Beethoven Symphony No. 3

THURSDAY, June 4, 2020

(Note: I did this a couple months ago, but I used another recording, which I do not really like, and I had to redo all the time stamps. There are starting points for the first three movements, but of the last I made time stamps for each variation. I also fixed some descriptions. I had apparently never quite finished this. The Eroica was one of the great milestones of music, a time when Beethoven fully matured into the monster talent we all know today. It came at an incredibly painful and difficult point in his life.)

The Symphony No. 3 in E♭ major, Op. 55, (Eroica) (1802–1804), age 31-33…

Beethoven began composing the third symphony soon after Symphony No. 2 in D major, Opus 36 and completed the composition in early 1804. The first public performance of Symphony No. 3 was on 7 April 1805 in Vienna.

Back to front…

It appears that the Eroica, perhaps unlike Beethoven’s other symphonies, was constructed in reverse, starting with the last movement. Beethoven’s principal sketchbook for 1802 supposedly contains something that ended up in the 3rd. There is a huge amount of time-overlap for all the symphonies because they were not written quickly, and he often worked on more than one at the same time.


Beethoven originally dedicated the 3rd symphony to Napoleon Bonaparte, who he believed embodied the democratic ideals of the French Revolution. In the autumn of 1804, Beethoven withdrew his dedication of the third symphony to Napoleon, but this is where it gets complicated.

How much of the change in dedication was idealism, and how much of it was practical? He was owed a fee, and Napoleon was a clear threat to the aristocracy. But Prince Lobkowitz he was paying for this symphony, so when he re-dedicated his symphony to the prince it was to be sure he would. That did not stop him from titling the work “Buonaparte”.

However, when Napoleon proclaimed himself Emperor of the French, that was the last straw for Beethoven. He broke into a rage and exclaimed:

“So he is no more than a common mortal! Now, too, he will tread under foot all the rights of Man, indulge only his ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men, become a tyrant!”

Of course, he was right. Beethoven went to the table, seized the top of the title-page, toreThere is one more quote from Beethoven that makes me smile:

“It’s a pity I do not understand the art of war as well as I do the art of music. I would conquer him!”

In 1806, the score was published this way, in Italian:

Sinfonia Eroica … composta per festeggiare il sovvenire di un grande Uomo (Heroic Symphony, Composed to celebrate the memory of a great man.)


The first public performance was on 7 April 1805, at the Theater an der Wien, Vienna; for which concert the announced the key for the symphony as D# major, which would have two double sharps. It was in Eb major, since the key signature of D# major would have been insane. From everything I’ve read the performance itself was ragged, unde-rehearsed, which lead to confusion and a negative impression.

Anton Eberl got better reviews…

The concert also included the premiere of a Symphony in E flat major by Anton Eberl (1765–1807) that received better reviews than Beethoven’s symphony. Here is Eberl’s symphony that was on the same program, and it was in the same key. It’s fine music, but today it’s impossible to understand how it was considered better than Beethoven’s. However, Beethoven’s premieres were often near disasters because of lack of preparation, so what audiences heard was probably nothing like what we hear today. Perhaps that explains some of the weak reviews.

And now what critics said about the first performance…

I have made it one of my primary goals in life to talk about how horribly wrong critics have always been when judging new music, and the story here is astounding.

Example number one:

Unfortunately I don’t know who said this. Apparently this “genius” thought the only thing good about Beethoven’s symphony was all the extra instruments:

“Through strange modulations and violent transitions … with abundant scratchings in the bass, with three horns and so forth, a true if not desirable originality can indeed be gained without much effort. *** becoming unbearable to the mere amateur.”

Number two:

“this new work of B. has great and daring ideas, and … great power in the way it is worked out; but the symphony would improve immeasurably [] if B. could bring himself to shorten it, and to bring more light, clarity, and unity to the whole.”

Number three:

“…for the most part so shrill and complicated that only those who worship the failings and merits of this composer with equal fire, which at times borders on the ridiculous, could find pleasure in it.”

Number four:

“The finale has much value, which I am far from denying it; however, it cannot very well escape from the charge of great bizarrerie.”

Number five:

“The finale pleased less, and that “the artist often wanted only to play games with the audience without taking its enjoyment into account simply in order to unloose a strange mood and, at the same time, to let his originality sparkle thereby.”

Number six:

“…this finale is long, very long; contrived, very contrived; indeed, several of its merits lie somewhat hidden. They presuppose a great deal if they are to be discovered and enjoyed, as they must be, in the very moment of their appearance, and not for the first time on paper afterwards.”

Number seven:

“…[he would have] most properly ended with the funeral march, omitting the other parts, which are entirely inconsistent with the avowed design of the composition.”

Now, to be fair a great deal of this can be blamed on poor play and poor preparation. If that first audience had heard  the kind of performances we now hear, they would have immediately fallen in love with the whole symphony.


2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets in B♭, 2 bassoons, 3 horns (the 1st in E♭, C, and F; the 2nd in E♭ and C; and the 3rd in E♭), 2 trumpets in E♭ and C, timpani in E♭ and B♭ (in the 1st, 3rd, and 4th movements) and in C and G (in the 2nd movement), and strings.

I. Allegro con brio (fast with brilliance), Eb major…

It’s about 16 and a half minutes long depending how many repeats are observed. Rather than writing a whole bunch about what is happening, hopefully just by listening you can get the feeling of what is going on by knowing that this first movement sounds like something complete all by itself, and let’s use red to indicate major.

II. Marcia funebre: Adagio assai  (quite slow) – C minor…

This is over in less than 13 minutes in some performances, but that speed it has little weight and less drama. The longest performance I’ve ever heard is by Furtwängler, but unfortunately I can’t link to his performance here. Klemperer quite obviously knew of Furtwängler’s conception and is very close.

But why a “funeral march”? What does that mean? Who died? Let’s be a bit figurative for a moment and consider that this could have been about the death of Beethoven’s hearing and his willingness to go on living and composing. He had written at one point that he had considered suicide, and for certain there is agony in this.

C minor had symbolic meaning for Beethoven, and he often used this key to express very angry or dark emotions, the best example perhaps being his 5th Symphony in C minor. So many times in tragic music I think of the famous T. S. Elliot line from The Hollow Men:

This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but with a whimper.

Scherzo: Allegro vivace (fast, lively) – Trio – Eb major

It’s about 6 minutes long, and after the depression and tragedy of the last movement the mood flips to manic energy, and the idea that the world and the universe was a bad place is gone.

The trio section features three horns, the first time this had appeared in the symphonic tradition.

Finale: Allegro molto – Poco Andante – Presto (10–14 min.) – Eb major

There are a set of ten variations on a theme.


It begins with a D minor chord with everyone playing as fast as possible and very loud, then huge Bb7 chords lead right back to Eb major. The theme is then presented, with staccato strings. The simplicity is childlike. There is nothing to it. A three year-old could have written this theme. Beethoven did the same thing in the magnificent second movement of his 7th symphony, starting with a theme of utter, childlike simplicity and then building and building with one layer after another added. To 41:05.

Variation 1

The first variation repeats the theme in “arco” (regular bowing, smooth), while a simple bass line accompaniment is added. To 41:44.

Variation 2:

He adds a triplet rhythm to the simple idea he started with, so now it’s very light and playful. To 42:23.

Variation 3:

Now comes the melody, and everything gets bigger. He’s layering. He started with something similar, then added triplets, so when he adds the lyrical melody he’s put it altogether. He’s assembling it, piece by piece. To 43:03

Variation 4:

In C minor, a fugue that starts quietly and builds up to a dramatic climax. All these giants studied Bach, and here he gets to channel what he learned. To 44:18.

Variation 5:

The fifth variation is in D major but starts first on a Bm chord before working solidly to D major. The flutes go wild with fancy arpeggios, the writing reminds me a lot of what Bartok did almost 150 years later in his Concerto for Orchestra. To 44:56.

Variation 6:

This is a very energetic variation, and it is so much like the Mozart 40th symphony at the end (G minor) that it’s obvious he knew and loved that symphony and wanted to reference it. To 45:46.

Variation 7:

It’s an incomplete variation, which begins with a simple restatement of the first half of the theme in C major, then to C minor briefly. He just uses this to get to the next variations. To 46:11.

Variation 8:

Another fugue starts, now very lively. It builds up to a climax again; the orchestra pauses on the a huge Bb7 chord.  To 47:33.

Variation 9:

At this point, the tempo slows down to Poco Andante, and the piece becomes more serene and tranquil. The theme, first stated by an oboe and then by the strings, here is noble, almost prayerful. During the second half, another triplet accompaniment is introduced in the higher strings, while the melodies, played by the woodwinds, are made of syncopated 16th and 8th notes. To 49:28.

Variation 10, major and minor:

The final variation, which is where Beethoven “pulls out all the stops”. You get everything, complicated rhythms, big brass, and it quite obviously builds, but not before first getting quieter, in Ab major, then come the usual dramatic diminished chords and a move to G minor. G minor is a key historically used by Mozart for very serious music, very dramatic thoughts. He stays in this subdued minor key, always sounding like he will stay there. To 52:18.


Huge G minor chord, but then Bb7, and a huge finish complete with Eb chords that are repeated over and over, and lots of timpani.


2 thoughts on “Beethoven Symphony No. 3

  1. Movement 2 definitely stirs up emotion; grief, sorrow, somberness. Beethoven put much of what he was feeling about his life and perhaps about the French Revolution into this movement. He was not one to follow rules in his life and certainly in his music.

  2. Definitely the Finale for me.
    The inclusion of the Eberl perhaps gives us an idea of what kind of musical tastes people had at the time, for us to understand their initial reaction to Beethoven.


Leave a Reply