Saturday, November 2, 2019 • 7:30 p.m.
First Free Methodist Church (3200 3rd Ave W)

Orchestra Seattle
Seattle Chamber Singers
William White, conductor


Jennifer Higdon (*1983)
blue cathedral

Huntley Beyer (*1947)
Circumference [world premiere]

— intermission —

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Symphony No. 3 in E♭ major, Op. 55 (“Eroica”)

Program Notes

Ludwig van Beethoven
Symphony No. 3 in E♭ Major, Op. 55 (“Eroica”)

Beethoven was born in Bonn on December 16, 1770, and died in Vienna on March 26, 1827. He began sketching his third symphony in 1802, but composed most of the work during the latter half of 1803, completing it in early 1804. The first public performance took place at Vienna’s Theater an der Wein on April 7, 1805, with the composer conducting. The score calls for pairs of woodwinds, 3 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings.

By April 1802, Beethoven’s hearing loss prompted the composer to seek rest and relaxation in the village of Heiligenstadt, near Vienna. Outwardly, Beethoven appeared content, but by October 1802 the inner psychological turmoil caused by his increasing deafness compelled him to write a letter known as the “Heiligenstadt Testament.” Addressed to his brothers, the document angrily decries the composer’s “wretched existence” and explains how his loss of hearing has caused him to live life as outcast, unable to carry on a simple conversation. And it reveals thoughts of suicide: “Only my art,” Beethoven explains, “held me back. Ah, it seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had brought forth all that I felt was within me.”

Beethoven never delivered the Heiligenstadt Testament to his brothers, keeping it private until his death. In retrospect, as composer William A. DeWitt writes, the document helps “to explain, psychologically, Beethoven’s sudden and drastic stylistic change around 1803. Immediately following Heiligenstadt, Beethoven’s music suddenly becomes more daring. The learned rules of his teachers were cast aside as he struck out on a new path with [his third symphony] as the frontispiece of this change. Within weeks, perhaps days, of signing the will, Beethoven jotted down the first sketches of the Sinfonia Eroica.”

As with his piano concertos, Beethoven’s first two symphonies had recalled those of Mozart and Haydn. There were innovations, certainly, but nothing that radically challenged the concertgoers of the day like his monumental third symphony would. Two centuries later, in a world in which Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is now 100 years old, it is difficult for modern listeners to understand the revolutionary nature of the Eroica symphony and just how strange it must have sounded to its first audiences—a fact often obscured by discussion of the work’s original dedicatee.

Ferdinand Ries, a friend and student of Beethoven, provided the following account in an 1838 biography: “In writing this symphony Beethoven had been thinking of Buonaparte, but Buonaparte while he was First Consul. At that time Beethoven had the highest esteem for him and compared him to the greatest consuls of ancient Rome. Not only I, but many of Beethoven’s closer friends, saw this symphony on his table, beautifully copied in manuscript, with the word ‘Buonaparte’ inscribed at the very top of the title page and ‘Luigi van Beethoven’ at the very bottom.…I was the first to tell him the news that Buonaparte had declared himself Emperor, whereupon he broke into a rage and exclaimed, ‘So he is no more than a common mortal! Now, he too will tread under foot all the rights of man, indulge only his ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men, become a tyrant!’ Beethoven went to the table, seized the top of the title page, tore it in half and threw it on the floor. The page was later recopied and it was only now that the symphony received the title Sinfonia Eroica.”

The actual story about Beethoven’s feelings toward Napoleon, however, is more complex. Around 1797, the composer had produced a couple of anti-Napoleonic songs and as late as 1802 Beethoven replied to a suggestion that he compose a sonata in honor of Napoleon: “Has the devil got hold of you all, gentlemen? Perhaps at the time of the Revolutionary fever—such a thing might have been possible, but…now…you won’t get anything from me.” Before long, his sentiments changed and he considered dedicating his new symphony to Napoleon—until the composer’s patron, Prince Lobkowitz, offered 400 ducats in exchange for exclusive performing rights for a six-month period. Beethoven thus opted to include Bonaparte’s name in the title of the work, perhaps, as Maynard Solomon suggests, in order “to smooth Beethoven’s entry into the French capital,” as he had planned a concert tour to Paris (which never came about). Even after removing Bonaparte’s name form the score, he penciled “written about Napoleon” back onto the title page and continued to express varying opinions about the Frenchman. In the end, Beethoven simply labeled his new work a “Heroic Symphony,” inscribing it “to the memory of a great man”—leaving open for debate the question of whether this “great man” was Napoleon or a generic hero.

The symphony’s massive opening movement is of a scale and length previously unknown to listeners of the day. Eschewing a traditional introduction, two bold chords sound, then Beethoven launches into the principal theme, constructed out of a simple major triad. Throughout the movement, meter and tonality are questioned via the use of misplaced accents and striking dissonances. Beethoven takes the unorthodox step of introducing a new theme (unheard during the exposition) in the development section, at the end of which—over a hushed string tremolo setting up the recapitulation—he has one of the three horns quietly intone the opening theme. Ries recalled hearing this for the first time at the work’s initial rehearsal: “I was standing next to Beethoven and, believing that [the horn player] had made a wrong entrance, I said, ‘That damned hornist! Can’t he count? It sounds frightfully wrong.’ I believe I was in danger of getting my ears boxed. Beethoven did not forgive me for a long time.” The lengthy recapitulation incorporates the new theme from the development section and concludes with two chords that mirror the opening of the work.

The slow movement takes the form of an epic funeral march, beginning and ending in C minor, with a major-key central episode. At the beginning, cellos and basses imitate a military drum while violins present the solemn principal theme. Oboe plays an important solo role throughout, especially in the sunnier trio. With the return to C minor, Beethoven does not merely repeat the music of the opening section, but rather develops the material by means of an impassioned fugue. At the movement’s conclusion, the opening theme disintegrates in the violins, the notes breaking apart and receding into the distance. Controversy persists about the meaning of this funeral march and whether it represents the death of Napoleon’s republican ideals, mourns the actual death of a significant person in Beethoven’s life, or whether the work as a whole depicts the life, death and rebirth of the classical hero.

The third movement, a lightning-quick scherzo, returns to E♭ major. Beethoven had written a scherzo—literally “‘joke,” and usually in 3/4 like a Haydn or Mozart minuet, but much faster—for each of his first two symphonies, but neither was like this one: faster than the wind, with offbeat accents blurring the distinction between strong and weak pulses, often throwing the meter itself into question. Beethoven heightens tension by sustaining a quiet dynamic through much of the movement, a strategy that renders the loud outbursts even more alarming. The tempo slows slightly at the trio—at which point we realize at last why Beethoven calls for three horns instead of the usual (at the time) two. The scherzo material returns, although with some important changes, including a brief—albeit shocking—change from triple meter to duple meter.

The finale begins with a furious outburst before settling down to a set of variations on a theme that Beethoven used on three other occasions—in fact, the first several variations come more or less verbatim from his incidental music for The Creatures of Prometheus. At first, Beethoven presents only the bass line of the eventual theme, treating it to its own variations with generous doses of Haydnesque humor. Playfulness eventually gives way to a grand fugue, a Turkish march and another fugue, before the proceedings come to a full stop. The music resumes at a slow tempo, building from quiet repose to scale monumental heights before subsiding once again. Suddenly, almost without warning, the tempo switches to Presto and the race is on to the work’s joyous conclusion.

— Jeff Eldridge