What makes the Eroica so important?
And when I ask that, I am not questioning Opus 55’s importance. Rather, I am wondering what it is about the Eroica that makes it so important in the history of music.
Druckenbrod at the P-G offers a clue:
While it challenged tradition when it premiered in 1805 in Vienna, for [PSO Conductor Manfred Honneck] the “Eroica” is less a theoretical statement on sonata form.
So what was the tradition that it challenged when it premiered? And what’s this “sonata form” that Andy mentions?
Luckily, those two questions kinda almost overlap.
In 1813, E. T. A Hoffman wrote, comparing Beethoven to Haydn and Mozart:
Haydn conceives romantically that which is distinctly human in the life of man; he is, in so far, more comprehensible to the majority.
Mozart grasps more the superhuman, the miraculous, which dwells in the imagination.
And then of Beethoven he wrote:
Beethoven’s music stirs the mists of fear, of horror, of terror, of grief, and awakens that endless longing which is the very essence of romanticism.
Earlier in that same essay, he wrote:
In the same way Beethoven’s instrumental music discloses to us the realm of the tragic and the illimitable. Glowing beams pierce the deep night of this realm and we are conscious of gigantic shadows which, alternately increasing and decreasing, close in on us nearer and nearer, destroying us but not destroying the pain of endless longing in which is engulfed and lost every passion aroused by the exulting sounds. And only through this very pain in which love, hope, and joy, consumed but not destroyed, burst forth from our hearts in the deep-voiced harmony of all the passions, do we go on living and become hypnotised seers of visions!
While the above is certainly very pretty writing, it doesn’t really help us music theory buffs much, though it’s obvious to Hoffmann that Beethoven was doing something different. Perhaps we can boil Hoffmann’s purple prose down to something simpler, if not altogether satisfying; Haydn – chronicler of the that which is distinctly human, Mozart – chronicler of the miraculous imagination, and Beethoven, chronicler of the terror and grief often found there. Eh.
The story of romanticism, I was once told, is the story of the unconscious before anyone knew what the unconscious was. Perhaps that’s what Hoffmann was headed.
But how is this symphony different from all other symphonies that preceded it?
To begin with, it’s longer. The PSO’s program notes tag it at 47 minutes. and according to the Boston Symphony Online Conservatory, it runs almost twice as long as any symphony that preceded it. The development section of the first movement alone is longer than an entire Italian style Mozart symphony from the 1770s.
This mention of a “development section” brings us to something called “sonata form.”
Perhaps we should touch on “form” before tackling a PhD thesis topic the size of Sonata Form. The term “form” is applied to any abstractions of “what happens when” generalized from any group of similar pieces of music. For example a great deal of Jazz “standards” are in an AABA form. This means that the first “A” section (usually 8 measures) is repeated once (that’s the second “A”) and then there’s a contrasting “B” section of equal length and then the first “A” section is played again. A 12 bar “Blues” also has a highly recognizable form; three sections of 4 measures (or “bars”) each – the first two being more closely related than the third. Each is a generalization and as such, there’s a great deal of variability when one gets down to specific pieces. But as an abstraction, each works.
In classical music, the variability is, if anything, greater and as Charles Rosen pointed out in The Classical Style, there’s enough variation in the repertoire that Sonata form less a “pattern” than a process or a way of writing. And it’s a process dictated by the melodic content rather than a set mold into which one pours that content.
Perhaps the best description I’ve heard is that it’s a dramatic form, dramatically established and dramatically resolved. Indeed Rosen points out that “dramatic action” is what set the classical style apart from the preceding Baroque. Music here is a drama in a way never heard before and thus it’s probably not surprising that both Mozart and Haydn were opera composers.
The dramatic “form” can be laid out (again accepting the validity of Rosen’s descriptions above) in three parts; Exposition, Development, and Recapitulation. The “Exposition” is where most, if not all, of the movements melodic content is introduced. As it is a dramatic music, that content is contrasting somehow. The contrasts are “played out” in the next section, the Development, and then the drama ends in the last section.
All that being said, Opus 55’s 1st movement development section is so long because the musical drama triggered by the melodic material Beethoven used made it necessary for it to be so.
Perhaps that’s his great innovation of the Sonata form process and thus the symphonies that follow.
On a less abstract level, the concert was a good one, though both Druckenbrod and Kanny had some issues with The Eroica Trio (they were the soloists in the second piece of the program). Andy thought they played with “little verve” on Friday night, while Mark Kanny thought there were some ensemble issues. He wrote:
Although I’ve heard cellist Sara Sant’Ambrogio in more consistent form, she certainly had the flair for this very tricky part.
The group’s new violinist Susie Park is a great addition, with sparkling musicianship, wonderful tone and keen articulation. However, the conductor and the soloists were not always in agreement about tempo.
Whatever ensemble issues there may have been, their encore Oblivion, by Astor Piazolla was simply wonderful. You can hear a recording of the trio from 2000 playing it here.
Otherwise, wonderful concert, wonderful pieces, wonderful playing. It’s always good to hear good Beethoven.