As a student, amateur, and then a professional, I must have performed the Eroica symphony at least 75 times and, if you include recording sessions, close to 100. So, clearly I’ve had great exposure and familiarity with the second movement of this great piece. I’ve played it so many different ways with many different conductors. Faster, slower, stricter, looser with great freedom, and rubato. No matter the treatment, I’ve always been moved by Beethoven’s communicating such powerful depth of expression in this Marcia Funebre. He marks it in the score Adagio Assai – very slow. It’s in C minor, a key in Beethoven’s hands that’s heavy with tragedy, power, and emotion. It is in a broad ABA form. In the first A section a dotted rhythm prevails. The strings play a drum like figure under the oboe’s playing of the tune giving the effect of a cortege. This opening section is also marked by a falling figure first heard in the third bar.* The key, the tempo, the falling figure, and the accompaniment all lend an incredible seriousness and sadness to the opening section.
After a cadence in C Minor, three rising notes in the cellos and bases bring us to the key of C major (the B section). The sun comes out and seemingly there is hope. The music is made more buoyant by the accompaniment in the strings of a triplet figure. The first section has been primarily in duple. But now we have these triplets. It’s wonderfully glorious music.
We then return to the beginning section but here Beethoven doesn’t nearly repeat the opening but develops it into something wildly personal and anguished. The ending becomes very fragmented and puzzling. I’ve always felt that this music delves deeply into Beethoven’s despair. Remember, this is shortly after Beethoven acknowledged to himself and others his deafness, his complete deafness.
Attached is Leonard Bernstein’s explanation and examination of the second movement. His thinking and discussion of it is brilliant so please enjoy that and listen more than once to the wonderful second movement of the Beethoven Eroica symphony. I know that over the years my exposure to this piece of music has changed me. The more I open myself and let it reach me, the more I get from it. That sounds very simplistic but it’s very true.
*The great composer Richard Strauss was so fascinated by this motive that he wrote a wonderful piece Metamorphosen for 23 strings. The descending motive appears from fragments of other melodies. I hope you’ll listen to it also.
Leonard Bernstein speaks on the 2nd movement (from about 13:15):