Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, Eroica

Notes by TŌN flutist Leanna Ginsburg

An Incurable Condition
It was 1801 and Beethoven could no longer hide his hearing loss. He shared the news of his problem with his closest friends, and in the spring of 1802, he moved from Vienna to Heiligenstadt for a simpler life. While in Heiligenstadt he wrote a letter to his brothers to reveal his situation with hearing loss and in doing so explained why he is often angry and impatient. In his letter, which became known as Beethoven’s “Heiligenstadt Testament,” he wrote: “Just think, for six years now I have had an incurable condition, made worse by incompetent doctors, from year to year deceived with hopes of getting better, finally forced to face the prospect of a lasting infirmity.” Extremely depressed with his situation, Beethoven contemplated suicide, but writing music was what kept him alive.

The Memory of a Great Man
“It seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt was within me,” he wrote. While writing the Testament, Beethoven also began writing his Third Symphony. He did most of his writing on this symphony in 1803. He was a great fan of Napoleon and wrote the symphony with him in mind. Beethoven even originally titled the symphony after him with the name “Bonaparte.” Having admired the ideals of the French Revolution, “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity,” Beethoven was dismayed that Napoleon declared himself emperor in 1804, and angrily ripped the title page of his Third Symphony. He then retitled the work Eroica, with the idea of the piece celebrating the memory of a great man.

A New Style
Eroica premiered in August 1804, in a private home. The first public performance was in 1805. At this time audiences were not accustomed to this new style of writing. The piece was incredibly long and complex for its time, and many audiences complained. Luckily, the performing musicians liked the new challenges that the piece presented them with, and many interested orchestras began programming the piece. Today it is a standard piece of repertoire for every major orchestra that many musicians look forward to playing and audiences to hearing. I am very excited to perform this piece for the first time and I hope you enjoy the piece as much as I do!