Sunday, February 24, 2013

Masterpieces of Music: Beethoven Symphony No. 3

I haven't done one of my "Masterpieces of Music" posts for a long time and I haven't posted much on the Beethoven symphonies at all, except for the 5th and 9th. Time to fix that!

I would like to have a look at the Symphony No. 3 of Beethoven; the first one that really broke out of the bounds of the 18th century. It was completed in the summer of 1804. There are a number of stories associated with the symphony, in particular the one that relates how it now has the nickname "Eroica" rather than "Bonaparte". For these, have a look at the Wikipedia article. I'm just going to look at the music.

I talked about the introduction to Beethoven's Symphony No. 1 here with its deceptive opening of cadences in the wrong keys before finally settling into C major. The Symphony No. 3 wastes no time with that, instead opening with two forte blasts in E flat major, the tonic. Then we immediately have one of the main themes:
There are a couple of interesting things going on here. First of all, the theme simply outlines the tonic triad: E flat, G, B flat. Then it surprisingly moves to a C sharp which turns out to be the root of a C sharp diminished chord, the viiº7 of D. This is achieved by the economical means of having the violas and violins simply hold, respectively, a B flat and G from the tonic harmony. The resolution of the C sharp to a D gives us a iii chord in first inversion (G B flat D, with the D in the bass), which becomes a V7 chord in first inversion: B flat, D, F, A flat, resolving to the tonic. If we had all day, I could go through the whole symphony with this level of detail. With a composer like Beethoven, every detail is fascinating. But as the symphony is about fifty minutes long, I don't think we have the time! I just analyzed about ten or fifteen seconds of the beginning! Beethoven goes on to do some wonderful development of this theme. Here is one passage in the violins:
There are only two elements here, both derived from the first theme: the outlining of a triad, in this case the A natural, C, E flat or the viiº of B flat, the dominant, followed by the outlining of G, B flat, D, the mediant or iii chord. The other element is that little movement to the upper neighbor which you could see as a development of the two semitone intervals in the original theme: from C sharp to D or D to E flat. The whole of this exposition, which is about three minutes long, consists in this sort of rhythmic varying of the basic material.

Here is another example of the fluid, dynamic way Beethoven handles the theme. This passage in winds takes the interval between the second and third notes of the original theme, the G falling to the E flat, and slightly ornaments it with an eighth note, then echoes it in the high winds:
Note that each iteration has different intervals. Lots of interesting things going on and I haven't even gotten past the exposition of the first movement. I hope this gets you started. With Beethoven, every detail is significant. Let's listen to the whole symphony. There are four movements. After this first one, which is itself as long as a lot of 18th century symphonies, there is a funeral march, a scherzo and a finale. Enjoy!

No comments: