Beethoven's Eroica

The First Great Romantic Symphony


By James Hamilton-Paterson

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An ode to Beethoven’s revolutionary masterpiece, his Third Symphony

In 1805, the world of music was startled by an avant-garde and explosive new work. Intellectually and emotionally, Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the “Eroica,” rudely broke the mold of the Viennese Classical symphony and revealed a powerful new expressiveness, both personal and societal. Even the whiff of actual political revolution was woven into the work-it was originally inscribed to Napoleon Bonaparte, a dangerous hero for a composer dependent on conservative royal patronage. With the first two stunning chords of the “Eroica,” classical music was transformed.

In Beethoven’s Eroica, James Hamilton-Paterson reconstructs this great moment in Western culture, the shock of the music and the symphony’s long afterlife.


A miniature of Beethoven in 1803 done by the Danish artist Christian Horneman. It is probably the most accurate of all the earlier portraits and Beethoven himself valued it highly enough to give it to his old friend from his Bonn days, Stephan von Breuning.




For all the fame of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the ‘Eroica’, each new generation of concertgoers and music-lovers can probably benefit from being reminded of quite what a ground-breaking work it was when first performed in 1805. At that time its immediate claim to notoriety was that it appeared to have rudely broken the mould of the Viennese Classical symphony at a stroke, and in some ways it had. However, it was not merely a musical form that it changed for good. The ‘Eroica’ also revealed a new and powerful expressiveness of both a personal and a societal kind. Private importuning with appeals to the emotions was to become the staple of the Romantics with whom Beethoven overlapped. But the more public kind of button-holing achieved by the ‘Eroica’ and its successors (particularly the Fifth and Ninth Symphonies) seemed to carry an earnest message that was easy to associate with numinous—not to say grandiose—concepts such as Will and Triumph and even the Brotherhood of Man. This was something quite new.

Beethoven himself made explicit the connection between the ‘Eroica’ and Napoleon Bonaparte, and the symphony does indeed have revolutionary overtones of various kinds. Yet today this seems less important than the effect it has had in the past two centuries on the whole course of Western music. ‘Just as France has its Revolution, so Germany has its Beethoven symphonies’: thus Robert Schumann declared in 1839. To Beethoven’s symphonies we can directly attribute the modern orchestra and its conductor, the modern concert hall and the modern concert programme, of which they are still a core element (one that is much resented in some quarters). How this came about is worth a closer look.

First, though, it might be useful to put Beethoven’s music and the style he inherited into historical context. No matter how original a musician he was, he still faced the same basic problem that any composer of abstract music faced and still faces: how is he or she to keep it going? This is obviously less difficult for music that is ‘narrative’ in the sense of setting a text, accompanying a film, or representing in sound scenes such as battles or pastoral landscapes. But in the absence of such external ways of driving music forward it all becomes more problematical. For instance, it is well and good to start with a great tune, but there is a limit to how often it can just be repeated. It has to go somewhere. The question remains: where next, and why there? One solution discovered centuries ago was to take the tune and write variations on it, as Beethoven did in the last movement of the ‘Eroica’.

The first Versailles version [1802] of Jacques Louis David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps depicts a much stylised First Consul leading his troops through the Great St. Bernard Pass in the spring of 1800. In point of fact the weather at the time was unusually clement but David’s invention of a following gale and scudding dark clouds added the necessary touch of Romantic heroism. Compare this with the account of a clap of thunder at the instant of Beethoven’s death in 1827 as reported by his friend Anselm Hüttenbrenner.



As the name suggests, this involves taking a tune and decorating or altering it in different ways while still keeping it recognizable. In earlier times sets of keyboard variations (like some of Handel’s) could be fairly monotonous and conventional. J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations were probably the first set to show what could be achieved with the form. In the latter half of the eighteenth century and with certain exceptions (for example in a number of symphonic and instrumental works by Haydn and Mozart), sets of variations often tended towards salon triviality. After initially writing variations mainly for his own use to show off his skill as a pianist, Beethoven increasingly used the form to express some of his most personal music. In his later use of variations, the tune he started with often became harder and harder to recognize as he imaginatively exploited its remoter possibilities.

Apart from variations, what else might drive a piece of music onwards? In the Medieval period when most European music was either ecclesiastical or folksong the problem of the form music might take was presumably less pressing because either words or dancing provided the extra-musical impetus. However, composers who wanted more sophistication to their music than was afforded by the beautiful but wandering and somewhat shapeless unison of Gregorian chant were well aware of the problem of form. Above all, they wanted some interesting harmony. With the late fifteenth-century masses and motets of composers such as Ockeghem, Josquin Desprez and others of the Franco-Flemish school an ingenious style evolved, leading to the great works of Palestrina. This was contrapuntal music of astonishing complexity, often taking a popular tune as its foundation and elaborating it by means of intricate canons and inversions and other devices.


Instead of a tune being harmonized vertically, with the four ‘voices’ (soprano, alto, tenor and bass) forming simple chords beneath it as in ‘God Save the Queen’ or ‘Kumbaya’, counterpoint has the voices running horizontally ‘against’ (counter) each other. Usually each voice has its own tune, and it is up to the composer’s skill to make these individual tunes integrate in a harmonically pleasing way. At any one moment, taken vertically, the voices might not harmonize at all; but the ear expects them to come together shortly and resolve any discords, and it can be immensely pleasing when they do, like any other kind of deferred satisfaction. One of the best-known early examples of this is Thomas Tallis’s magnificent motet Spem in alium, written in about 1570: a contrapuntal tour de force with forty independent voices.

A special form of counterpoint is canon. ‘Frère Jacques’ or ‘London’s Burning’ are well-known examples. Both are tunes that can be sung ‘vertically’ by all four voices at once. On the other hand the voices can also come in independently, contrapuntally, one after the other in any order, with a fixed delay between entries, and still make a harmonious sound, going on and on as long as anyone can bear it because there is no longer any obvious place to stop. It was not for nothing that such canons used to be known as ‘rounds’ in English. The two examples mentioned above are not very sophisticated. Once again Thomas Tallis supplies a well-known example of something a good deal more beautiful in ‘Tallis’s Canon’, which is usually sung to the Church of England evening hymn ‘Glory to Thee my God this night’. Music students were often set the task of composing canons, since it is excellent practice for hearing different voices independently. Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven all wrote dozens, often to highly dubious or even downright obscene words. (Mozart especially. His canon ‘Lick my arse’ was eventually published by the German firm Breitkopf as ‘Let us be merry’.)

The elaborate use of counterpoint became the basis of the Baroque style that was further developed throughout Europe and essentially lasted until the death of J. S. Bach in 1750. Probably its best-known form is that of the fugue. There are strict fugues and much looser ones, and they can in theory be for any number of independent voices but are mostly written for between two and five. One voice starts out all alone with a basic tune (often only a few notes) known as the subject. When that is finished a second voice comes in with the same subject while the first voice has a counter-subject that goes well with it. Any other voices then join in one by one along the same lines. Together they try to exhaust its musical potential, often by temporarily casting a subject that is in a major key into a minor one and vice versa. (An example of a tune in a major or ‘cheerful’ key is ‘Guide me, oh thou great redeemer’—the ‘Bread of Heaven’ tune beloved of Welsh rugby fans. In Western music minor keys are generally supposed to sound sadder than major ones. The majority of popular music is in a major key but notable exceptions are the Beatles’ ‘Eleanor Rigby’ (E minor), Aerosmith’s ‘Dream On’ (F minor) and Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’ (A minor).

Fugues vary a good deal according to when and where they were written, as well as whether they are instrumental or choral. A good example of a well-known choral fugue is ‘He trusted in God that he would deliver him’ in Handel’s Messiah, where the voices enter in order from bass to soprano. Choral fugues were often more relaxed than instrumental fugues because they were typically composed to create a resounding climax in a cathedral. Instrumental fugues, especially for keyboard, tended to be stricter and more cerebral. Arguably the ne plus ultra of this was Bach’s The Art of Fugue, his last, unfinished major work, which treats a single subject of eleven notes in fifteen separate fugues plus four canons during which the subject is inverted, played backwards, inverted and played backwards, expanded and contracted and generally worked over in different rhythms in an astonishing display of contrapuntal mastery.

Despite the Baroque style steadily going out of fashion in the early decades of the eighteenth century, fugues or the fugal style persisted, especially in the conservative realm of Church music. Also, writing fugues was an essential part of every musician’s training (and still is in many university music courses) as the tried-and-tested way of achieving discipline and competence in the independent handling of voices and instruments. As we shall see, composers such as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven all had reasons for using the fugal style in their secular music, as have many composers since. Often they would get an element of seriousness by fugato (i.e. ‘fugued’) passages that sounded learned but stopped well short of being complete, worked-out fugues. There are happy instances of this in both the first and last movements of the ‘Eroica’.


By 1750 popular taste had long since wearied of this ‘learned’ style and wanted something altogether lighter and more tuneful—a taste that had grown from the early eighteenth century as the music of Vivaldi, Pergolesi and other Italians welled upwards into northern climes like cheerful spring sap. Even Carl Philipp Emanuel, Bach’s celebrated eldest son and chief exponent of the emotional style known as Empfindsamkeit or ‘sentimentality’, would refer to his father privately but fondly as ‘The Old Wig’. A galant style evolved, full of endless minuets and dance tunes of the kind that often overlapped with what in German-speaking countries was sometimes known as Tafelmusik. This was music a small ensemble of instruments could play at balls and banquets: a sort of eighteenth-century muzak for easy listening or else as background music (much like the meaningless ‘beat’ track laid behind many of today’s radio announcements such as weather forecasts). Galant music was often precious and unmemorable; its short-winded tunes often ornamented with a lot of empty twiddles. It was of no help to serious composers looking for a way to give their music impetus. In operas and oratorios words still carried their own onward momentum, of course; but in the absence of being able to rely on unfashionable contrapuntal devices composers needed to find another motivating force able to drive a piece of ‘serious’ abstract music forward in a way that sounded purposeful and also made musical sense. This problem was solved by the gradual coalescence of various elements into what became established as ‘sonata form’.

Sonata form was never a structure as rigid as, say, that of a Shakespearean sonnet or most fugues, but it did normally adhere to a pattern that broadly went as follows. The opening tune would be followed by a move out of the home key, or tonic, into the dominant. (The dominant is the fifth note above the tonic and in traditional harmony is thought of as being the one that most urgently requires ‘resolution’ back to the tonic. On the piano, if the tonic is C the dominant is G. Imagine you are singing ‘Cockles and Mussels’: ‘In Dublin’s fair city/Where girls are so pretty/I first set my eyes on sweet Molly Malone.’ On the last syllable of ‘Malone’ you are in the dominant. It makes you want to return to the tonic with ‘As she wheeled her wheelbarrow…’ and stay there for the rest of the verse).

A change of key was already a recognized way not just of avoiding monotony but of pushing the music forward. It was a tried and trusted method and still remains so. At its most blatantly feeble the device was common in pop music of the 1960s, typically after a couple of verses when with a sort of gear-change the entire tune would be shifted up a semitone (sometimes more than once), usually with no attempt to ‘resolve’ the song back into the key in which it had begun.

In sonata form, once the dominant key was reached an entirely new tune would be introduced, often with subsidiary motifs or tunelets. That section typically closed in the same dominant key with a double bar-line that by a convention inherited from the Baroque ‘da capo’ aria meant the players went back and repeated the section from the beginning. When this repeat was done there followed a development section where the various tunes were played around with, often involving excursions through different keys and with varied devices, before the music was gradually (and often ingeniously) brought back to the ‘home’ tonic key where the main tunes were recapitulated either in their original form or else somewhat altered as though bruised or enhanced by their passage through the development. Sometimes a little coda would be tagged on at the end to sum things up and bring the movement to a close.

In this way the whole progress of the music in sonata form was really predicated on getting back to the right key. In abbreviated schematic form: the ‘home’ key was established at the outset, lost, then considerably dishevelled before satisfaction came from regaining it. It was something like a musical version of farce, which starts with a well-ordered world that is swiftly turned upside-down by misunderstandings and seemingly logical absurdities before order is at last restored, to the audience’s relief.


Although ‘classical’ as an adjective is still sometimes used today to distinguish ‘serious’ or ‘art’ music from more ‘popular’ genres, Classical style (sometimes subdivided as Viennese Classical style) has generally come to mean the sort of music written largely in the second half of the eighteenth century. This is fuzzy at its early end with the overlap of Baroque musicians such as Bach and Handel (who died in 1750 and 1759 respectively) and likewise at the later end as composers such as Beethoven and Schubert overlapped with Romantic musicians including Chopin and Schumann (both born in 1810). Since for most of this time Vienna was the focal city of European music, if only for the sheer number of first-rate musicians who either worked in the city or came directly under its influence, the concept of the Viennese Classics has become shorthand for the predominant musical style of the period encompassed by Haydn (1732–1809), Mozart (1756–1791) and Beethoven (1770–1827).

Sonata form was the lifeblood of the Classical style. It was wonderfully adaptable. It lent itself to considerable compression for short pieces but equally to more leisurely treatment for grander works. With an infinite number of minor deviations at the whim of the composer, sonata form constituted the predominant basic structure of Classical music (especially as exemplified by keyboard sonatas) from roughly 1740 to 1820. At its most humdrum it became formulaic, but good composers discovered it had immense flexibility and it became the norm for nearly all first movements as well as for much else across a wide range of music, from little flute sonatas to string quartets to symphonies. Despite the enormous strain Beethoven was to place it under in the ‘Eroica’ and later works, it is still easy to detect the form’s influence well into the Romantic period of Schumann and Chopin, even right through to Brahms—in other words practically until the end of the nineteenth century. At that point conventional harmony, already painfully stretched by composers such as Richard Strauss, was finally destroyed by the twelve-tone music of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. Once the importance of key had been abolished, sonata form lost its mainspring. But in the years of its supremacy its success was a tribute to its efficacy in giving forward momentum to a piece of otherwise abstract music.



It used to be customary to present Beethoven’s family background and boyhood almost as a contrast to Mozart’s, as though to show how a heroic genius could dispense with the advantages of being a child prodigy painstakingly groomed by a father who was both an accomplished professional musician and extremely ambitious for his son. In fact Beethoven’s father, Johann, was also a professional musician (although much less accomplished than Leopold Mozart) and ambitious enough for his son occasionally to shave a year or two off the boy’s age just as Leopold did with Wolfgang. The market for child musical celebs was very lively in the latter half of the eighteenth century.

Young Beethoven was certainly not a child prodigy to the same degree as Mozart or Mendelssohn, but it was obvious early on that he had quite exceptional musical talent. Music did after all run in the family. His grandfather Ludwig (1712–1773), who died when Beethoven was not quite three, came from what today is Belgium and was a trained singer who accepted a post in the Elector of Cologne’s chapel at his court in Bonn. That he must also have been a thorough musician as well as having a notable voice is proved by his subsequent appointment there as Kapellmeister in 1761 with responsibility to supervise all the court’s music. Such a post normally went to a composer, which the elder Ludwig never was.

Ludwig’s son Johann (1740–1792) also joined the Elector’s chapel as a singer, first as a boy and then staying on as a tenor. Johann had enough ability on both the violin and the harpsichord to give basic lessons to eke out his stipend but his musical talents were much more modest than his father’s. He married in 1767, and his second surviving son, Ludwig, was born in December 1770. Two younger brothers also survived, Carl and Johann, both of whom were to figure prominently in Beethoven’s later life.

Having spotted Ludwig’s early talent Beethoven’s father did his best to foster it by giving him basic keyboard and violin lessons. The boy was then sent to various teachers in Bonn and gave his first concert when he was seven, playing ‘various concertos and trios’, which surely argues rapid progress. But under his father’s bullying the boy Beethoven was soon as overworked as the boy Mozart had been some fifteen years earlier, but with none of that little showman’s satin suits, miniature court dress and periwigs. On the contrary, as a child of what the current British euphemism would call a ‘troubled family’ young Ludwig bore clear signs of neglect, undernourishment and, on occasion, welts and bruises from his father’s beatings. His younger brothers, showing no signs of musical precocity, probably escaped the worst consequences of their father’s ambitiousness. Outside the house Johann was convivial and not unpopular but occasionally showed the effects of heavy drinking, his voice and court attendance already beginning to suffer.

Maria, the boys’ mother, was a kindly soul, although she could flare up suddenly with formidable outbursts of temper, as could all the Beethovens. Somehow she dealt with her difficult husband, but trying to hold the family together was taxing and at school her children were noted for being generally unkempt and grubby. Ludwig’s formal education never progressed even as far as Gymnasium level (secondary school, in British terms) but stopped at Bonn’s Tirocinium, or primary school, from which he was removed in 1781 in order to concentrate on music. He was not quite eleven. Years later one of his fellow pupils at the Tirocinium remembered the boy they called either ‘Luis’ or ‘der Spagnol’, the Spaniard, because of his dark complexion and haughtiness:


  • "Hamilton-Paterson focuses on the transition between the Classical and Romantic periods.... It's easy to listen to Beethoven's Third Symphony today as a fairly traditionally orchestral work, yet it was avant-garde upon its 1805 debut.... A fantastic read."—PopMatters
  • "Hamilton-Paterson delves into the cultural and historical impact of Beethoven's groundbreaking third symphony.... A valuable guide to one of the most remarkable works of a musical giant whose undeniable genius continues to resonate centuries after his death."—Kirkus
  • "Hamilton-Paterson explores the history and background of one of the most enduring works of the classical repertoire.... Casual concertgoers and serious music aficionados alike will find much to savor in this elegant and insightful book."—Booklist

On Sale
Dec 5, 2017
Page Count
192 pages
Basic Books

James Hamilton-Paterson

About the Author

James Hamilton-Paterson is one of Britain’s most distinguished-and reclusive-writers. A travel writer, memoirist, poet, and award-winning novelist, Hamilton-Paterson is also an accomplished musician. His novel Gerontius won a Whitbread Prize and his many books include the bestselling Empire of the Clouds, Marked for Death and Music: Stories. He now lives in Austria.

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