Beethoven's Eroica
Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
  • Strauss’s title came from the writings of Goethe, Germany’s greatest poet and author
  • His musical structure is a set of free variations within a large ternary form
  • The mood is elegiac: a lament for a world in ruins, and a vanished lifestyle
  • Listen for brief quotations from Wagner, Beethoven, and Strauss himself

    After the Allies landed on the beaches of Normandy in June 1944, the tide of the Second World War turned rapidly.  As the Allies advanced, German troops retreated.  Eventually they were squeezed by the Russian front from the east as well.  Allied air raids on Germany escalated, destroying her great cities one by one. In September 1944, Hitler's propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels had ordered the opera houses closed.  After both Vienna and Dresden were heavily bombed in 1945, the venerable Vienna Staatsoper and Dresden Court Opera were reduced to rubble.

    For Richard Strauss, who had turned 80 the week of the Normandy invasion, the demise of the legendary opera houses was a symbol of his entire life in ruins.  Dresden had been the venue for the premières of Salome, Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier, Arabella, and a half-dozen other Strauss operas; Vienna was the site for the second version of Ariadne auf Naxos and the first performance of Die Frau ohne Schatten, as well as dozens of triumphant Strauss productions.  The world he had known was no more.

    Attempting to reconnect with the Germany he had loved and to understand the devastation around him, Strauss undertook to read the complete works of Goethe.  He was struck by Goethe's use of the term Metamorphosen to describe his own mental processes, and its relationship to the musical sense of that German word, a set of continuous variations.  In late summer 1944, he came across a poem, "Niemand wird sich selber kennen" ("No one can know himself") that resonated with the composer's quest for self-knowledge.  Strauss worked on an Adagio for strings for three months, then set it aside.

    Early in 1945, the Swiss conductor and philanthropist Paul Sacher commissioned Strauss to write a work for the Collegium Musicum of Zürich.  Using musical material from the abandoned Adagio, Strauss presented Sacher with the completed score to Metamorphosen within weeks.  The result, richly textured, complex movement, is an elegy both for himself and for Germany.  Michael Kennedy has written:

    The connection with the Goethe poem suggests that Metamorphosen is not just the elegy for the destruction of German culture that has been supposed, but a deeply personal apologia for having had anything to do with the Nazi regime at any time. . . Metamorphosen is the music of the confessional.

    Somber and sober, Metamorphosen is an extended set of free variations that are continuously developed in a large A-B-A form.  Strauss introduces all his principal themes in succession early in the opening section, presenting them initially in a fairly straightforward fashion as melody with accompaniment.  Among the most distinctive motives are a descending figure with a so-called "Scotch snap" (a dotted rhythm with the short note first).  Other recurrent motives are triplets -- both elongated and more rapid -- and a yearning, rising figure that the cellos state in the opening measures.

    Gradually, Strauss begins to interweave these melodic building blocks, a process that launches the B section, or development.  Each of the 23 players has an independent part in Metamorphosen.  Strauss varies both the groupings within each string section and the density of his scoring.  As he mingles and layers his themes, the texture grows ever more complex, making it increasingly difficult to isolate the individual melodic components.

    Eventually Strauss becomes more introspective. Fleeting allusions to Rosenkavalier and Capriccio emerge in this score, as do dignified salutes to Wagner's Tristan and to Beethoven.  Eleven measures before the end occurs one of the most famous quotations in Strauss:  the double basses and celli state the opening theme of the Funeral March in Beethoven's Eroica Symphony, as an accompaniment to Strauss's own closing thoughts.  He maintained that the Beethoven excerpt was unintentional, that it just flowed out of his pen.  In the score, he marked that passage "IN MEMORIAM."  That valediction weighs heavily, bidding farewell to Beethoven, Wagner, German culture – and to the world Strauss had known.

    Metamorphosen is scored for 23 solo strings, broken down as 10 violins, 5 violas, 5 celli, and 3 basses.

    Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
    Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, "Eroica"
    • Concise motives are building blocks for the heroic first movement
    • Oboe is soloist in the somber Marcia funebre
    • Beethoven limits himself to one theme in the scherzo, but puts it through its paces
    • Listen for the horns’ section solo in the ‘hunting call’ trio
    • Beethoven used the famous finale theme for two other variations sets

    Heroism, surprise, drama, solemnity, humor: the Eroica has them all. What do you hear?

      When Beethoven began his Third Symphony, Napoleon Bonaparte was First Consul of France. Beethoven idealized Napoleon, perceiving him as the hero of revolutionary France, and planned to dedicate the symphony to the French leader.  The work's original subtitle was "Bonaparte." That changed when Napoleon declared himself Emperor in May 1804. Beethoven exploded in protest. According to his amanuensis Ferdinand Ries, he cried out:

        "Is he then, too, nothing more than an ordinary human being?  Now he, too, will trample on all the rights of man and indulge only his ambition.  He will exalt himself above all others, become a tyrant."

        He then tore the title page of his new symphony in pieces.  When he recopied it, he wrote "Sinfonia eroica."  It was published 1806 with the subtitle “To celebrate the memory of a great man.”

        "Eroica" means "heroic" in Italian, and the symphony is monumental in every sense. When Beethoven completed it in summer 1803, it was the longest symphony ever written.  The "Eroica" was pivotal in Beethoven's development not only as a symphonist but also as a composer.  With this one work, he divested many 18th-century conventions and vaulted forward into uncharted territory.

        Two fortissimo chords announce immediately that we are to sit up and take notice; this is not background music.  More than two centuries later, their effect is still electrifying, setting the tone for the entire work. The development section is exceedingly long -- the longest in Beethoven, in fact -- and, directly after its climax, introduces an entirely new theme for flute and oboe, in the remote key of E-minor. Beethoven recalls that theme in the recapitulation, where it becomes the subject of a coda so extensive that it nearly matches the development in length.

        The English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge referred to the famous slow movement march as "a funeral procession in deep purple."  It features one of the great oboe solos in the orchestral repertoire.  Beethoven also provided rich material for bassoon and flute.  In the quasi-military section in major mode, we can hear intimations of the Fifth Symphony, which would follow the "Eroica" by four years.  Timpani is a powerful presence in this slow movement, functioning both as bass and even occasionally as a melodic instrument, rather than mere punctuation.

        After a whirlwind scherzo that reduces three beats to one per measure (and features the entire horn section in its Trio), Beethoven ices his cake with variations.  The theme was familiar to Viennese audiences from Beethoven's ballet score, The Creatures of Prometheus (1800).  Nobility of spirit, capricious humor, funeral march, fugue, poignant tenderness:  all these and more find their way into Beethoven's cosmic finale, his ultimate tribute to the unnamed hero.

        The "Eroica" is scored for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, three horns, two trumpets, timpani and strings.

        © Laurie Shulman, 2020