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Sinfonia Eroica!

Its been a while since I discoursed about western classical… gosh, this blog doesn’t even look like my own! Starting this weekend, I’ve started “exploring” Beethoven’s symphonic works. I had pursued his 5th, 7th and 9th Symphonies but of late have been listening mostly to his Chamber works (the latest being his Op. 104 String Quintet rearrangement of Piano Trio No. 3).

If there is one work that stands out as far as the history of the symphony form is concerned, that’s Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony – “Eroica” (no typos here ;-), Eroica means Heroic). It changed the very way that the world looked at Symphonies. The world of early 19th century had come to suppose the four movements of the symphony to last for 20-25 minutes. Thanks to Haydn, who dominated the musical scene at that time, a symphony was expected to begin gently and then gradually build up to a grand, fast-paced crescendo towards its final movement. Eroica changed both these things. Not only was it a full 50 minutes; it also turned on its head the idea of starting easy and then gradually taking things to an elaborate conclusion. Bold, striking motifs that mark the beginning of the symphony accompany us to the very end – signature Beethoven.

Eroica, like a lot of other Beethoven works, has an interesting anecdote associated with it. Beethoven, by 1802, had realized with absolute certainty that he was going progressively deaf. He took hiatus from his routine and moved to a small village called “Heiligenstadt ”. It is here that he went through a phase of deep depression and even contemplated suicide. Eventually, he came to terms with the grim reality and resolved to create works that would leave their mark on coming generations. His reconciliation with his stark truth is marked by two works: The Op. 84, religious oratorio: Christus am Olberge (Christ on the Mount of Olives) and The Op.55, Symphony No. 3 “Eroica”.

But there is more. Beethoven was very deeply moved by Napoleon Bonaparte. He considered Napoleon a true hero for the way he had ended the despotic monarchy in France. Eroica was written in dedication to his hero Napoleon. In 1804, Napoleon conferred on himself the title of “Emperor”. This gravely upset Beethoven and in a fit of rage he struck the name of Napoleon off the cover of the manuscript of his 3rd symphony so fiercely that it tore a hole in it. However, his admiration for Napoleon did not completely vanish, in fact, he later added “written on Bonaparte” in pencil. However, the symphony wasn’t published till 1806, a year when Austria was at war with France. And so, for obvious reasons, the symphony was titled a more generic, “Sinfonia Eroica” or the Heroic Symphohny.

P.S: Eroica has been the subject of a recent BBC movie, would love to get my hands on it one day.

P.P.S: I am not too pleased with the cover of my Eroica CD. I refuse to associate the color magenta with heroism at any rate, scarlet may be, but magenta? Here is how I would have done the cover: (you can see what the original looks like here):

posted: 25.1.04

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