In this symphony Beethoven began to use broad strokes of sound to tell us how he felt, and what being alive meant to him. The piece caused a sensation and changed the idea of what a symphony could be.
When Beethoven called this piece “heroic,” he wasn’t kidding. It’s bigger, longer than a symphony had ever been. It’s confessional, even confrontational.
Just the scale of it was huge, unprecedented—and daunting for its first listeners. It foreshadowed the world that Wagner and, ultimately, Sigmund Freud would explore—the realm of the unconscious. That’s what was so revolutionary.
The First Movement
When Beethoven first presented himself to Viennese society, he had to make a name for himself. He did this by playing some of his own compositions and, most importantly, by improvising on themes of his own or of his rivals.
Nothing like it had been heard before. These improvisations—often lasting an hour—were entire landscapes of emotional extremes. They were tragic, stormy, lyrical, wildly exhilarating.
Such exhibitions of power first drew people to Beethoven’s art. And the improvisations that dazzled Vienna were, in a way, rehearsals of the daring musical ideas Beethoven would explore in his symphonies.
The first movement of the Eroica was unprecedented in scale, in part because he had so much to say. Beethoven uses a huge spectrum of keys to express different worlds of emotion.
Each new experience of the themes gets darker and deeper. He develops the movement as a way of expressing what really happens in life—the wrong turns, the confusion, the sense of helplessness and entrapment.
In the first movement of the Eroica, Beethoven takes his listeners on a wild journey through the emotional extremes that can be wrought from a few simple themes.
The Second Movement
Perhaps the best reflection of these emotional extremes is the Second Movement, which he titled “Funeral March,” a powerful musical evocation of the massive state funerals then taking place in Paris.
The music suggests the thunder of drums and the roar of the crowd. In this movement, Beethoven explores grief, its public face and its intimate expression.
The oboe solo at the beginning is a personalized and interior expression of grief within a public ceremony. It’s a modern solo in that it has tremendous psychological dimension.
The music is evocative—we can almost see the funeral procession pass before us and ask, What really has died here? Perhaps it is part of Beethoven that is being mourned.
In the years before he wrote Eroica, Beethoven realized he was going deaf, and his initial reaction was terror and shame. He tried to keep it a secret. He couldn’t bear for anyone to know that he—a musician—was not able to hear.
But he came to realize that, as a musician, he could function perfectly well. What really scared him was being cut off from other people, losing the possibility of hearing intimate conversation.
What kind of strange, isolated, lonely, crazy individual was he in danger of becoming? That was the real terror.
As Beethoven’s personal crisis deepened in 1802, he took refuge in the village of Heiligenstadt. He hoped that the quiet of the countryside would bring relief to the distortions in his hearing. And he needed time to get himself together—to face the decision, literally, of whether to live or to die.
In Heiligenstadt, he wrote the most important document we have that reflects the turmoil in his life. The so-called Heiligenstadt Testament is a kind of last will, or possibly a suicide note.
It wasn’t meant to be read during his lifetime. But it reveals Beethoven’s state of mind just before he wrote Eroica. Somehow he found the strength to go on. In the works that follow the Heiligenstadt Testament, he inserted his humanity into the very fabric of the music.
The Third Movement
A year later, in 1803, Beethoven returned to Heiligenstadt, where his depression gave way to an astonishing burst of creativity. Nourished by the pleasures of country life, Beethoven's musical juices began to flow.
In the third movement it seems that Beethoven is tired of thinking about the past and heroes and revolutions. Now he only wants to think about the future, specifically his own future and the future of music.
The third movement shows how confident Beethoven was becoming in the power of his imagination. Here he was creating whole musical worlds. By sharing these worlds with us, he could communicate more personally than had ever been possible before.
The Fourth Movement
The finale of the Eroica starts out with the suggestion of fun and games. There are fugues, village dances, virtuoso solos. But you can’t miss the tenderness in this music.
You can’t miss its suggestion of that moment in life when we look at something or someone we’ve always taken for granted with new eyes and realized just how special they are.
Letting us understand this, Beethoven leads us even further. He makes us realize that these simple notes are worthy to express the triumphant climax of the life of a hero. This is the sum total of one person’s life.
Beethoven and Napoleon
By late 1803, Beethoven had sketched out his new epic symphony, the Eroica. It was inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution and dedicated to its hero, who then seemed to be the great liberator of the people: Napoleon.
Beethoven thought of himself as a free spirit, and he admired the principles of freedom and equality embodied by the French Revolution. He thought he recognized in Napoleon a hero of the people and a champion of freedom, which was why he intended to dedicate a huge new symphony to him.
But when Beethoven heard the news in late 1804 that Napoleon had crowned himself Emperor of France, he was disgusted. “He’s just a rascal like all the others,” he exclaimed.
Beethoven violently erased Napoleon’s name from his manuscript—so forcefully, in fact, that he erased his way right through the paper, leaving holes in the title page.
So this revolutionary piece of music that was originally to be The Bonaparte Symphony became simply Eroica—the heroic.
But if the hero of the music was no longer Napoleon, who was it? The Eroica explores what it means to be human. In facing his own demons and choosing to continue making music, to continue living, Beethoven embraced the heroic in everyman and, ultimately, in himself.
Beethoven said that this symphony was his favorite. In it, he envisioned where his music was going and in fact where the music of the future was going.
All the works that followed it—by Schumann, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Mahler—would have been impossible without the pathfinding steps that Beethoven took in this symphony.