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Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Opus 55 (also Italian Sinfonia Eroica, Heroic Symphony) is a structurally rigorous composition of great emotional depth, which marked the beginning of the creative middle-period of the composer Ludwig van Beethoven.
Beethoven began composing the third symphony soon after Symphony No. 2 in D major, Opus 36; he completed the composition in early 1804, and the first public performance of Symphony No. 3 was on 7 April 1805 in Vienna.
Symphony No. 3 is scored for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets in B-flat, two bassoons, three horns (the 1st in E-flat, C, and F; the 2nd in E-flat and C; and the 3rd in E-flat), two trumpets in E-flat and C, timpani in E-flat and B-flat (in the 1st, 3rd, and 4th movements) and in C and G (in the 2nd movement), and strings.
The work is in four movements:
Depending upon the conductor's style, the performance time is between forty-one and fifty-six minutes.
The first movement, in 3/4 time, is in sonata form. The movement opens with two large E-flat major chords played, by the whole orchestra, thus firmly establishing the tonality of the movement. The first theme is introduced by the cellos, and, by the fifth bar of the melody, a chromatic note (C♯) is introduced, thus establishing the harmonic tension of the composition. The melody is finished by the first violins, with a syncopated series of Gs (which forms a tritone with C♯ of the cellos). After the first theme is played, by the various instruments, the movement transits to a calmer, second theme that leads to the development section.
Like the rest of the movement, the development is characterized by remarkable harmonic and rhythmic tension, from dissonant chords and long passages of syncopated rhythm. Most remarkable, Beethoven introduces a new theme in the development section, thus breaking with the tradition of classical composition – that the development section works only with existing material.
Thematically, the development section leads back to the recapitulation; notably, the horns appear to come in early with the tonic melody, while the strings continue playing the dominant chord; and concludes in a long coda that reintroduces the new theme first presented in the development section; the first movement is between 12 and 18 minutes long.
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The second movement is a funeral march in C minor with a trio in C major, and comprises multiple fugatos. Musically, the thematic solemnity of the second movement lends it use as a funeral march proper; the movement is between 14 and 18 minutes long.
The third movement is a lively scherzo that features hunting calls from the three horns; it is between 5 and 6 minutes long.
The fourth movement is a set of variations on a theme, which Beethoven had used in earlier compositions; as the finale of the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43 (1801); then as the theme of the Variations and Fugue for Piano in E♭ major, Op. 35 (1802), also called the Eroica Variations.
The theme of the fourth movement, and its bass line
The subtitle Eroica Variations of Opus 35 derives from the occurrence of the themes in the fourth movement of this symphony. In the symphony proper, the thematic variations are structured like the piano variations of Opus 35; the bass line of the theme first appears and then is subjected to a series of strophic variations that lead to the full appearance of the theme proper; the fourth movement is between 10 and 14 minutes long.
Ludwig van Beethoven originally dedicated the third symphony to Napoleon Buonaparte, whom he believed embodied the democratic and anti-monarchical ideals (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity) of the French Revolution (1789–1799). In autumn of 1804, Beethoven withdrew his dedication of the third symphony to Napoleon, lest it cost the composer's fee paid him by a royal patron; so, Beethoven re-dedicated his third symphony to Prince Joseph Franz Maximilian Lobkowitz – nonetheless, despite such a bread-and-butter consideration, the politically idealistic Beethoven titled the work "Buonaparte". Later, about the composer's response to Napoleon having proclaimed himself Emperor of the French (14 May 1804), Beethoven's secretary, Ferdinand Ries said that:
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 "Ludwig 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, too, he 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 had to be recopied, and it was only now that the symphony received the title Sinfonia eroica.
An extant copy of the score bears two scratched-out, hand-written sub-titles; initially, the Italian phrase Intitolata Bonaparte ("Titled Bonaparte"), secondly, the German phrase Geschriben auf Bonaparte ("Written for Bonaparte"), four lines below the Italian sub-title. Three months after retracting his initial Napoleonic dedication of the symphony, the Beethoven informed his music publisher that "The title of the symphony is really Bonaparte". In 1806, the score was published under the Italian title Sinfonia Eroica ... composta per festeggiare il sovvenire di un grande Uomo ("Heroic Symphony, Composed to celebrate the memory of a great man").
When informed of the death of Napoleon (5 May 1821), Beethoven said, "I wrote the music for this sad event seventeen years ago", referring to the funereal second movement. Composed from the autumn of 1803 until the spring of 1804, the premiere performance of the third symphony was private – for Beethoven's royal patron, Prince Lobkowitz, at the castle Eisenberg (Jezeří) in Bohemia. The first public performance was on 7 April 1805, at the Theater an der Wien, Vienna; for which concert the announced (theoretical) key for the symphony was Dis (D-sharp major, 9 sharps).
The first rehearsal of the symphony was terrible, but the hornist did, in fact, come in on cue. I was standing next to Beethoven and, believing that he 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 work is a milestone work of classical-style composition; it is twice as long as the symphonies of Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – the first movement is almost as long as a typical Classical symphony (with repetition of the exposition). Thematically, it covers more emotional ground than had Beethoven's earlier symphonies, and thus marks the beginning of the Romantic period in classical music.
The second movement especially displays a great emotional range, from the misery of the funeral march theme, to the relative solace of happier, major-key episodes. The finale displays a similar emotional range, and is given a thematic importance then unheard of. In earlier symphonies, the finale was a quick and breezy conclusion; here, the finale is a lengthy set of variations and fugue on a theme from Beethoven's music for the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus (1801).
Compositionally, the opening theme of Sinfonia Eroica resembles that of the overture to the comic opera Bastien und Bastienne (1768), composed by twelve-year-old W. A. Mozart. It was unlikely that Beethoven knew of that unpublished composition. A possible explanation is that Mozart and Beethoven each coincidentally heard and learned the theme from elswhere.
Since the 19th century, the adagio assai second movement is a common marcia funebre played at a funeral, a memorial service, and a commemoration.
In 2003 a Simon Cellan Jones-directed BBC/Opus Arte made-for-television film, Eroica, was released, with Ian Hart as Beethoven. The Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner, performed the Eroica symphony in its entirety. The subject of the film is the private 1804 premiere of the work at the palace of Prince Lobkowitz (Jack Davenport). The film is based in part on Ferdinand Ries' recollections of the event. In the film Beethoven does not learn that Napoleon has crowned himself Emperor of France until after the performance of the symphony is over – while having dinner with Ferdinand Ries. Rather than tearing up the title page of the symphony, he simply crumples it up.
In 1994, portions of the Eroica were used in the biographical film, Immortal Beloved, starring Gary Oldman as Beethoven. Written and directed by Bernard Rose, the film's score uses various works of Beethoven that were selected by the film's music director, Sir Georg Solti.
In the film Ocean's Twelve, the Eroica is played during the attempted Amsterdam robbery.
In the 1983 Walt Disney movie Something Wicked This Way Comes (an adaptation of the Ray Bradbury novel by the same name), the funeral march from Eroica is played during the carnival troupe's search for Will and Jim.
At the end of the 1939 comedy Naughty but Nice, the judge in a plagiarism case proudly hums a tune he wrote at college, which the defendant identifies as from the Eroica.
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