Program Notes: Beethoven's "Eroica"

“War is hell,” William Tecumseh Sherman famously opined. Across the centuries, the clash of arms has also given rise to great works of art. Today’s program explores three of these. Beethoven’s Third Symphony was initially inspired by his regard for the military general Napoleon Bonaparte, until the liberator turned out to be an oppressor. Vaughan Williams’s Sixth Symphony reflects the angst and disenchantment that followed WWII.


Symphony No. 6 in E minor (revised version)

Ralph Vaughan Williams

(Born 12 October 1872 in Down Ampney, England; Died 26 August 1958 in London, England)

Composed: 1946-47

Premiere: 21 April 1948; London, England

Last MSO Performance: MSO Subscription Premiere

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, tenor saxophone, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, suspended cymbals, triangle, xylophone), harp, strings

Approximate Duration: 31 minutes

Ralph Vaughan Williams was the most important English composer of his generation—that between Elgar and Britten—and a key figure in the revival of English music. His voluminous compositional output includes nine symphonies and other orchestral pieces, operas, songs, choral music, film and theatre music, and chamber music, as well as Christmas carols and hymn tunes. Among his best-known works are The Lark Ascending, Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, Fantasia on ‘Greensleeves,’ and the Symphony No. 1 (“A Sea Symphony”).

Not without justification, Vaughan Williams’s creations are sometimes pigeon-holed as bucolic depictions of the English countryside. (Aaron Copland is supposed to have said that listening to RVW’s Fifth Symphony was like staring at a cow for 45 minutes.) To espouse that view alone, however, is to give the composer short shrift. Listening to such works as the explosive and severe Fourth Symphony (1931-34)—seen by some as presaging World War II—the virtuoso choral/organ piece A Vision of Aeroplanes (1956), or the opus on this evening’s program, one is disabused of the notion of RVW as a “cow-pat” composer.

Symphony No. 6 (1944-47) seems to mirror the disillusion that followed the Second World War. Premiered in 1948 under the baton of Sir Adrian Boult, it quickly became an audience favorite, tallying nearly 100 performances during its first two years. Displaying “apocalyptic fury,” it was been described as bleak, bracing, and disquieting.

The first movement is loud and brusque; in its opening measures, the orchestra plays simultaneously in E minor and F minor. Disruptive techniques in both harmony and rhythm add to the chaotic disposition. Toward the end, there’s a welcome shift to E major, marked “tranquillo” and a unison E in the low instruments provides a direct link to the anxiety-ridden second movement. Chromatic themes and a pervasive “rat-a-tat” motif fuel the sense of unease. The middle section, scored mostly for strings and tympani, provides a few moments’ respite before the rat-a-tat fuels a pummeling climax. An English horn solo, backed by the three-note ostinato, winds down the Moderato and connects it to the Allegro vivace.

Energetic rhythms, dense contrapuntal textures, and dissonant harmonies saturate the Scherzo. If any jokes or jests are to be found here, they must surely be sarcastic and sardonic. The brief trio features a solo for tenor saxophone. At movement’s end, this same melody is stated by the full orchestra before the music fades to a bass clarinet solo that overlaps the muted violin melody at the beginning of the Epilogue. The composer indicated that the entirety of the closing Moderato is to be played pianissimo, without crescendo. Many have viewed this section as a depiction of a post-nuclear world, describing it as dead, barren, and in ruins. Though RVW insisted his Sixth Symphony was not programmatic, he eventually proffered--in connection with the last movement--a quote from Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” 

Recommended Recording: Vernon Handley, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (EMI Classics)




Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Opus 55, “Eroica”

Ludwig van Beethoven
(Baptized 17 December 1770 in Bonn, Germany; Died 26 March 1827 in Vienna, Austria)

Composed: 1804

Premiere: 7 April 1805; Vienna, Austria

Last MSO Performance: March 2014; Edo de Waart, conductor

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 3 horns, 2 trombones, timpani, strings

Approximate Duration: 47 minutes

Beethoven spent the summer of 1802 in the village of Heiligenstadt (now part of larger Vienna). It was a musically prolific time for him, but the 31-year-old master was already aware that his hearing was beginning to deteriorate. In October, as he prepared to return to central Vienna, he carefully wrote a document to his two brothers describing his depression, but declaring he had now rejected the idea of suicide. This “Heiligenstadt Testament” is a heartbreaking testimony to the despair that frequently overtook him during this period in his life.

From that low ebb of despondency, Beethoven effected a speedy recovery through hard work, churning out his oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives in early 1803. Fidelio, his only opera, was written in 1804-05. Between them came the Eroica (“Heroic”) Symphony, an opus Beethoven scholar Joseph Kerman has called “a watershed work, one that marks a turning point in the history of modern music.” Kerman goes on to explain that Beethoven was concerned not only with the musical and technical aspects of composition, but also with conveying his own spiritual journey and growth process. This “symphonic ideal,” states Kerman, “Beethoven perfected at a stroke with his Third Symphony and further celebrated with his Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Ninth. The forcefulness, expanded range, and evident radical intent of these works sets them apart from symphonies in the 18th-century tradition.”

It is well known that Beethoven took Napoleon as his inspiration for the Symphony No. 3 and later was angered and disillusioned when the revolutionary hero turned despot and had himself crowned emperor. The “Bonaparte” Symphony then became the “Sinfonia Eroica.” From our 21st-century vantage point, it is easy to declare Beethoven the true hero here.

The Third Symphony as a whole—and its first two movements in particular—was on a larger scale than any instrumental work the master had yet written; it was many years before he wrote another of such dimensions. Following two strong E-flat major chords, the cellos quietly sing the waltz-like melody that will provide Beethoven with much of the musical material for this movement. Typically, Classical-era symphonies have a central development section shorter than the opening exposition. Beethoven turns this around completely, expanding on his material at great length, taking the listener in unexpected directions. A weighty and protracted funeral march in C minor makes up the second movement. Musicologists have suggested that Beethoven was here influenced by French composers of the revolutionary era, as well as by the operas of Luigi Cherubini (Beethoven’s favorite living composer) and Etienne Mehul. All is not gloomy in this movement, however: Listen for a lyrical interlude in C major that soon turns triumphant. And there’s even a brief fugal section.

The scherzo’s softly scampering staccato strings and jaunty woodwind melodies disperse all funereal thoughts. The bold trio—with fanfares played by three horns—stands in marked contrast. The scurrying then returns, and a short, intriguing coda ends the movement. The ingenious Finale is a set of variation based on a theme Beethoven had used in his ballet The Creatures of Prometheus and in the 15 Variations, Op. 35 (“Eroica Variations”) for piano. The styles range from solemn to humorous and make use of both the major and minor modes. Listen for everything from imitative counterpoint to a swaying dance, from warlike passages to an ample hymn tune. In the splendid coda, jubilant salvos from the three horns bring this history-changing work to its “heroic” conclusion.

Recommended Recording: George Szell, Cleveland Orchestra (Sony)

Program notes by J. Mark Baker.