Saturday, April 13, 2013

Beethoven's Eroica Symphony

What is it about this piece that separates it from the other eight masterworks by Beethoven in this genre?

I am not speaking of those qualities we learned in music history -- it being so much longer than any other symphony up to that point in time, by Haydn, Mozart, or even Beethoven himself. Nor am I speaking of the other things that distinguish it -- the funeral march, the outrageous laughter in the scherzo, or the theme and variations, more common in chamber music finales than ever before in symphonies. (Besides, the theme and variations idea reappears in the finale of the Ninth.)

Actually, I'm thinking more about what it is about this symphony that may have made it Beethoven's favorite. Someone once asked him this, after he had written all nine symphonies, and his response was immediate. "So, LvB, if you had to choose, which one would it be?"

No. 3.
Next question.

Let's look at the way it begins -- it has an introduction of sorts, not like the previous two symphonies, or the one to follow, which have slow introductions, as does the Seventh. Even the way the Fifth, Sixth and Ninth begin suggests the feeling of an introduction, if not structurally so. Only the Eighth symphony jumps out of the starting gate with boundless joy.

But the Third has an introduction unlike any other: two short tonic chords. (My teacher likened them to Beethoven telling his audience: "SHUT -- UP!") This is Beethoven in a hurry, with much to say, and seemingly little time to say it. Look at how many different thematic statements there are before we finally arrive at the second subject, only to discover later that there is still another new theme introduced in the development. Then, when you get to the coda (latin for 'tail'), the damn thing is so long that it's wagging the dog.

Then there is his penchant for sudden dynamics. (The conductor, Daniel Barenboim, links this quality to Beethoven's courage: As a conductor, I always feel like a nag when I rehearse this symphony, because playing a subito dynamic is difficult to do. You're going along fine, and then, right at the cadence, when you expect a musical passage to end accordingly, Beethoven pulls his punch. Sometimes, he even asks for a sudden soft after a crescendo (gradually getting stronger and stronger), which is even harder to do. And so, I stop orchestras frequently in rehearsal, asking them to honor Beethoven's dynamic shifts. These sudden changes can go the other way, too, from forte to fortissimo (strong -- very strong), without warning. These moments also require great concentration from the players who, as a group, are often quite content to not make such a big deal between the two if it isn't pointed out to them.

Then there are all those accents! So many of them, and mostly on an offbeat, creating tension through syncopation. Sometimes, Beethoven gets stuck on one of these rhythmic ideas, to the point where we lose all sense of the pulse. The first and third movements are riddled with a device known as hemiola (no, not a blood disease), which also upsets the metric apple cart.

In the marcia funebre, Beethoven emancipates the basses from the celli for the first time. Never before in a symphony had basses been treated in such a soloistic manner. Without them -- the anchor, limping along, in their own dreary world -- this music is unthinkable.

After the first two movements, the scherzo brings some release to all of the tension built up to that point, if only marginally so. In the finale, Beethoven, as he does in the finale of the Second, he let's it all go. He leaves the symphony hall, crosses the street into the theatre, into a world of dance and play. More on this, in my next segment on Beethoven's Eroica.

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