Portrait of Beethoven around 1804-05, the time of the Eroica.
Joseph Mähler

Why the Eroica?

Among history's innumerable examples of symphonic genius, the Eroica stands pre-eminent.  Though few would contest the above proposition the question arises, why the Eroica?  What sets it apart from the rest?  Neither size, complexity or a profusion of soaring melodies distinguish the Eroica.  So how is it that this one creation has come to be regarded as the ne plus ultra of symphonic endeavor.

That distinction arose when it interrupted the evolution of symphonic development and appeared suddenly, without precedent or prototype.  Forged in a fiery new style, the impact of this Grand Sinfonie was such that its influence would be heard for a generation to come.  Equally significant, the Eroica initiated the notion that a symphony could be used as a vehicle to convey beliefs and the ideas associated with the Eroica are well known.  Napoleon, heroism, death, apotheosis, revolution - the list goes on.  Imagine a public accustomed to the proprieties of Mozart and Haydn having those ideas thrust upon them.  They were not ready for a manifesto in the concert hall and therein lies another reason for its eminence.  It brought about change.

The change it fostered involves more than issues of harmony, counterpoint or the addition of a French horn.  Post Eroica appreciation of a symphony involves not only attention to compositional technique but now includes the added dimension of meaning and interpretation.  All the more remarkable since Beethoven, the high priest of absolute music, affected this change.

The Eroica is now one of the most written about and analyzed works in music history.  Scholars explore the historical and biographical dimensions of the work while musicologists deconstruct it piece by piece to see what makes it tick.  We are driven to probe this amazing work of art on as many levels as we can.  Yet, it is the Eroica's eloquence in the auditorium that pleases above all. Whether we discern this or that connection is irrelevant.  Once the mighty E-flat chords resound we are transported in a manner that only Beethoven can affect.  We will never know what lead him to put those exact notes to paper.  We can only be thankful that he did.

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