Back to Beethoven's "Political" Works Part II: What a Sellout!

Still not convinced? How about this: almost as soon as peace came in 1801, Beethoven began work on a piece of music celebrating now consul of France, Napoleon Bonaparte. The piece of course is the crux of all these hokey attempts to mold Beethoven into the image of a proper, outspoken, politically progressive artist we all crave, Symphony #3 in E-Flat Major, originally subtitled “Buonaparte” and later renamed “Eroica”, meaning literally "Heroic".

Was this to be another “Songs to the Viennese Flag Volunteer Division”? Goodness no! With his Third Symphony, Beethoven crossed over from putting new twists on the classics, a veritable one man Mozart tribute band, to creative genius on the one hand, revamper of culture and aesthetic values on the other.

Why Napoleon? Was Beethoven's “Buonaparte” Symphony aiming to spread revolution through a new aesthetic canon, in lieu of Napoleon's run of the mill double-N sort? Given quotes from Beethoven like: “If I understood the art of war as well I do music, I would conquer him!” In reference to Bonaparte, it would be easy to jump to the conclusion that Beethoven saw himself as fighting the same battles as Napoleon in a different arena, and hence satisfy our desire to see Beethoven as the revolutionary democrat, opposing tyranny with stroms of sound. While this view is valid to some degree, some biographical context puts this quote into perspective.

Around the time he began work on his “Buonaparte” symphony, Beethoven had been in the city of Heiligenstadt, wrestling with his notoriously bad health, and increasing deafness. While there, he wrote an number of unpublished documents, which have collectively come to be know as the “Heiligenstadt Testament”. In these, Beethoven creates the mold for the future romantic artist, isolated from the world, and imbued with a mission, but opposed by all powerful fate. Passages abound which voice these sentiments, for example:

“Dissatisfied with many things, more suceptible than any other person and tormented by my deafness, I find only suffering in the association with others.”

Certainly for a composer to lose their hearing smacks loudly of cruel acts of providence, and Beethoven was understandably racked with a sense of oppression by and struggle against titanic forces. Given the composer's state of mind at the time of composing the “Buonaparte” symphony, his adulation of the French ruler appears to be highly personal as well as political in nature. More ludicrous suggestions have been made than that Beethoven viewed Napoleon, like himself, as a “self-made man” who from humble origins had risen by his talent to prominence, and now had to fight against colossal opponents in the pursuit of his vision. While no direct statements exist, Beethoven's use of the Italian spelling “Buonaparte” would suggest an emphasis on Napoleon's humble Corsican roots. So Beethoven the sufferer, and Beethoven the political idealist must be reconciled as single entity, who for a number of reasons felt a sense of kinship and admiration for Napoleon. So without attempting to discern to whether personal or political motives were most influential, and acknowledging the overlap between the two, we will approach the “Eroica” as Beethoven's most relevant reflection on events around him, dealing heavily with Beethoven's thoughts on Napoleon, another of Beethoven's “enlightened despots”, symbol of revolutionary ideals like achievment by merit over birth.

Around 1804-1805, the German proto-nationalist Ernst Moritz Arndt remarked “...Whoever has lived through the past twenty years has lived centuries.” The “Eroica” was a revolutionary piece of music, and Arndt seems to hit the nail on the head as to why this is so. That Beethoven was unable to express his thoughts on Napoleon through existing mechanisms is consonant with his resulting shift in style, adopting new techniques as the subject required. Napoleon, who stood as such an embodiment of he rapid, sweeping changes of the times, and often as the cause of said changes, had either killed or continued the revolution, which regardless of which line one takes had caused such profound shifts in Europe that any return to 1789 and it's pre-revoltionary world was impossible. So too was any attempt to express these events using previous models futile. This sentiment emanates from the “Eroica”.

The first few moments of the piece illustrate this phenomenon. It begins with two bursts of the tonic chord E-flat, with prominent voicing in the trumpets. But in a decidedly innovative move, Beethoven does not as is typical move to the dominant, (the chord which compels toward the tonic, thereby establishing key through a resolution of dissonance) and as a result moves on with our sense of key still only halfway complete. He continues on in what we assume but are not positive is E-flat Major. the Cello section next introduces the main theme in a low, masculine manner. The theme is once more, an E-flat Major chord presented in arpeggio (playing the notes of a chord as a melody rather than all at once), resulting in a very stable, vigorous line. Fitting for First Consul of the progressive French nation. Beethoven has more insight into the situation than a simple Napoleon lackey however. Here, Beethoven must again part ways with tradition to express his idea fully. Sensing an inherent danger, flaw or weakness in his theme, his possible allegory for Napoleon, Beethoven has the music take a turn into a minor key. This itself is standard, typical stuff, going to the relative minor of the key, for dramatic effect, which should be C-minor in this case. This is a bit to simple for Beethoven's, needs however. He doesn't think a genericflip side of the coin” maneuver is quite adequate. It's too simple, too cut and dry. Moreover, a statement of the relative minor is usually preceeded by a dominant chord, to create tension which is resolved by the subsequent minor chord, to great effect. What then is Beethoven's course of action? He does take a dip into minor, and uses a dominant chord, simultaneously. The chord he chooses is a C# diminished 7 chord, which as possibly the most unstable tonal chord, compels strongly toward its' resolution, which in this case, being a C# chord is D minor. What seems significant here is that D minor has a key signature calling for only one flat, B-flat. The original key of E-flat Major calls for the same B-flat, in addition to an E-Flat(the keynote) and an A-flat. That dominant chord we've been expecting all the while is a B-flat chord. By directing us to D minor, a key which exists solely due to a B-flat, also our dominant, Beethoven presents a flaw in his theme which exists at such a root level, and is so subtle that it dosent afflict the tonic chord of the key directly, but lies at the base of the key signature and in the dominant chord.


Existing techniques were far from this level of subtle shading, and as a result, Beethoven was forced to extend his compositonal toolbox in order to achieve his goal. We could continue to read pages more into just these first 8 measures of the symphony, but we need only make one more extraction before moving on. Right after the theme's tumultuous flaw is revealed, the expected resolution to D minor is avoided and we finally get that B-flat dominant chord, now haunted by the revealed flaw, and whose arrival we've been expecting. The Violins arpeggiate through the B-flat chord and land back on our tonic of E-flat. This maneuver should put ”Eroica” back into the classical mold, since ending a phrase by cadencing on the tonic from the dominant is the oldest trick in the book. This is in fact what happens in Beethoven's Second Symphony, a nice clean line, with a tonic-dominant-tonic motion followed a break, to complete the phrase. In ”Eroica” this doesn't happen. Where there should be a brief pause, or rest, the theme immediately picks up again and drives onward. In perhaps another allegory to Napoleon, the music seems on the verge of spinning out of control, with only direct tonal strength of the E-flat theme and pulsing rythm keeping it all together. That's a brief look at 22 measures of music, packed with more revolution than you can shake a stick at. (unless you're a good conductor.)

All this complexity was actually a main objection to the work, in addition to its length at over double that of any previous symphony. Some spoke of too many grandiose ideas crammed into one place, nothing like the balance and simplicity of Haydn or Mozart, nor the restraint of emotion in J.S. Bach. A critic for the 'Allgemeine Muzikalische Zeitung' had the following to say:

“There is no lack of striking and beautiful passages in which the force and talent of the author are obvious; but, on the other hand, the work seems often to lose itself in utter confusion”

Admittedly, there is an amount of truth to this appraisal, whether or not we agree that it is a bad thing. When we look at Beethoven's diaries and find copied quotations from Kant, the great early critic of rigid enlightenment thinking we see Beethoven sharing in Arndt's sentiments in and outside of his music. The current Zeitgeist was too complex, the intensity and pace of events far too much for traditional modes of thought and expression to cope with. As a result, the 3rd Symphony reeks of the times, and comes across with more sense of Zeitgeist than would a simple ode to Napoleon.

Beethoven's "Political" Works Part IV: Made History or Made by History? (Thinking in Progress)

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