Beethoven’s third Symphony ‘Eroica’ op.55 (First movement)


Beethoven writes a letter to his friend in 1802 and mentions that he is not satisfied with his works so far (says Romain Rolland 1); what was going on? Yes, he was preparing to fly the music to new boundaries, during and even before the composition of 3rd symphony he was searching for ways to differ this symphony from the other two, so we can expect some major changes here (and other six which he will make later) from different aspects. In other word, the third symphony was the turning-point of Beethoven’s symphony writing. It was a revolution in writing symphonies and in Sonata form in music history. Additionally, He created a new path for other musicians and composers. Although David Levy 2 argues (on Imagining Beethoven ‘‘Solomon’s essay’’) that Beethoven’s creative life began in 1812 till 1827, the facts above prove that it started earlier by the 3rd symphony.

In this essay I intent to explore Beethoven’s 3rd symphony known as ‘Eroica’ in depth, to discover why it’s called ‘Eroica’? Did Beethoven write it for someone? What are the special features of this symphony; its melody, harmony, orchestration, form and …, to understand what is new? And what makes ‘Eroica’, ‘Eroica’?  And what makes it so important? Why it’s been a turning-point?  Details of ‘Eroica’ symphony are going to be concerned and a historical comparison is going to be made for a better understanding of this masterpiece throughout this essay, and so called unusual features of this piece will be explored as well.

Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony:

Napoleon Bonaparte (who promised to lead humanity to new age of liberty, fraternity and equality), inspired Beethoven to compose his 3rd symphony and title it “Bonaparte”, but after Beethoven heard that he proclaimed himself as the emperor, Beethoven found himself disillusioned about Bonaparte by the time of publication in 1806 so the title changed to ‘Eroica’ Symphony (Heroic Symphony, composed to celebrate the memory of a great man), he decided to dedicate this to prince Lobkowitz and ‘the great man’ defined as Lobkowitz’s friend Louis Ferdinand, prince of Prussia who greatly taken by the symphony and died a hero in 1806. This symphony firstly, performed in a private concert in the summer of 1804, then a public concert in Vienne on April of 1805.

‘Eroica’ consists of four movements: I. Allegro con brio, II. Marcia funebre: Adagio assai, III. Scherzo: Allegro vivace and IV. Finale: Allegro molto.

First movement is in form of Sonata (typical of all Symphonies). Particularly, first subject goes to dominant via a bridge passage and the second subject starts (by bar 83), then the development (by bar 154) and the recapitulation (bar 398) and coda. So far, everything may sound like typical sonata form but the first unusual point is the principal motive that reminds us of the drama’s character being opposed and subdued. Its thematic richness, melodies, harmony, irregular phrasing, climaxes and dynamics which made it very exciting are all elements which Beethoven made use of to make this piece heroic.

Instruments that Beethoven used are exactly the same as in the first symphony; tiny difference is in their pitches. Anyway these instruments are the typical instruments set of the era but their function experienced many changes by Beethoven, same as the art of his orchestration which was unique by its own. Compare to the orchestration of the time, Beethoven made Brass section more active, although, the brass section plays the a more harmonic and rhythmic role, yet they take the melody too. In woodwind, Flute has the responsibility of playing the highest notes. Oboe, clarinet and bassoon have the responsibly of taking and supporting melody at different parts, as well as their rhythmic and harmonic role. Percussion (Timpani) is more active since the development section begins, and especially in the recapitulation.

Symphony starts in E flat major, in triple time by two down-beat staccato tonic chords, with dynamic of forte, all instruments hired for the two bars. As soon as the symphony starts it points out the heroic elements, power and something serious by somehow a fanfare at the beginning, then, after two bars it turns to piano unexpectedly. Nevertheless, only a glimpse of his melodic idea is shown at first and the full melody idea will be revealed after a few bars. Woodwind and Brass sections and percussion stop playing and Strings keep on taking the melody (main subject) by cello from 3rd bar on. It is a very unique and important element of this piece because it was the typical of the time to give the melody to the violins, it was a little unusual at the time that Cello took the melody as well but it inspired later musicians of Romantic period (especially symphonists) to follow this path. while Cello plays the melody, Violin II and Viola play along their tremolando figure in 6th untill the time when the first violin takes the rest of melody (piano crescendo), while it has the support of Viola playing along with it in octave and Cello in 6th again. Second Violin starts an arpeggios-like figure with a dominant pedal-like note (B flat) which doesn’t last more than three bars. Unlike any other symphony (or Sonata form), he introduces chromatic notes as early as bar 7. At bar 13th other sections join in and flute takes the melody while first and second violin and Viola take some scaly and arpeggios figures and turn back to their tremolando figure again until first violin takes the melody, though, flute takes it back soon. This time with support of the bassoon in 3rd and clarinet (in B) in 6th. It makes a beautiful dialogue and answer mode between the two instruments. The next interesting point is the sforzando (accented) and the forte-piano featured with use of continuous chord figures that contains 9th chords as well, another rare job at the time and another influence for the later composers.

Something that takes audience’s attention right from the beginning is the sudden and unexpected loudness and softness during the piece. The sudden changes, featured with dynamics such as forte to piano can suggest an inner peace or weakness at different parts of the symphony which comes along with a kind of sad mood, almost heard throughout the piece.

Beethoven gradually introduces the syncopation devices and stresses, placed on the weak beats, and he frequently uses this device. Many chromatic notes (e.g. bar 7, bar 119 etc) and chords (such as Augmented 6th at bar 44) can be found in this piece. He modulates this piece to many keys, both related such as ‘A flat minor (relative minor)’ and unrelated keys such as ‘F major’, before preparing it for the second subject by modulating to dominant. The preparation of dominant key is done by the dominant of dominant and the help of Horns and Trumpets playing this note (F). Once the first subject is done, it is bridge-passage’s turn which is somehow sophisticated, analysts have various ideas about it. Some believe that the end of the bridge passage is by bar 45, some know the end at bar 57 (because the key of ‘B flat’ ‘dominant’, appears there). Then, there is the second subject, while others interpret bar 45 as the end of first subject and beginning of bridge passage, so the second subject would be by bar 83. The third idea seems more rational, firstly due to the nature of the bridge passage we hear. Secondly, the clue comes by a closer look at the score where we find out Beethoven wasn’t following Hayden’s path quite precisely, bars 45-56 are some motives which taken somehow from the first subject heard at the beginning of exposition. Moreover, neither bar 45 nor bar 57 have a standard or the balance to be qualified as a subject. Also, some commentators and analysts argue that the bridge passage from the first subject group to second subject group in the dominant is very short, but it based more on the first and second idea. Anyhow, the second subject has a contrasting mood to first subject with more syncopation, though, some roots from the first subject can be found there.

On the other hand, while development has got its own unique elements, and typically, the borrowed elements from the exposition, there are still brand new elements being introduced. such as: the fugal passage that comes ‘by bar 236’ and rhythmic disruption ‘bar 272-79’.  All this made the development very creative. Although, some commentators and analysts of Beethoven’s time criticized that the development section is longer than the exposition, and recapitulation and the coda is nearly as long as exposition but it is just another creative approach in sonata form. The wide range of modulations in this section have been criticized as well which is not a surprise either, it was really unusual to modulate to so many keys which aren’t very related (e.g. C minor, C# minor, G minor etc) at the time.

Development starts with a peaceful mood, but changes to a furious sense and tragic mood in the middle of the development, especially when first violin is playing ‘F natural’ against an ‘E natural’.  According to Berlioz 3: “This is the voice of despair and almost of rage”, it doesn’t take long that the mood changes again to a calmer mood which indicates a kind of frustration of orchestra itself (which can be indication of “great man’s” status) out of such an outburst play. After some bars of gentle play, another tragic part appears which is even more tragic that the first one. It makes the listener to imagine a bitter event or an absolute despair for the “great man” or “hero”. Furthermore, there is a very controversial issue here which publisher believed to be an error but after some researches they found out there is no error but the genius of Beethoven! As first and second violin play ‘B flat and A flat’ in tremolando figure which are part of a 7th dominant chord, the horn rushes to play the main subject four bars earlier which includes notes such as E flat, G, E flat, B flat which makes such a discord. “M. Ries who was present stopped the orchestra and exclaimed: ‘Too early, too early, the horn is wrong!” Berlioz says, at the first rehearsal of the symphony. Meanwhile, Berlioz argues by reasoning: “…But just as the ear is about to protest against this anomaly, an energetic tutti cuts off the horn, ends piano on the tonic chord and gives way to the entry of the cellos which then play the complete theme with the appropriate harmony”. Anyway, some say that even Berlioz was among those who thought its copyist’s mistake but it seems he changed his mind later. Anyhow, it counts as a new art of orchestration at the time giving the melody to the horn. This job was just exceptionally done before, because horn had the harmonic and rhythmic role the most. It was another musical door Beethoven opened which explored and developed by later composers.

Surprisingly, by bar 367, we have a sense of an alarm or a shock! This sense reached a peak especially when this figure appears after a crescendo and when Beethoven hired all instruments playing  fortissimo and Timpani gets crazy… and suddenly everything stops and we just hear the Oboe and Bassoon playing a major chord figure forte, with notes of long value which reminds us of the alarm. It makes the listener to assume that everything is over for the “hero”. A sad mood follows while the essence of that alarm is still remained, but Beethoven gives the good news by appearing the first-subject’s thematic material again.

Thus, as it gets closer to the end of development, it somehow prepares for a lead to recapitulation with use of tonic minor and dominant pedal-point. Even though the ending of development mixed with silence and fragmented familiar subject, its melody remains at the highest pitch (the fifth of triad) instead of falling down. Woodwinds has got a vital character helping the theme to fade away by playing long value notes, as the dynamics helps this process by getting decrescendo to piano and pianissimo and pianissisimo (ppp), but unexpectedly ends fortissimo.

However, recapitulation has got its own creative style too, and goes beyond the boundaries of Hayden and Mozart (as many other elements did before). Some thematic material that we hear in recapitulation will be heard in the third movement (scherzo) as well.

A forte-piano dynamic featured with the tonic (E flat major) chord starts the recapitulation. The beginning of recapitulation is very similar to exposition as the strings are the only instrument set playing, and Cello takes the melody again. As usual, bridge passage had to be re-composed since there would be no use to modulate to dominant. Yet, Beethoven couldn’t help leaving the recapitulation simple. He just had to make something extraordinary. Some analysts of Beethoven time argued the abrupt changes of keys, such as successions Eb-F-Db within sixteen bars which aren’t very appropriate at the time. However, that’s among the special characteristics of this work. More or less the same techniques used for strings in recapitulation again, such as tremolando, slurs, arco. The orchestration gets slightly thicker. Flute experiences extremely high notes as other Woodwind instruments are now busier compare to exposition, same for the Brass section. As recapitulation gets closer to the end we can hear some sort of melodies which tell us about a success, finally it ends with a perfect cadence in tonic, while the heroic point never faded away.

In conclusion, ‘Eroica’ symphony is known as a masterpiece all over the world, due to the new features and elements that Beethoven introduced by this work and the inspiration he made for later composers. However, third symphony developed and brought especially the art of orchestration to new boundaries, by the unique and clever approaches that he made. As has been shown, he re-defined symphony writing and made some changes in form of Sonata which attracted critics’, analyst’s and audience’s attention. ‘Eroica’ made a new historical path for music. Unexpected dynamics and even harmony starts from the beginning and signals the listener that this piece is special. As has been demonstrated, heroic mood of this work demanded special chords, melodies, rhythmic devices and phrasings which are spectacular on their own. Such use of syncopation and hemiola wasn’t common at the time, neither the length of development and coda nor the frequent modulations, but Beethoven wanted to distinct this work from the others after all. He surprised or better to say confused many known composers and musicians such as Berlioz and even his own students by the use of the horn, but later on, he have been appreciated for such wise approach. Beethoven made it hard not to tremble sometimes because of the sudden changes and such dramatic parts which totally take the listener. Finally, the third symphony was extremely creative, nearly from all aspects. Beethoven truly showed us what music is capable of…

“Art must think of eternity…” says Beethoven.

An essay on “Beethoven’s 3rd symphony” by Arash A.

A link to the score:,_Op.55_%28Beethoven,_Ludwig_van%29


4 thoughts on “Beethoven’s third Symphony ‘Eroica’ op.55 (First movement)

  1. Good way of explaining, and good post to obtain information on the topic of my presentation topic, which i am going to deliver in college.

  2. Seriously a great article, your in depth research on the thematic treatment and harmonic design was exemplary. Definitely a great resource.

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