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Beethoven first noticed a 'ringing and buzzing' in his ears about the age of 26 or 27.  An annoyance at first, his concerns grew as the condition persisted and two years later, around 1799, he began consulting with doctors.  Though numerous treatments were prescribed, none seemed to help.

In the winter of 1801-02 Beethoven sought the council of a new physician, Doctor Johann Schmidt.  In the course of his treatment, Schmidt advised the composer to go easy on his hearing and the following April would find Beethoven resting in the village of Heiligenstadt, on the outskirts of Vienna.  The atmosphere of the little village was both restful and conducive to work and Beethoven's stay there would prove productive. Letters from this time as well as biographical accounts indicate life as usual.  Walks in the country, composing, negotiations with publishers and lessons, all in a quiet and leisurely setting.  Unknown to anyone at that time, was the anguish that was consuming Beethoven as the season wore on and his hearing had not improved.

In late September or early October, Beethoven felt compelled to draft a last will and testament, a document that has come to be known as the Heiligenstadt Testament. It is addressed to his brothers Carl and Johann, though Johanns name is strangely absent with a blank space in its stead. As we would expect of the document, Beethoven bequeaths his belongings to his siblings but not until he writes at length of his illness, pleading for understanding. He goes on to reveal that he has considered suicide but that his art has prevented him taking that course. The language of the Testament is fraught with pain and in reading it one can feel the despondency that possessed the writer.

Beethoven was never to reveal this document to anyone and had it in his possession when he died. By then it had been superceded by other wills and its value would turn out to be that of a snapshot in time.

What does a will have to do with the Eroica? Its revelation has helped to explain, psychologically, Beethoven's sudden and drastic stylistic change around 1803. Immediately following Heiligenstadt Beethoven's music suddenly becomes more daring. The learned rules of his teachers were cast aside as he struck out on a new path with the Eroica as the frontispiece of this change. Within weeks, perhaps days, of signing the will, Beethoven jotted down the first sketches of the Sinfonia Eroica. That his bold new style and the traumatic events of the fall of 1802 occur at precisely the same point in time is no mere coincidence. The Heiligenstadt Testament and the Eroica are inseparably linked and may in a sense be the same creation.

In October of 1802 Beethoven retired from Heiligenstadt and returned to Vienna. Shortly after his return, he was engaged as theater composer by theater owner Emanuel Schikaneder (librettist and producer of Mozart's Die Zauberflöte) with the expectation he would compose an opera. To that end, Beethoven and his brother Casper Carl took up residence in the theater in January of 1803.

When warm weather returned and Schikaneder had not yet delivered the libretto, Beethoven took leave of Vienna and made his way to Baden, as was his habit in spring. After a brief rest there he moved to his summer lodgings in a village called Döbling at Öberdobling No. 4.

Describing the setting, Thayer comments..

"...it had gardens, vineyards or green fields in both front and rear. True, it was half an hours walk further from Heiligenstadt ...but to compensate for this, it was so much nearer the city - was in the more immediate vicinity of that arm of the Danube called the "canal" - and almost under its window was the gorge of the Krottenbach, which separates Döbling from Heiligenstadt, and which, as it extends inland from the river, spreads to a fine vale, then very solitary and still very beautiful."  Life of Beethoven, Alexander Thayer.

Beethoven would devote the rest of that summer and fall to the creation of the Eroica and the little house in Döbling would become the birthplace of a revolutionary work of art.

Heiligenstadt Testament     Top of Page  

Consecration of the Emperor Napoleon I and Coronation of the Empress Josephine in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame
Jacques-Loius David


The Eroica will be forever connected with Napoleon Bonaparte.  These two entities, in the telling and re-telling of the Eroica story, have become inseparable and it is only recently that the extent and significance of this association has been scrutinized.   Our knowledge of the Bonaparte connection originates from Ferdinand Ries, friend and student of Beethoven.

In 1803 Beethoven composed his third symphony (now known as the Sinfonia Eroica) in Heiligenstadt, a village about one and a half hours from Vienna....In writing this symphony Beethoven had been thinking of Buonaparte, but Buonaparte while he was First Consul.  At that time Beethoven had the highest esteem for him and compared him to the greatest consuls of ancient Rome.  Not only I, but many of Beethoven¹s closer friends, saw this symphony on his table, beautifully copied in manuscript, with the word "Buonaparte" inscribed at the very top of the title-page and "Luigi van Beethoven" at the very bottom.  Whether or how the intervening gap was to be filled out I do not know.  I was the first to tell him the news that Buonaparte had declared himself Emperor, whereupon he broke into a rage and exclaimed, "So he is no more than a common mortal!  Now, he too will tread under foot all the rights of man, indulge only his ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men, become a tyrant!"  Beethoven went to the table, seized the top of the title-page, tore it in half and threw it on the floor.  The page was later re-copied and it was only now that the symphony received the title 'Sinfonia Eroica.'   From Biographische Notizen über Beethoven, F. Wegeler and F. Ries, 1838

This account has been a staple of Beethoven lore for more than a century.  Whether or not the events transpired precisely as Ries relates we shall never know.  What can be gleaned from this anecdote is that Beethoven did, at one time, intend to dedicate his 'Grand Sinfonie' to Napoleon.  That he tore up the title page upon hearing bad news and ever after hated Napoleon and all things French, is a bit simplistic.  Where did Beethoven come upon the notion of a Bonaparte symphony?

Ferdinand Ries, anonymous

In the past, one need not search for the impetus for it was provided by Anton Schindler, occasional friend and personal secretary of Beethoven in his later years.  Schindler, in his biography of Beethoven, states...

The Ambassador of the French Republic to the Austrian Court was at that time General Bernadotte, who later became King of Sweden.  His salon was frequented by distinguished persons of all ranks among whom was Beethoven, who had already expressed great admiration for the First Consul of the Republic.  The suggestion was made by the General that Beethoven should honor the greatest hero of the age in a musical composition.  The idea soon became a reality which the master, having battled with his political scruples, gave to the world under the title Sinfonia Eroica.


The first idea for the symphony is said to have gone out from General Bernadotte, the French Ambassador in Vienna, who esteemed Beethoven very highly. This I heard from several of Beethoven's friends.

Schindler goes on to say of the rending of the title page...

The fair copy of the score with the dedication to the First Consul of the French Republic, which consisted of the two words Napaleon Bonaparte, was ready to be given to General Bernadotte for transmission to Paris, when the news was received in Vienna that Napaleon had proclaimed himself Emperor of the French.  The news reached the composer through Prince Lichnowsky and Ferdinand Ries.  No sooner had he heard the news than he seized the score, tore off the title page and threw it on the floor.   From Beethoven As I Knew Him, A. Schindler, 1860

Schindler would seem to reasonably explain the conception of a Bonaparte symphony and tantalize us with its near delivery to the French Embassy except for one detail.  General Bernadotte was no where near Vienna in 1804 and had not been since being 'asked' to leave in 1798.  He had been an annoyance to the Viennese since his arrival and his office as Ambassador lasted a mere few months.  Since Schindler was mistaken about (or fabricated) the presence of Bernadotte in 1804 there is likewise, no reason to believe the General proposed a Bonaparte symphony before or during the six years he wasn't present.  Or, as Sir George Grove so succinctly put it, "A soldier like Bernadotte was not likely to know or care about music".  It should be noted that Schindler had not met Beethoven until 1814 so his accounts of events prior to that were second hand at best. (Note his comment, "This I heard from several of Beethoven's friends.")

Napoleon Bonaparte in his study, Jacques-Loius David

This does not bring us any closer to explaining why Beethoven would dedicate a symphony to Napoleon.  Interestingly though, a year before Beethoven began work on the Eroica, an incident occurred that invites more questions about a Napoleon dedication.  Franz Hoffmeister, a publisher, proposed to Beethoven that he write a sonata honoring Napoleon and the revolution.  Beethoven's response was emphatic, "You must leave me out, you won't get anything from me."  The reason for Beethoven's displeasure, on this occasion, concerned Bonaparte's negotiations with the Pope and serve to illustrate the composer's on going ambivalence.  None the less, this invites the question, could Beethoven vehemently reject the proposal of a Bonaparte sonata and a year later turn out a symphony in his honor?

The historical record does not provide any credible evidence that the stimulus for a Bonaparte symphony was by way of suggestion.  This leaves us conclude the notion was entirely his own.  While this may seem to be a reasonable assumption we should bear in mind that Beethoven did not feel an entirely unconditional admiration for the French leader and vacillated between devotion and dislike.

Maynard Solomon has arrived at more pragmatic explanation for the Napoleon dedication.  It concerns plans on Beethovens part to move to Paris.

Beethoven's projected move to Paris provides an apparently simple motive: the Bonaparte Symphony and the proposed dedication of the Violin Sonata, op.47 to Adam and Kreutzer may have been intended to smooth Beethoven's entry into the French capitol. And the cancellation of the tour coincided rather closely with the final removal of Bonaparte's name from the Third Symphony.  (M. Solomon, Beethoven, p.177)

Kinderman makes the same point.

Beethoven's attitude towards Bonaparte was ambivalent, but he contemplated a possible move to Paris around this time, and he might have had some entirely pragmatic reasons for dedicating the symphony to the French leader--reasons that vanished when he remained in Vienna..  (W. Kinderman, Beethoven, p.86)

The dedication of a Grand Sinfonie to Bonaparte would surely have brought favor and opened doors.  When the Paris trip was clearly not going to materialize, Beethoven may well have realized it would not be a good idea to stick around the Austro-Hungarian Empire, having dedicated a symphony to the newly proclaimed Emperor of France.  Particularly when relations with the French were deteriorating.

Franz Joseph Max, Prince Lobkowitz, anonymous

Additional evidence, supporting this practical explanation, comes to us again, from Ferdinand Ries who wrote to Simrock, the publisher, on October 22, 1803, that

He will sell the symphony to you for 100 Gulden. It is in his estimation the greatest work which he has written until now. Beethoven played it for me recently, and I believe that heaven and earth must have trembled at this performance. He wants very much to dedicate it to Bonaparte; if not, since Lobkowitz wants it for half a year and is willing to give 400 Gulden for it, he will title it Bonaparte.

Prince Lobkowitz wanted exclusive rights to the Symphony for six months and would have expected the dedication for such a generous payment.  Apparently still eager to honor Napoleon, Beethoven hit upon the idea of dedicating it to the Prince and entitling it to Bonaparte.  Perhaps he still held a glimmer of hope for Paris.  It was while he was considering this option that he received the news of Napoleon's coronation.  The 'Emperor' received neither title or dedication.  In the end, the dedication would go to Prince Lobkowitz and Beethoven would title the work Eroica.

This does not, by any means, resolve the Bonaparte question and tie it up in a neat little package.  The evidence that Napoleon's name was removed is undeniable.  What is not clear is why Napoleon was considered in the first place and, in the eleventh hour before its first performance, why was Beethoven apparently searching for an out?  As we consider this question, we should bare three things in mind.  One, Beethoven was always impetuous, taking bold actions at a whim and later reversing himself just as easily.  Two, Beethoven was known to have withdrawn an intended or promised dedication at the slightest provocation (example; the Kreutzer sonata was originally intended for George Bridgetower but withdrawn over a comment about a woman).  And three, less than four years prior to the switching of the dedication, the Austrian Army had been defeated by Napoleon and the peace afforded by the ensuing treaty was dwindling to the point of certain war.  It simply would not have been expedient for Beethoven to honor a potential enemy with a dedication.

Lobkowitz palace in Vienna, Vincenz Reim

  First Performances  

Prince Lobkowitz paid for six months use of the Eroica and by all accounts, he got his monies worth.  Ferdinand Ries states in Biographische Notizen über Beethoven, that "it was given in his palace several times".  During the rehearsals, leading to these performances, Beethoven found himself in a unique position.  He had a captive orchestra and plenty of time to fine tune the Eroica.

It was during these rehearsals that Beethoven was able make significant revisions and corrections, including a decision concerning the repeat in the first movement.  When the symphony was first completed, Beethoven thought the Allegro might prove too lengthy if the customary repeat was included.  He had it played through, with and without the repeat and concluded it should stay.  Additionally, a substantial number of corrections were made during the Lobkowitz rehearsals as the score that Beethoven was using (and remained in his possession throughout his life) stemmed from an inattentive copyist.  The majority of these corrections involved ties, slurs, accidentals, etc.  [ As a side note, the issue of errors in the Eroica is long from being settled. Bathia Churgin, an in essay entitled Exploring the Eroica: Aspects of the New Critical Edition, Oxford University, 1998, enumerates a multitude of errors still found in current editions of the Eroica score.  Since some of the errors are far from minor, a critical edition should prove to be exciting listening. ]

Ries who was present, at the first rehearsal, gives the following amusing account:

Beethoven has a wicked trick for the horn; a few bars before the theme comes in again complete, Beethoven lets the horn indicate the theme where the two violins still play the chord of the second.  For someone who is not familiar with the score this always gives the impression that the horn player has counted wrong and come in at the wrong place.  During the first rehearsal of this symphony, which went appallingly, the horn player, however, came in correctly.  I was standing next to Beethoven and, thinking it was wrong, I said, 'That damned horn player! Can't he count properly?  It sounds infamously wrong!'  I think I nearly had my ears boxed - Beethoven did not forgive me for a long time."   Biographische Notizen über Beethoven, F. Wegeler and F. Ries, 1838

Humorous though it may be, the passage referred to makes bold use of harmony and it did not sit well with listers of that time.  Well into the nineteenth century it was 'corrected', in performance and published scores.  Even Wagner found it disturbing and altered the original.   (See the Music Analysis section of this site for a discussion and examples of the passage.)

Of the Lobkowitz performances there is a surviving report in the form of a letter by Georg Griesinger, to Breitkopf and Härtel, 13 February, 1805.  In it we can see that Griesinger has not actually heard the symphony but is relaying news.

"...This much I can, however, assure you; that the symphony has been heard at Academies at Prince Lobkowitz's and at an active music-lover's named Wirth, with unusual applause.  That it is a work of genius, I hear from both admirers and detractors of Beethoven.  Some people say there is more in it than in Haydn and Mozart, that the Symphony-Poem has been brought to new heights!  Those who are against it find that the whole lacks rounding out; they disapprove of the piling up of colossal ideas."

A performance, of which little is known, occurred in January 1805 and is now referred to as the Würth performance.  Griesinger makes mention of it in the above letter to Breitkopf and Härtel.  The Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, for February 13, 1805, speaking of the Würth performance, described the Eroica as...

"a daring, wild, fantasia, of inordinate length and extreme difficulty of execution. There is no lack of striking and beautiful passages in which the force and talent of the author are obvious; but, on the other hand, the work seems often to lose itself in utter confusion. It begins with a powerfully scored Allegro in E flat, followed by a Funeral March in C minor, treated fugally towards the end. The Scherzo and Finale are both in E flat. The writer belongs to Beethoven's warmest admirers, but in the present work he finds very much that is odd and harsh, enormously increasing the difficulty of comprehending the music, and obscuring its unity almost entirely."

Theatre An Der Wien,  Jakob Alt

On April 7, 1805, the general public heard the Eroica for the first time at the Theatre An Der Wien.  It was billed as "a grand symphony in D-sharp [E-flat]."  As might be expected of a first hearing of such a bold new work, reaction during and after the concert was mixed.  The Eroica was longer than any symphony heard up to that time and having it at the end of a long program was too much for one concert goer to endure who yelled out, "I'll give another Kreutzer if it will just stop."

The Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung reviewed the performance three weeks later,

"At any rate this new work by Beethoven has great daring ideas, and, as can be expected from the genius of this composer, is very powerfully carried out.  But the symphony would gain immensely (it lasts a full hour) if Beethoven would decide to shorten it and introduce into the whole more light, clarity and unity....There is, for example, a funeral march in C-minor which is then developed fugally.  Now every fugal movement pleases inasmuch as it brings order out of apparent confusion.  But if, as now, its coherence escapes even the most attentive ear after repeated hearings, it must appear peculiar even to the unprejudiced listener.  Moreover there were very few people who liked the Symphony."  Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, 1 May, 1805.

A week earlier, the periodical Der Freimüthige, was only a little more objective in its reporting and had this to say,

"One party, Beethoven's most special friends, contend that this particular symphony is a masterpiece, that this is exactly the true style for music of the highest type and that if it does not please now it is because the public is not sufficiently cultivated in the arts to comprehend these higher spheres of beauty; but after a couple of thousand years its effect will not be lessened.  The other party absolutely denies any artistic merit to this work.  They claim it reveals the symptoms of an evidently unbridled attempt at distinction and peculiarity, but that neither beauty, true sublimity nor power have anywhere been achieved either by means of unusual modulations, by violent transitions or by the juxtaposition of the most heterogeneous elements....On that evening, the audience and H. v. Beethoven, who himself conducted, were not mutually pleased with one another.  For the audience the Symphony was too difficult, too long and B. himself too rude, for he did not deign to give even a nod to the applauding part of the audience.  Beethoven, on the other hand, did not find the applause sufficiently enthusiastic."  Der Freimüthige, 26 April, 1805.

After the flurry of performances in 1804-05, the Eroica would be heard in Vienna but three more times during Beethoven's life.  The fact that Beethoven did not do well in his own city may have had to do with his very presence.  As noted by the Der Freimüthige correspondent, Beethoven and his audience were antagonistic towards each other.  Performances elsewhere such as Leipzig, were much more successful.  Groves describes the reaction in Leipzig...

"when the Symphony was brought forward there at the famous Gewandhaus Concerts on January 29, 1807, under the conductorship of J. G. Schicht...there was an unusual assemblage of amateurs and musicians at the Concert; a deep interest and stillness prevailed during the performance; and the committee were besieged with requests for a repetition, which took place a week later, on the 5th February, and again on the 19th November of the same year--three performances in ten months."

Prometheus Bound,  Jacob Jordaens


One of the most perplexing issues of the Eroica-Napoleon connection has been: why did Beethoven utilize a funeral march followed by a joyous scherzo and finale?  Nineteenth century commentators were at a loss to explain the seeming contradiction of death and celebration in the context of an homage to Bonaparte.  Several scenarios were advanced though none were persuasive.  Even Wagner weighed in on the question committing a considerable amount of ink to paper.

Additionally, early writers noted thematic similarities between the Eroica and Beethoven's own ballet, Die Geschöpfe des Promethus (The Creatures of Prometheus) Op 43 as well as his Variations, Op 35 and 12 German Contradances WoO 14.  They were able to guide us passage by passage through the parallels to be found in the music but never touched upon the deeper kinship between the Eroica and Prometheus.  The distinguished Beethoven scholar William Kinderman, citing the work of Constantin Floros, has now proposed the possibility that the whole of the Eroica symphony is an allegory for the Promethus legend.  That is to say, the Prometheus legend as portrayed in Beethoven's ballet.

In the various Greek versions of the legend, Prometheus is punished by being chained to a rock where upon an eagle eats his liver every day only to have it regenerate each night.  After years of suffering Prometheus is finally freed.  In the version staged by Beethoven and the dance master Salvatore Vigano, Prometheus is put to death for his transgression and is later re-born.

Tracing the sequence of certain events in the ballet and comparing the resulting scenario to the progression of movements in the Eroica we arrive at a convincing fit.  Kinderman:

"Floros's work has shown that the links between the ballet and the symphony are more substantial than has usually been assumed. Floros traces various rhetorical and formal parallels between the opening Allegro con brio of the symphony and, in particular, the eighth piece of the Prometheus music, the 'Danza Eroica'. Still more important is the affinity of the two following pieces of the ballet, the 'Tragica scena' (no. 9) and 'Giuocosa scena' (no. 10, in which the dead Prometheus is restored to life), to the progression from the Marcia funebre to the scherzo in the symphony".  Beethoven, William Kinderman; Oxford University Press, 1997

On the creative timeline Prometheus, Op 35 and Eroica all flow from one to the next and the symbolic elements of Prometheus transfer to the Eroica convincingly. That the Eroica could be a symphonic expansion of the Prometheus ballet, with the main character symbolizing the tortured and misunderstood artist, is more than plausible.  The parallel - heroic, tragic, joyous - would seem more than coincidental and ultimately more satisfying than speculating why Beethoven killed Napoleon then resurrected him.

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

  Inspiration from Within   

Given the Eroica's title, hero-warrior interpretations are inescapable.  Napoleon was the first to carry that sword and now that the Bonaparte connection has been shown to be tenous, other heros have been proposed.  With due regard to the esteemed authors of those scenarios, they seem to be on a quest for a legend to fit the symphony.  Alfred Einstein commented, "Why are there a dozen or more programmatic interpretations for the Eroica -none of which is right or even convincing? "  (A. Einstein, Greatness in Music)

Are we too quick to attribute the heroism of the Eroica, in whole or in part, to anyone other than Beethoven?  An alternative explanation of the 'hero element' can be arrived at by considering Beethoven's own circumstances just prior to writing the Eroica.  The months leading to the creation of the Eroica were a time of crisis for Beethoven and there were two personal issues that occupied him at that time that could explain the heroic nature of the Sinfonia Eroica.

When Beethoven arrived in Vienna in 1796, he began a rapid rise to noteriety as a performer and later as a composer.  Roughly concurrent with his arrival in that city he started to experience trouble with his hearing, a condition that worsened with time.

Under the guidance of Haydn, Albrechtsberger, Förster, Salieri and others, he quickly mastered the classical style and his early works were well received.  Despite this success, he began to feel that he had absorbed everything his teachers had to offer.  The decision facing him was whether to devote his life to emulating the Viennese classicists or to seek a new avenue of expression.  To those close to him, he spoke of a 'new path'.  To many others, he didn't speak at all.  His hearing, by then, had deteriorated to the point where he was avoiding social contact.

In the autumn of 1802, while resting in Heiligenstadt, Beethoven drafted a tortured letter in the form of a will that has come to be known as the Heiligenstadt Testament.  In this document, he bequeaths his belongings to his brothers but writes mostly of the realization that his hearing was worsening and would likely leave him completely.  He reconciled himself to a dismal future and did so through an instrument intended to prepare for death.  Though he struggled for the words, his fears were laid to rest.

Soon after his return from Heiligenstadt, Beethoven approached his work with renewed energy.  His philosophy and style of composition underwent a transformation and his music from that point on possessed a new dynamic.  Within weeks of returning to Vienna, he began his first sketches for the Eroica.  Clearly, the Testament had been a means of excorizing his fears but the Eroica would became an empasioned codicil, expressed in a language that Beethoven spoke with eloquence.  It is easy to surmise how the yearning to strike out on a new path and the will to overcome his loss of hearing would merge into a single expression of resolve. Self determination and triumph over adversity may well be the program of the Eroica with Beethoven as hero.

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