Beethoven's Eroica Symphony

Historical Notes on Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 3, Op. 55

Eroica Symphony title page

Mscuthbert/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The Eroica Symphony was first performed privately in early August 1804. Two possible performances followed, including one at the Lobkowitz Palace on January 23, 1805 (Maynard Solomon). We know from discovered writings of Prince Joseph Franz Lobkowitz, one of Ludwig van Beethoven’s patrons, that the first public performance was on April 7, 1805, at the Theater-an-der-Wien in Vienna, Austria. It is clear that the performance was not as well accepted or understood as the composer would have liked. “Even Beethoven’s pupil Ferdinand Ries was misled by the "false" horn entry halfway through the first movement and was reprimanded for saying that the player had "come in wrongly," noted English pianist and musicologist Denis Matthew. American music critic and journalist Harold Schonberg said, “Musical Vienna was divided on the merits of the Eroica. Some called it Beethoven's masterpiece. Others said that the work merely illustrated a striving for originality that did not come off.”

Nevertheless, it was clear that Ludwig had consciously planned to compose a work of unequaled breadth and scope. Three years before he wrote the Eroica, Beethoven had declared he was discontent with the quality of his compositions thus far and “Henceforth [he] shall take a new path.”

Key and Structure of the Eroica Symphony

The work was composed in E flat major; the orchestration called for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, three horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings. Hector Berlioz discussed Beethoven’s use of the horn (measures 166-260 during the third movement) and the oboe (measures 348-372 during the fourth movement) in his "Treatise on Orchestration." The symphony itself is Beethoven’s third (op. 55) and consists of four movements:

  1. Allegro con brio
  2. Adagio assai
  3. Scherzo-Allegro vivac
  4. Finale-Allegro molto

The Eroica Symphony and Napoleon Bonaparte

Originally the work was to be titled the “Bonaparte Symphony” (New Groves), as a tribute to Napoleon Bonaparte, the French Consul who had begun to radically reform Europe after conducting sweeping military campaigns across the continent. In 1804, Napoleon crowned himself emperor, a move that angered Beethoven. As legend has it, the composer ripped through the title page and later renamed the symphony the Eroica because he refused to dedicate one of his pieces to the man he now considered a “tyrant.” Nevertheless, he still allowed the published manuscript to carry the inscription “composed to celebrate the memory of a great man,” despite dedicating the work to Lobkowitz. This has led historians and biographers to speculate on Beethoven’s feelings toward Napoleon ever since.

The Eroica Symphony and Pop Culture

The Eroica-Napoleon link is recognized even today. Peter Conrad discussed Alfred Hitchcock’s subconscious use of the symphony in his movie "Psycho:"

“In Hitchcock's films, the most innocuous object can rear up threateningly. What could possibly be sinister about the record of Beethoven's Eroica, which Vera Miles finds on a gramophone turntable during her investigation of the Bates house? At the age of 13, I had no idea--though I felt an unmistakable chill when the camera peered into the gaping box to read the label of the silent disc. Now I think I know the answer. The symphony summarizes one abiding undercurrent of Hitchcock's work. It is about Napoleon, a man who--like many of Hitchcock's psychopaths--set himself up as a god, and it includes a funeral march for the toppled idol. It first rejoices in the hero's freedom from moral inhibitions, then recoils in dismay. Truffaut, detecting unease beneath the joviality of 'The Trouble with Harry,' suggested that Hitchcock's films were afflicted by the mood Blaise Pascal analyzed [sic] — the sadness of a world deprived of God."

The Birth of the Heroic Style

The influence of Bonaparte, the French Revolution and the German enlightenment on Beethoven were considerable factors in explaining the development of the so-called “Heroic” style that came to dominate his middle period. Traits of the Heroic include driving rhythms (often, the works of the period could be identified as much by rhythm as melody/harmony), drastic dynamic changes and, in some cases, the use of martial instruments. The Heroic contains drama, death, rebirth, strife, and resistance. It can be summed up as “overcoming.” The Eroica is one of the major milestones in the development of this trademark Beethoven style. It is here that we first see the breadth, depth, orchestration, and spirit that mark a breaking away from the pretty, melodically pleasing melodies of earlier periods.

The Influence of Haydn and Mozart on Beethoven's Eroica Symphony

Solomon discusses the innovative features of the Eroica Symphony and does concede that some of these traits were “anticipated” by the late music of Josef Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Solomon said that these innovations include:

“The use of a new theme in the development section of the first movement, the employment of the winds for expressive rather than coloristic purposes, the introduction of a set of variations in the Finale and of a ‘Marcia funebre’ in the Adagio assai, and the use of three French horns for the first time in symphonic orchestration. More fundamentally, Beethoven style is now informed with a rhetorical fluidity and structural organicism that gives the symphony its sense of unfolding continuity and wholeness within a constant interplay of moods.”

The Theme of Death in the Eroica Symphony

Solomon also tells us that another unique characteristic of the Eroica Symphony and the subsequent works is the “incorporation into musical form” the idea of “death, destructiveness, anxiety and aggression as terrors to be transcended within the work of art itself.” This idea of transcending, or overcoming, as mentioned before, is central to the Heroic style. Joseph Kerman, Alan Tyson, Scott G. Burnham, and Douglas Johnson paraphrased it nicely when they wrote that the manipulation of sonata form in a more “comprehensive” and “less formalistic” way was the most innovative feature of the Eroica Symphony.

Innovative Features of the Symphony

The combined innovations eventually caused people to label the Eroica Symphony a masterpiece. Heinrich Schenker, the man who laid the groundwork for future structural analyses by musicologists, students, professors, professionals, and amateurs, held up the Eroica as an example of just such a piece in his writings before his death in the 1930s. In an article in The New York Times, Edward Rothstein examines Schenker’s assertions about the concept of a masterpiece and takes a specific look at the Eroica. Rothstein believes that the work can be labeled a masterpiece, but not for the harmonic or structural reasons Schenker sets forth. Instead, its value lies in the potential interpretation that can arise out of that harmonic language and stresses that this is entirely objective and subject to culture (“complex cultural meanings grow out of abstract form,” as he puts it).

Capstone on the Eroica Symphony

Regardless of one’s personal feelings about Beethoven’s third symphony, the fact that it is still discussed in one of the modern world’s largest newspapers is a testament to its power and impact on music more than 200 years after it was composed. The length, breadth of ideas, scope, orchestration, and use of instruments, the musical embodiment of death, the idea of overcoming, and the political and historical significance of the work as a representation of the enlightenment period and hence, French revolution, are respected and recognized throughout the world.


Written Sources:

  • Berlioz, Hector. Berlioz’s Orchestration Treatise – A Translation and Commentary. Edited/Translated by Hugh MacDonald. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  • Conrad, Peter. The Hitchcock Murders. New York: Faber & Faber, 2001.
  • Joseph Kerman, Alan Tyson, Scott G. Burnham, Douglas Johnson: ‘The Symphonic Ideal’, The New Grove Dictionary of Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 20 April 2003).
  • Matthews, Denis. “Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 55 (Eroica).” Notes to Beethoven, The Complete Symphonies, Volume I. CD. Musical Heritage Society, ID#532409H, 1994.
  • Rothstein, Edward, “Dissecting a ‘Masterpiece’ to Find Out How it Ticks,” The New York Times, Tuesday, 30 December 2000, Arts section.
  • Schonberg, Harold. The Lives of the Great Composers, Third Edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Ltd., 1997.
  • Solomon, Maynard. Beethoven, Second Revised Edition. New York: Schirmer, 1998.

Sound Recordings:

  • Beethoven, Ludwig Van. Beethoven, The Complete Symphonies, Volume I. Walter Weller, Conductor. City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. CD. Musical Heritage Society, ID#532409H, 1994.


  • Beethoven, Ludwig Van. Symphonies Nos. 1,2,3, and 4 in Full Score. New York: Dover, 1989.