Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Untold Story of Beethoven's "Eroica"

It is December 16, the 240th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven in Bonn, in what was at the time the Electorate of Cologne (Köln), before Germany came into existence. From now until the start of the New Year, I banish all topics from this blog which have to do with politics, economics or other assorted areas for complaint -- including the Anglican Communion in general, and the Episcopal Church (USA) in particular. Instead, I shall focus on my other interests, mainly music and the Nativity.

And what better subject to begin these next few weeks of posting, than Ludwig van Beethoven? Born in 1770, by 1793 he was already a celebrity and popular performer in what was then the musical capital of the world -- Vienna. But four years later, after a severe bout of typhus, he began to notice that his sensitive hearing was impaired. By 1801 he was seeing different doctors in an attempt to halt his steadily increasing deafness, and he wrote long letters to two of his closest friends describing the anguish he was going through at the thought of a musician losing his hearing. In one of them, he said: “Often have I cursed the creator and my existence, [but] Plutarch has taught me resignation; I will, if it’s otherwise possible, brave my destiny, even though there will be moments in my life when I will be the most miserable of god’s creatures.”

The year 1801 also brought him his first imperial commission -- to write the music for a ballet to be staged by Salvatore Viganò, the imperial ballet-master, on the legend of Prometheus, the Greek god who is credited with bringing the gift of fire to mankind. A dancer himself, Viganò wrote the scenario to allow himself to star not as Prometheus, but as the first man, whom in his story Prometheus fashions as a clay statue, along with the first woman. The ballet opens with stormy music as Prometheus, running from the wrath of Zeus at his theft of fire from Vulcan's hearth, rushes in and uses the Olympian flame to kindle life into the two figures of clay.

Slowly the figures animate, and begin to move about clumsily. Beethoven's music at this point is a series of halting chords --

-- which he contrasts with the graceful leaps and turns in which he depicts the dance of the god, excited with the success of his work.

(Click on the examples to enlarge them. The careful listener will hear the exact same scenario -- from stormy introduction, through hesitant, staccato chords, to graceful dance -- in the opening bars of the finale to the Eroica symphony.)

Prometheus, however, soon becomes disillusioned with the awkwardness of his creatures, and briefly contemplates ending their existence before hitting upon a plan: he will take them to the court of Apollo, the god of the arts, where they can learn the skills of music and dance.

Viganò's scenario was designed to reflect back the glories of his employer, the court of the Emperor Francis and Empress Marie Therese. The entire second act of the ballet takes place before Apollo, seated on his throne, as various Muses instruct the humans in their arts in a series of set pieces for which Beethoven composed striking music, ranging from martial to entirely pastoral in character. Then the Muse of tragedy, Melpomene, confronts Prometheus and accuses him of giving life to creatures who must inevitably face death, since unlike the gods, they cannot be immortal. By way of illustrating her point to the startled humans, she strikes down Prometheus, who falls lifeless at their feet. (The act of a woman killing a man on stage was revolutionary for its time, and Viganò got the controversy and publicity he desired.)

At this point, Beethoven expresses the humans' grief at their mentor's apparent death. But in the sketches for this scene, he interrupts himself to jot down an idea for what is unquestionably a funeral march, in the key of C minor:

Notice also that Beethoven has written the word "Sinfonia" above his sketch, the music of which bears a striking resemblance to his sketches in 1803 for what will eventually become the slow movement (a Marche funèbre) of his Third Symphony. In the illustration below, we compare the phrase on line 6 of the image above with a passage from the Eroica sketchbook, as published by Gustav Nottebohm in 1880:

The humans' sorrow at the "death" of the immortal Prometheus is short-lived, as the god Pan leads in a merry band of followers who awaken the god from his trance. There are festivities and joyful dances all around, and the humans -- first the woman, and then the man -- begin to show the stirrings of love for each other, which they express in two solo dances. These gave Viganò and his beautiful co-star, Maria Casentini, the chance to show off their talents, and at the same time, served to illustrate for the story of the ballet how far the humans had progressed under the tutelage of Apollo's Muses.

The climax of the ballet is a celebratory dance in which all partake -- the humans alongside the gods. Having reached the apotheosis of their art, the man and the woman are fit to partner with the gods themselves, and Beethoven uses one his most memorable themes to give expression to their triumph:

Beethoven was to return to this theme in three more of his compositions, written after the ballet. It obviously took on a special significance for him, as he drew parallels with the gods' unjust punishment of Prometheus, for bringing divine gifts to mankind. In just the same way, Beethoven believed himself being unjustly punished with the loss of his hearing. During the period 1801-1804, while he employed the "Prometheus theme" ever more elaborately in his compositions, culminating in the finale of the Eroica symphony, Beethoven worked through his suicidal depression and anger, and emerged fully resolved to make music even though he would be deaf for the rest of his life. The compositions born from that crisis, which reached its severest point at Heiligenstadt in the fall of 1802, are among the most glorious ever written -- and served to break music out of its classical mold, in order to inaugurate the Romantic Age.

And Napoleon? Far from being the Eroica's inspiration, as so many have surmised, he was only its dedicatee -- an idea which came to Beethoven when he was entertaining the thought of moving to Paris, and performing his new symphony there. His Viennese patrons, however, caught wind of Beethoven's plans, and increased the generosity of their stipends to him. Then Napoleon crowned himself Emperor of the French, and Beethoven scratched out his dedication to him in a furious rage, later scrawling sarcastically in its place: "to the memory of a great man."

(Click the image to enlarge it.)

You can read the full story of the Eroica's genesis over at my other blog, All Things Beethoven. For his birthday today, I just wanted to point out the parallels between the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus and the Third Symphony. As explained above, the ballet scenario takes us through the struggle of the humans to learn their arts and skills, the tragic death of their protector and mentor, their joy and celebration at his being restored to life, and the apotheosis of the finale where they become partners with the gods themselves in celebrating through music and dance. This mirrors exactly the four movements of the Third Symphony. The compositional tie-ins are revealed in the sketchbooks; the themes of the works reverberate in sympathy.

In the progress from Creatures to the Eroica, we have one of the great untold stories of one man's everlasting triumph over deafness and despair. Happy birthday, Ludwig!


  1. Bravo, Curmudgeon.
    Your writing about music is as wonderful as about law and the Faith...but becomes lyrical and very empathic with these topics.

    Mozart also went through a period where he suffered much loss and pain and produced exquisite and powerful music. The melancholy melody of Laudate Dominum is one example. Christopher Parkening's adaptation of this piece for the guitar is a wonderful consolation for an aching heart in which Mozart's pain is the gift that heals our own.

    Thank you for allowing us to visit your Beethoven blog...and thank you for helping us to understand the goings on in Anglican history, politics and canon law.

  2. I was referring to Laudate Dominum from Vespers Solemnis de Confessore (K339) which is among the works written after Mozart lost his mother, love, Aloysia Weber, and had to move back home from Paris to work for a difficult patron, the Archbishop of Salzburg.

    From both Mozart and Beethoven, we receive the benefit of their pain and also of the joy, peace and rest they found in the Lord.

    Thank you for the riches of your blog and for turning it into a place sanctuary and beauty at Christmas.