. It’s not time to wrap up the movement just yet, however. Beethoven recycles the thematic material that went before in an entirely new key. The music winds its way naturally to variations on that fundamental Eb major triad before a powerful march (13.56) to the conclusion is hammered home with customary assertiveness.
After all of that high energy con gusto, it naturally follows that contrasting music should feature in the next movement and the composer duly obliges.
Regarded as one of the high points in the repertoire of slow movements, the Eroica’s funeral march is incredibly powerful music, running through a whole range of emotions from the depth of despair to searing pain with brief glimpses of sheer willpower thrown in for good measure. Written in what was believed to be Beethoven’s favourite key of C minor, the movement opens with a mournful melody in the lower bass instruments.
We are instantly transported to a world of misery and suffering. At times, it feels like we are desperately trying to keep our grip on sanity. At 4.32 some brief respite is offered with a brief foray into a beautiful melody given initially to the oboe, before the flutes sing their tune alongside. Played against the background of gentle string arpeggios, there is something remarkably gentle and fragile about this music.
As the passage progresses to what we suspect will be a softly expressed conclusion, a giant hand from the sky crashes into view, brandishing a giant G major chord (4.58.) The timpani underline this with vehement force – the implication is an enforced “inner strength.” Next, a more relaxed waltz-like section carries us back to that beautiful melody once again – it feels slightly different this time, more decorated, more sure-footed perhaps (5.49.) We are drawn once again to that thundering chord (this time in C major) only this time it feels like a natural exaltation (6.16) and a victory over despair. The power is all encompassing and it seems initially like the pain felt must have been vanquished.
Beethoven’s use of dramatic pauses were masterful, and are put to use again here. Reflecting human nature, the mind wanders briefly before settling back into that C minor melody in the double basses. This is developed (7.34) into a series of counter melodies (a fugue in F minor) and begins to build with anguish (9.02) toward a climax of searing agony and utter despair until Beethoven bangs the table “no more!” (9.16.) This music encapsulates a kind of madness in grief – strands of thoughts are flying in uncontrollable directions with the most heartfelt emotional velocity. After the table thumping timpani tell us that we have reached the limit and simply cannot take it anymore, the entire string section offer up 6 heart wrenching chords that bare the soul and tell us that there is no way back (9.21.)
The funeral theme is picked up for a short moment, but quickly we are taken into some kind of nightmarish sleepwalk (9.54) – blaring horns, trumpets and diminished 7th chords painting this perturbing spectacle. We believe this danse macabre has disappeared when we hear the C minor theme re-assert itself. As we wind our way toward the conclusion of the movement, the music thins out until we are left with the ghosts of softly expressed fragments. Melancholic oboes (15.27) shine a light on the final C minor conclusion as the music finally dies away.
After the epic drama and raw emotion of the first two movements, Beethoven offers up a light-hearted and playful scherzo for the 3rd movement. Literally translating (from the Italian) as “joke,” the movement generally takes between 5 and 6 minutes to perform.
The strings begin quietly with a rapid, motor-like rhythm that provides a strong undercurrent of energy and serves to drive the music forward. A climbing modulation (0.20) takes us into the key of Bb major – here the jaunty, folk-like melody is given to the oboe. You can almost picture a merry gathering of country folk dancing around the village square (something which Beethoven would later go on to create in his Pastoral symphony.)
The opening melody is stated twice before the strings ponder which direction to take next (1.34.) There’s a secretive, mischievous feel to the music; Beethoven continues to probe and build the music into a loud, full orchestral re-statement of the main theme culminating in a jagged and determined downward arpeggio, making use of sharply accented offbeat rhythms.
A cadence is reached but the orchestra engage in some question and answer patterns before the music settles down into the original driving rhythms in the lower strings and a repeat of the opening material.
A brief trio (2.50) led by 3 French horns follows and offers a rustic, tranquil section to contrast with the opening section. The music is calm and relaxed for a time, before we suddenly slide back into the original music (4.23) – the material is repeated before reaching its natural conclusion with a definitive and satisfying bang! (6.05)
The 4th and final movement of the Eroica is essentially a theme followed by variations. Commencing with a sudden weltering cascade of descending notes, clarity is forcibly identified and order restored by the conductor – the whole orchestra brought to attention on a grand sounding chord (0.11) which suggests a feeling of great anticipation. Beethoven chooses this grand introduction to present a simple sequence of notes (as in the opening movement of the symphony, they derive from an Eb major triad.) The notes themselves aren’t overly complicated or elaborate, but the sheer creativity and variety which Beethoven goes on to generate from this simple theme is nothing short of remarkable.
As this opening theme is spelt out, firmly underlined and established with the help of some lingering pauses, the recycling of this musical motif begins – first we hear a counter melody that provides a duelling aspect (0.50,) before an earnest sounds chord twice presses home its point (1.43,) restraining other instruments in the process.
A 2nd theme now appears (1.59) led by the oboe, which is joined in with and developed further by the entire orchestra. The same pattern of “pause for thought” is employed before the development continues, running through various gears and even turning into a gypsy like theme at 4.12. The music maintains energy and forward propulsion until a brief pause for breath at 4.54.
New variations keep pouring forth, the horns at 5.39 remind us of the original motif (in case we had forgotten.) A brief crescendo builds again, die-ing out at 6.24.
A slower, lonelier variant taken up by the oboe, follows. The mood of the music has changed somewhat. Soothing strings (7.20) allow our all-conquering hero perhaps to reflect on more tender moments throughout his various battles. Gingerly, a new variation begins at 7.35 with soft arpeggios accompanying in the clarinets. This music is tender and romantic, the seeds are planted for something grander and heroic – Beethoven builds things up through sweeping decoration in the violins before the anticipated theme arrives in full statement from the brass section at 8.30 supported by counter melodies in the strings. This is perhaps the homeward march of our exalted army general (likely in the image of admiration that Beethoven had previously held of him – telling when his dedication was changed to read “to the memory of a great man.”)
The music swells to chest puffing levels of pride and patriotism (9.08) and the great leader is shown to be compassionate, fair handed and above all, human. Embers of this great theme are re-spoken once or twice before we lead to a new and gentle sequence in Ab major (9.47.) A sweet and innocent melody at first, things suddenly become darker, previously held confidence is on the wane and all that our triumphant hero has achieved is suddenly thrown into self-doubt.
The music seems to suggest that he is looking inwardly and great anxiety prevails throughout these passages. The intensity increases and extremely high pitched strings compete with a piercing trumpet at 10.37 to suggest “that’s just the way things are.”
10.45 leads us to a passage of quiet, probing introspection. Ominous throbbing bass strings remind us that we are not out of the woods quiet yet. Suddenly however, a blast of trumpet heralds the return of the opening welter (11.22) smashing away all self-doubt in its path – our hero is firmly back in the saddle, leading his victorious army through the liberated city. Firmly entrenched back in the confident, assured home key of Eb major – Beethoven leads the heroic leader to the finish line, opting cleverly to finish the symphony in the same way he started it – with two blasting Eb major chords.
There are few works in the repertoire which have carried as much impact as the Eroica – it utterly altered the established path forward in western music upon its 1805 premiere and is still regarded today as one of if not the finest symphony ever written. I hope that the above notes have afforded clarity and an enhanced enjoyment to readers and listeners alike.