Beethoven admired Napoleon - at first. When Napoleon had himself declared emperor, Beethoven realized his hero wasn't the pinnacle of democracy and freedom that he had been imagined. But by then he had already written a lengthy "Hero...
Beethoven admired Napoleon - at first. When Napoleon had himself declared emperor, Beethoven realized his hero wasn't the pinnacle of democracy and freedom that he had been imagined. But by then he had already written a lengthy "Heroic" symphony about him, and had even written a dedication to Napoleon on the title page.
Infuriated as only Beethoven could be, he grabbed his pen, scratched through his dedication with such force that he ripped a hole in the page, and wrote in its place "To the memory of a great man." That was in 1804, 209 years ago this month.
Napoleon got his, of course, eventually. And we got the "Eroica" Symphony, a pinnacle of music that still stands tall among symphonies and holds a place in the history of the symphony format. It takes 50 minutes to perform, longer when conductors ignore Beethoven's metronome markings and turn the funeral march into a largo. But it also has other notable characteristics.
Until the "Eroica" it was virtually unheard-of to introduce an extra theme late in a symphony's opening sonata-allegro. The "development section" was for developing the two themes you already introduced. But Beethoven puts in a third theme, which he revisits near the end, and makes it work, making the world safe for Dvorak a few generations later, since Dvorak was always thinking of additional tunes he just had to work in someplace.
The "Eroica" is also striking for Beethoven making a big symphony from small resources. His orchestra is not particularly large: double rather than triple woodwinds, a single kettledrum, and no trombones. The themes of the opening and closing movements are simple almost to the point of being silly, yet Beethoven still manages to build something great from them.
Mendelssohn's Third Symphony of 1842 is the "Scottish," a program work that uses Scottish folk tune rhythms but not, so far as we know, any actual thematic quotations. Another interesting feature is the "extra movement," the coda of the fourth movement using completely different thematic material in a different tempo from what has gone before.
In 1850, Robert Schumann completed his "Rhenish" Symphony, billed as his Third even though he finished it last of the four symphonies we know from his pen. I play excerpts from it a lot.
The first movement, which goes immediately into a theme in waltz time that sounds nothing like a waltz, is one of the most beautiful of any symphonic starts. The five-movement construction is interesting and few symphonies with "extra" movements so perfectly handle the challenge of making them all sound different. The fourth movement is one of the saddest pieces of music written for full orchestra, if played right, with an astonishingly baroque feel to it, a century and a year after Bach died, and the transition from that movement to the fifth movement finale has been described as being like leaving a dark cathedral to walk into a gloriously sunny day.
Brahms' Third Symphony, my favorite of his four, was finished in 1883. It uses the traditional four movements and can be performed in 35 minutes. It is an early example of a symphony using a fixed idea that appears in more than one movement - a rising F-A-F motto - and the finale is notable for ending quietly and peacefully.
By then Tchaikovsky had composed, in 1875, his Sym. No. 3, "Polish," the only five-movement symphony he wrote. Someone else conferred the nickname, because of a rhythm in the finale that resembled Polish folk music, but Tchaikovsky wrote "alla tedesca" in another movement, and "tedesca" means German.
In my public radio show Saturday I'll also sample Third Symphonies by Prokofiev, Gliere, Mahler, Bruckner, Dvorak, Vaughan Williams, Honegger, Saint-Saens and Malcolm Arnold.
"Howard's Day Off" airs live 5am-7am HST on KHPR Honolulu, KKUA Wailuku (Maui) and KANO Hilo (Big Island). Max Cacas of Washington D.C. posts these essays on the Howard's Day Off Listener Appreciation Society page on Fac