Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” | Symphony Study No. 13 of 118

by Glenn on September 19, 2015

I am really enjoying listening through the Beethoven Symphonies with this box set recorded by the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique with John Eliot Gardiner.

It’s been a revelation. The playing is exquisite—so clean, which allows so many details to shine through—but the dominant impression for me has been proportion. There is plenty of dynamic contrast, but the distance from very soft and very loud is in, to use that word again, proportion.

I don’t recall the last time I listened to Beethoven’s Third Symphony. It’s been a long time. My memory is that of a big orchestra playing this big work. I think it must have been Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. It is a big work, but it is much bigger when played by a modern orchestra performing Beethoven without relating to a larger context.

Since the end of the Eroica is marked ff, the loudest dynamic in the composition, an orchestra could play pretty loudly at the end.

Gardiner and the OReR approach Beethoven’s symphonies by attempting both to portray the period using original instruments and place that period within a larger continuum, so that the loudest dynamic in a Beethoven symphony doesn’t (shouldn’t?) need to be played as loud as the loudest dynamic in a Tchaikovsky or Mahler symphony.

Further, big musical statements by Beethoven don’t have to be played as ultimate statements. For example, there is nothing overwrought on this recording about the second movement funeral march. It will be fun at some point to listen to what Leonard Bernstein did with this when he was conducting the New York Philharmonic. I can imagine some mining for emotional content.

I think this is the longest symphony in history up to this point (or at least the longest one that is regularly performed). The possibilities for a symphonic statement now include greater length. Based on Gardiner’s timings, the Third is 20 minutes longer than Beethoven’s First and eleven minutes longer than his second.

There are other kinds kind of stretching. In addition to noting the length of this symphony, which is “Half again as long … as any the audience would have ever heard before,” Michael Steinberg says Beethoven’s Third was also

“unprecedented in its demands on orchestral virtuosity, demands that were almost certainly inadequately met; unprecedented as well in the complexity of its polyphony, in the unbridled force of its rhetoric, in the weirdness of details …”

I would add (tentatively) that Beeethoven’s Third has some interesting meter shifts and syncopation (perhaps Steinberg includes these under the category of “weirdness of details”?) that seem to my ears to be something if not exactly new then at least exploited to new degrees.

Steinberg identifies something that I hadn’t considered before about the symphony in general. With the B3 “the center of gravity is shifted from the first movement to the last. Or almost.” The “almost” is because there are better examples for Beethoven—his 5th and 9th, for example—and his 2nd was already heading this way. But while it’s not without some hints of possibility in historical precedent (Steinberg points to Mozart’s Jupiter), Seinberg concludes,

“even to the most history-minded listener, the Eroica, with its Finale that is not just an ending but a culmination and a place of resolution for an enormous range of accumulated tensions and questions, comes across as a new sort of symphony.”

The subtitle of Beethoven’s Third is “Eroica.” It was declared a sinfonia eroica (“heroic symphony”) on its first imprint. Originally intending to dedicate this work to Napoleon, Beethoven officially was more general when the symphony was published noting that it was “composed to celebrate the memory of a great man.” It’s dedicated to Prince Lobkowitz, who supported Beethoven generously.

Steinberg has a lot to say about Beethoven’s Third. He points out that this symphony wasn’t well-received by all:

1. He quotes someone in the gallery who “called out at the public premiere,” “I’ll pay another kreuzer if the thing will only stop.”

2. A critic sympathetic to Beethoven said that the symphony “lost itself in lawlessness.”

3. Another critic wrote that it was “too heavy” and “too long.”

I wonder if Steinberg enjoyed (or would have enjoyed) this performance by Gardiner. He writes that this symphony doesn’t have to be presented as “monumental.”

“More valuable by far is the fiery performance—at Beethoven’s tempi or something close to them—that can give us an experience like the one the audience in the Theater an der Wien in 1805 must have had, that of an electrifying, frightening encounter with revolution, with a force sufficient to blast doors and windows out of the room.”

This recording certainly has the fiery speed. And then in the finale of the last movement Gardiner gets a greater intensity and volume out of his band, although again with a sense of proportion—a period band has limitations, but this one plays up to but not beyond them. I think it’s really exciting. Wonderful playing.

Midpoint in the second movement there is a moment that feels  baroque in style and the OreR plays this so beautifully. With the lack of vibrato in the strings, it is striking in its simplicity.

There is one unpleasant moment in this recording, though. Same movement. With about 20” left, there is what sounds like a rather obvious edit point that wasn’t handled well. I forgot about it but then on a second listening I winced.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Opus 55, Sinfonia eroica
fp: 1805


I was still in a Beethoven sort of frame of mind when I checked out the SymphonyCast website. A recent program from the BBC Proms featured the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 1 performed and conducted by Leif Ove Andsnes with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.

This was great. Andsnes plays with great precision and the orchestra backed him up marvelously.

What I enjoyed most was hearing a modern piano (as opposed to what Beethoven would have had) and orchestra find a wonderful balance between historic style and modern sensibilities. I don’t think you have to play in a HIPP (Historically Informed Performance Practice) manner, but it does seem appropriate to acknowledge the historical continuity.