A musicological study that delves deeply into one of Ludwig van Beethoven’s most famous symphonies.
At its 1805 premiere, Beethoven’s Third Symphony, Eroica, blew up Vienna’s music scene with its epic length, thunderous dissonances, and unhinged emotional drama. The anti-monarchical Beethoven originally dedicated it to the French general Napoleon Bonaparte, who was busy conquering Europe in the name of democracy. But when Napoleon crowned himself emperor, the composer denounced him as a tyrant and scratched out the dedication; he finally retitled it “heroic Symphony / composed to celebrate the memory of a great Man.” However, debut author Haley expands on his undergraduate thesis to argue that Napoleon actually played a minor role in Beethoven’s imagining of the Eroica. His argument focuses on the disputed provenance of the central melody of the symphony’s fourth movement. Mainstream Beethoven scholars hold that he originally wrote it for a suite of ballroom dances, reused it in the ballet Creatures of Prometheus, and eventually plugged it into the Third Symphony. Haley reverses steps one and two, contending that the melody was written originally for Prometheus—and thus carries heavier ideological weight. Proceeding from a study by Soviet musicologist Nathan Fishman, the author pores over Beethoven’s notebook sketches for the symphony, links the four pieces’ compositional histories together, and makes close comparative readings of their scores.
Haley discerns an important point while nailing down the Eroica melody’s origin. He points out that the tune is a cheerful, lilting thing, but one that meant more in its original Prometheus setting. The ballet is about the creation of the first man and woman by Prometheus, the Titan who stole fire from Olympus to give to humans, whom Zeus sentenced to be eternally gnawed by a vulture. Prometheus’ creatures, born clumsy, gain skill until a climactic dance—to the future Eroica theme—proves them to be as graceful as gods. The music thus celebrates a hero who helps humans ascend to divine transfiguration. In Haley’s probing telling, Beethoven saw himself as such a hero, gnawed by the unjust punishment of his encroaching deafness yet determined to elevate mankind with sublime music. The symphony’s theme of conflicted heroism, the author argues, was thus inspired by themes in Prometheus and Beethoven’s romantic self-conception; Napoleon was an afterthought. But despite its demotion of the emperor of the French, Haley’s treatise won’t do much to revise popular perceptions of the Eroica. Although the prose is reasonably lucid, its scholarly denseness will make it a bit of a slog for all except its target readership of academic musicologists; more than half of the volume consists of appendices, including endnotes, reviews, commentary on Prometheus and the Eroica in multiple languages, and haphazard biographical snippets of various figures. That said, it will deepen readers’ understanding of Beethoven’s personality and motivations—and his (perhaps justified) egotism in seeing himself to be the real hero of his age.
Musicologists and hardcore Beethoven mavens will be impressed at Haley’s meticulousness, but casual readers may get lost in the scholarly thickets.