Beethoven’s “Eroica”: The Fire of Prometheus

Question: What makes a familiar piece of music stay fresh to the mind and ear?  

One Answer: Learning something new about it.

Josh plays violin in an orchestra made up of passionate musicians who, by day, are psychiatrists, pediatricians, teachers, students, hedge fund managers, software engineers, etc. ranging in age from 18 to 80.

He writes the Program Notes for their concerts to help audiences listen with heightened awareness and pleasure. We bring you here a classic performance by Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic.

A suggestion: Read the Program Notes first as you watch and listen. Then just listen.

Sometime during the summer of 1817 Beethoven happened to be dining with the poet Christoph Kuffner. At one point the conversation reportedly went as follows:

K: Tell me frankly, which is your favorite among your symphonies ? ( The Ninth had not yet been written.)

B:–[in great good humor] Eh! Eh! The “Eroica.”

K:  I should have guessed the C minor.

B: No, the “Eroica.”

Studying Beethoven’s creative process, I am awed by the extent to which the “Eroica” Symphony is fueled by an inspirational fire like no other.

A vital clue as to how this magnificent masterpiece came together can actually be found in its last movement.¬†The basic material heard there can also be found in the seventh of a delightful set of dance miniatures, the “Twelve Contradances,” from around 1801. It reappears as well, in more developed form, as the finale to Beethoven’s ballet score, “The Creatures of Prometheus,” Op. 43, from the same period. It can also heard, in much more highly evolved form, in the so-called “Eroica” variations for solo piano, his Op. 35 from 1802.

This speaks to his passionate engagement with the myth of Prometheus and its association in his mind with particular musical material. Going by copious circumstantial evidence, it would be no exaggeration to say that Beethoven thought of himself as a latter-day Prometheus, that great hero of Greek mythology who defied the gods by stealing fire from heaven to bring warmth, light, and enlightenment to mankind.

Turning to the political arena, it is clear that Beethoven initially saw¬†Napoleon Bonaparte as another Prometheus, one who would bring “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” to not only France but all mankind. However, by the late spring of 1804, after his revolutionary work was complete, the news came to him that Napoleon had had himself crowned Emperor, ending the dream of a new epoch of Freedom. In a rage, Beethoven tore up the title page with the name “Bonaparte”¬†in its dedication, renaming it “Sinfonia Eroica, composed to celebrate the Memory of a Great Man.” ¬†(I added the italics.)¬†Everything about¬†Beethoven’s “Eroica” symphony shattered¬†the musical status quo.

[Start the video now.] The first movement, after two whiplash chords on E-flat, outlines the notes of that chord in the cellos in the four following measures, only to throw us off balance in the fifth measure with a disruptive shift to C-sharp.

A mighty struggle is now joined in this opening symphonic movement, the likes of which had never been heard before. We have to wait for the climactic coda for a full realization of this opening idea. There,¬†two perfectly matching four-bar phrases–first heard in the French horn starting in measure 631 (16:53)–at last begin to resolve the struggle.

There ¬†are three more such statements–in violins, then in cellos, culminating ¬†in the triumphant trumpets. ¬†Beethoven’s process of reaching a resolution translates into a tortuous journey of bold key relationships, masterly motivic manipulation and counterpoint, repeated duple disruptions of what is supposed to be triple meter, dynamic contrasts, and dissonance of unprecedented intensity.

A telling dissonant moment comes at 9:26. Another can be heard at ¬†11:54 ¬†as the recapitulation is about to begin: an impatient French horn ¬†jumps ¬†the gun, coming in sounding the notes of the home key, while¬†hushed¬†violins play a dominant chord–a chord built on the fifth note of the key. ¬† (11:54)

The intensely expressive second movement, the funeral march, is riveting from the moment it starts, with the dark sound of the open G string (violins and violas) and the imitation of solemn drum strokes in the cellos and basses. Its grief-stricken outer sections frame a midsection where we briefly find consolation in the sunshine of C major, only to then turn dark and tragic again in a double fugue. This fugue is followed by a series of restatements in which the main theme assumes almost apocalyptic intensity.

Beethoven introduces a clock-ticking rhythm in his coda–a hint at human mortality–which in turn brings back the main theme, ¬†now heard as a series of sobs from the violins. The ensuing scherzo, in 3/4 time, is so fleet-footed that we¬†can feel only a single beat per measure. The Trio puts three ¬†French horns on show as they cavort heroically in E-flat.

A headlong, plunging line in the strings launches the finale; it is as though Prometheus himself has come down to earth to ignite our own fire. Beethoven proceeds to lay down a pizzicato bass line–really underpinning the earlier Prometheus melody. Two variations follow. In the third variation, the oboe introduces the Prometheus melody itself–in effect, a countermelody. What follow are eight variations of path-breaking compositional virtuosity, where Beethoven draws upon virtually every trick in his toolbox. The music ranges in scope from an earthy contradance variation to the most intricate fugal writing. A return of that headlong, hurtling line launches the Presto coda ¬†as we all surge ahead in glorious triumph. What a transcendent moment!

Program Notes for St. Thomas Orchestra (copyright J. Berrett, 2012)

**Now, listen again and discover what has changed for you. Tell us your experience by writing to us at

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One Response to Beethoven’s “Eroica”: The Fire of Prometheus

  1. Judy Krings says:

    What a way to rev up my day! I was directing it here at my computer! Well done, Lynne and Josh! Love the fire crackers at the end! Many thanks.

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