Week 12 – Beethoven’s Blog

Posted on August, 12th 2021

The symphony of Beethoven No.3 in E flat major Op. 55 is one of the most monumental and consequential pieces in the symphonic literature. It was also an incredibly important piece to Beethoven. You can read elsewhere how captured he was by the notion of Napoleon, a champion of the common people standing against the nobility. You will also read how frustrated and infuriated Beethoven became by Napoleon’s appointing himself Emperor. Therefore, Beethoven withdrew the dedication to him and instead named it simply the Eroica, the Hero. This important piece has fascinated musicians since it was written. First, it’s extraordinary length. The first movement alone is longer than many other entire four movement classical period symphonies by say Haydn or Mozart. It calls for larger forces, e.g. three French horns instead of two. Its complexity, difficulty to perform, the gamut of emotions that it runs make it such a challenge. No wonder then then it has fascinated conductors from the very best to the very worst. There are so many things to consider when confronting this piece. How good is the orchestra before you? How much rehearsal time do you have? Has the orchestra become familiar with it in the past? What are the acoustics? What are your sensitivities to the emotional content of the piece?

I am attaching a file below that shows you the differences in approach of some of the world’s greatest conductors through the 20th century. It only shows the first two notes of the symphony that frame the first movement. Those are the two mighty E flat major chords played at the beginning. You will hear radically different tempos, resonances, and pitches. It is almost comical the differences that you’ll hear. First let’s consider tempo, how fast the piece will be played. The tempo depends on so many different things, for instance what speed best conveys the emotional content of the music. Too fast and it might just sound flighty and trivial. Too slow and it might just sound ponderous. But say the orchestra isn’t that accomplished and it can’t handle the very fast technical passages. Then you might have to adjust your tempo down a little bit. But there’s more. Say you are performing this in an acoustical environment that is very very resonant such as Boston’s Symphony Hall or Vienna’s Musikvereinhalle. If you play too fast it becomes garbled and almost nonsensical sounding. Therefore, you must adjust your tempo downward to allow space for the music to be heard. Conversely if the acoustic is very dry as was Chicago’s Orchestra Hall’s before its most recent renovation you must speed up the tempo to fill in the holes as it were.

In the baroque period the local cathedral’s organ determined the pitch of music in that city. So if the cathedral’s organ was pitched to A=410 you had a very low pitch. Some cities might have one as high as A=460 or very high pitch that’s at least a half step higher than A=410. That variation from town to town was crazy and a source of great frustration for traveling musicians. Well, in modern recorded history it wasn’t quite that bad but you can hear in the attached example that the pitch from city to city was still quite different, nothing like a half step but very very significant. For instance, the Vienna Philharmonic has always been known for having a very high A about A=444+ whereas other cities in Europe and even America were much lower. Most at about A=440. The Chicago Symphony’s standard was A=440 but it always played at A=442.

I hope you enjoy considering this as you listen to the first two bars of Beethoven’s mighty Eroica Symphony as played by many great orchestras under many great conductors. It takes about two minutes to listen to the whole thing. Feel free to laugh, I always do when I hear this.