This symphony is one of Beethoven's most famous works, originally intended by him to be dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte. Beethoven had admired the ideals of the French Revolution embodied in Napoleon, but when he crowned himself Emperor of France in 1804, Beethoven was apparently so disgusted that he erased Napoleon's name from the title page with such force that he broke his pen.
The music itself is very affecting. In particular, the second movement is very powerful. The funeral march conjures up images for me of a grey, stormy sky, with black, silhouetted figures carrying a coffin across the line of the horizon.
The symphony has four movements:
It was first performed on 7 April, 1805 in Vienna.
I saw a performance of the Eroica on 4 August, 1995 at the Royal Albert Hall. The conductor was Sir Simon Rattle, and the orchestra was the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. It was an excellent performance.
The first movement had a absorbing intensity about it for most of its length, highlighting for me the savage or brutal side of heroism. This was glorious music but it was tinged with just a touch of violence. I felt that the music was admiring of the hero, but that this admiration was also touched with fear. This feeling lasted up until what I identified as the main climax. The subsequent recapitulation seemed to verge perhaps a little on the saccharine, and I was less impressed with the movement as it finished.
The second movement was quite spellbinding. This was clearly a funeral march, but the mood was also one that brought a rather militaristic tone to things. This was perhaps a military funeral, with the hero being laid to rest. The tone was suitably tragic; and it seemed to me that a turbulent career was being recollected.
The third movement seemed to be larking about for most of its length. It was still fairly serious stuff, but it served to release the dramatic tension of the second movement. If that movement had been a military funeral, this was the mourners later returned to a scene of a previous triumph, and now free to be boisterous.
The fourth movement began and within just a few moments I was thinking to myself that Beethoven (or Rattle) had let us down, and that we were going to be subjected to some fairly empty-sounding triumphalism ending with a rousing finale. But I was leaping to conclusions; there was more to come. Things became considerably darker before the light returned. If anything that initial theme was shown up. Only after the struggle resolved itself was the happiness justified, and it was a wonderful conclusion to a wonderful performance.