Harman Patil (Editor)

Symphony No. 3 (Beethoven)

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Symphony No. 3 (Beethoven)

Symphony No. 3 in E major, Opus 55 (also Italian Sinfonia Eroica, Heroic Symphony) is a large-scale, structurally rigorous composition which marked the beginning of the creative middle-period of the composer Ludwig van Beethoven. It is among Beethoven's most celebrated works.


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.

On display at the Lobkowicz Palace in Prague is a first published edition (1806) of Beethoven's Eroica, as well as other Beethoven treasures including manuscripts of the 4th and 5th symphonies, featuring Beethoven's own corrections and annotations for performance.


Symphony No. 3 is scored for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets in B, two bassoons, three horns (the 1st in E, C, and F; the 2nd in E and C; and the 3rd in E), two trumpets in E and C, timpani in E and B (in the 1st, 3rd, and 4th movements) and in C and G (in the 2nd movement), and strings.


The work is in four movements:

  1. Allegro con brio (12–18 min.) (E major)
  2. Marcia funebre: Adagio assai (14–18 min.) (C minor)
  3. Scherzo: Allegro vivace (5–6 min.) (E major)
  4. Finale: Allegro molto (10–14 min.) (E major)

Depending upon the conductor's style and observation of the exposition repeat in the first movement, the performance time is between 41 and 56 minutes.

First movement: Allegro con brio

The first movement, in 3
time, is in sonata form. The movement opens with two large E 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.

Second movement: Marcia funebre – Adagio assai

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.

Third movement: Allegro vivace

The third movement is a lively scherzo in rapid 3
time during which various members of the orchestra play the theme, which ranges in dynamic from pianissimo to fortissimo. It contains numerous heavily and unusually syncopated passages. Its trio features hunting calls from the three horns; the entire movement is between 5 and 6 minutes long.

Fourth movement: Allegro molto

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 its thematic overlap with 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. After a fugal treatment of the main theme the orchestra pauses on the dominant of the home key, and the theme is further developed in a new section marked Poco Andante. The symphony ends with a Presto coda which recalls the opening of the fourth movement and ends in a flurry of sforzandos. The fourth movement is between 10 and 14 minutes long.

Dedication and premiere performance

Beethoven originally dedicated the third symphony to Napoleon Bonaparte, who he believed embodied the democratic and anti-monarchical ideals of the French Revolution. 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, 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 major, 9 sharps).

Horn-solo anecdote

During the initial rehearsal, in the first movement the solo horn entered with the main theme four bars before the true recapitulation; about which, Beethoven's secretary, Ferdinand Ries said that:

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.

Musical characteristics

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 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 elsewhere.

Critical opinion

  • In the Treatise on Instrumentation and Orchestration (1844, 1855), Hector Berlioz discussed Beethoven's orchestral use and applications of the horn and of the oboe in this symphony.
  • In Metamorphosen, Study for 23 Solo Strings (1945), Richard Strauss presents themes similar to the funeral march of the Sinfonia Eroica; near the conclusion of the Metamorphoses, the bass quotes the funeral march proper from the Sinfonia Eroica. Academics speculate that Strauss's sub-title "In Memoriam" refers to Ludwig van Beethoven.
  • The music critic Harold C. Schonberg said that “Musical Vienna was divided on the merits of the Eroica. Some called it Beethoven's masterpiece. Others said that the work merely illustrated a striving for originality that did not come off.” Moreover, included in the same program of the concert featuring the Sinfonia Eroica was the premiere performance of a Symphony in E major by Anton Eberl (1765–1807), which received better reviews than did Beethoven's symphony.
  • The critic J. W. N. Sullivan said that the first movement expresses Beethoven's courage in confronting deafness; the second movement, slow and dirge-like, communicates his despair; the third movement, the scherzo, is an "indomitable uprising of creative energy"; and the fourth movement is an exuberant outpouring of energy.
  • In the article, "Beethoven's Cry of Freedom" (2003), the Marxist critic Gareth Jenkins said that in the Sinfonia Eroica "Beethoven was doing for music what Napoleon was doing for society – turning tradition upside down", and so embodied the "sense of human potential and freedom" that first appeared during the French Revolution.
  • In the recording Eroica (1953) and in the book The Infinite Variety of Music (1966), the conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein said that the first and second movements are "perhaps the greatest two movements in all symphonic music".
  • In 2016, the Eroica was named the greatest symphony of all time by BBC Music Magazine, in a survey of 151 conductors working across the world.
  • Funeral music

    Since the 19th century, the adagio assai second movement has been a common marcia funebre played at funerals, memorial services, and commemorations.

  • In 1847, the symphony's second movement was played at the funeral of the German composer Felix Mendelssohn.
  • In 1940, F. Scott Fitzgerald died while listening to a recording of this symphony.
  • In 1945, Serge Koussevitzky performed the second movement to mourn the death of the US President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
  • In 1957, Bruno Walter performed the entire symphony as the memorial concert for the conductor Arturo Toscanini.
  • In 1963, the Boston Symphony Orchestra gave an impromptu performance of the second movement of the Eroica symphony to mourn the recently assassinated U.S. President John F. Kennedy.
  • In 1972, the Munich Philharmonic under Rudolf Kempe played the second movement at the funeral of the eleven Israeli athletes killed in the Munich massacre that occurred at the 1972 Summer Olympics.
  • Cinema

    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.


    Symphony No. 3 (Beethoven) Wikipedia