Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Symphony Guide: Beethoven Symphony No. 3

This week's edition of Tom Service's symphony guide in the Guardian is on the Symphony No. 3 "Eroica" by Beethoven, one of the true towering masterpieces of the genre. I put up a fairly short post on this piece about a year and a half ago, here. Please go have a look at that post where I quote the opening theme and some developments of it.

This symphony, along with the last symphony of Schubert, the Great C Major, illustrates one of the most significant trends in the early 19th century symphony: the expansion of the sheer length of the pieces. Early Haydn symphonies often ran to 15 minutes or so. But the first movement alone of the "Eroica" runs up to 18 minutes with the repeat of the exposition.

Charles Rosen emphasizes the amazing continuity of the first movement: the themes all relate to one another with a kind of family resemblance. You might be tempted to think that the secret of expanding a form like the symphony by doubling or tripling the length of the movements (the first movement, at least) would lie in seeking greater variety so that the listener is not bored. But the opposite is true: Beethoven ties this symphony together with innumerable motivic bonds. I mentioned a couple of them in my previous post on the symphony. Rosen in The Classical Style cites more examples. Here is an example of a melody in the oboe:

That 285 is the measure number. The lower line is the opening theme in the cellos, transposed up a semitone, while the above melody, in the oboe, is a decorated version, filling in the leaps. They are aligned so as to show the similarities. Here are a couple of other examples from Rosen:

Again, a family resemblance with the first theme.

In expanding the length of the form, Beethoven keeps the classical proportions. The reason that the exposition needs to be repeated and the coda is so long is to balance the proportions and drama of the development. This is a classical, not romantic, aesthetic principle.

Now, let's have a look at Tom's piece on the symphony. First of all, updating our scorecard, this is the fourth symphony by Beethoven to have made the list, tying him with Mozart in first place. Mahler is in second place with three symphonies and there are several with two. Tom, as is his practice, gets very wrought up over the frothy circumstances surrounding the composition, its links with Napoleon, the suppressed original dedication and so on. Read the Guardian piece for the gory details. But I would caution against seeing Beethoven as a revolutionary in music or politics. He certainly, along with a host of his contemporaries, shared a set of common ideals or humanistic values and may have thought that Napoleon would further them, only to be disappointed by his totalitarian tendencies. But apart from some ink on the cover sheet, this is all pretty much irrelevant to the actual music. So why does Tom and so many other discussions spend so much time on it? I often suspect it is so that they can avoid talking about the music! Because that would involve messy details like those motifs I quoted above and allowing the general public to see some actual music notation would cause some kind of disturbance in the Force or something.

I find discussions like Tom's on this symphony fundamentally frustrating because when he talks about the "definitive symphonic alchemy of musical structure and poetic meaning" I want to know what he means by this and how Beethoven does it. If it is true that Beethoven "creates and unleashes a symphonic energy in this piece that both frames and releases this elemental human drama" then I really want to know how that happens. But I fear that Tom can't tell me and that this is just a mixed metaphor: frames and releases? What Beethoven is actually doing is far, far more interesting than the steamy metaphors.

And here it is:


Andy Olson said...

Has he done one by Shostakovich yet? I'm disappointed if not.

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, if you look down the list on the right you will see that the second symphony he did, after the Symphony No. 5 by Beethoven, was Shostakovich's Symphony No. 15. I would hope that he would also do No. 5 and 10 and possibly No. 7 as well.