Beethoven Symphony No. 3

About this recording

Dudamel and Beethoven

Gustavo Dudamel has always had a special relationship with the music of Beethoven, as have many Venezuelan musicians. In 2006, Dudamel and what was then the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela recorded the Fifth and Seventh Symphonies for DGG. It was a remarkable disc. “Since 2006,” Dudamel noted “we’ve taken out the word ‘youth’ from our name but the young soul remains. It’s the same orchestra, you can still see very young people, but it’s a step in a new direction. Our commitment to the core repertoire, and also to the great genius of Beethoven, remains, as well.”

Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the “Eroica”, which Dudamel and his orchestra have been touring of late, was completed in 1803. The previous autumn the 31-year-old Beethoven had drawn up his so-called Heiligenstadt Testament, the confessional statement in which he confronted the trauma of his growing deafness, contemplated suicide, and stoically rejected it. It was against this background that he began work on the “Eroica”, a symphony whose scale, emotional power and narrative reach transformed the medium.

The symphony’s informing idea can be traced back to 1801 and the music Beethoven wrote for the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus. The subject was a lofty one. Prometheus, the heroic benefactor of mankind, drives “ignorance from the people of his age” and gives them “manners, customs, and morals”. In stealing fire from the gods, he acquires that divine spark which mankind itself can harness only through suffering and struggle. This Promethean ideal fed into Beet­hoven’s own determination to outface suffering and despair. To which he added what at the time was his admiration for the heroic deeds of Napoleon Bonaparte. (An admiration that turned to ashes when Napoleon declared himself Emperor in May 1804.)

It is clear when we hear the opening notes of the “Eroica” that we are dealing with music on a titanic scale. If we examine Beethoven’s sketchbooks for the work, we see the sweep of his imaginative vision; how, at a quite early stage in the planning, the melody’s dissonant C sharp in bar 7 is already linked to the D flat [= C sharp] in a visionary bridge passage which will somehow usher in the movement’s recapitulation. At the time of those first sketches, Beethoven had no more idea how to cross the 400-bar space between than a mountaineer who first glimpses a distant peak from the valley beneath.

Some of Beethoven’s most powerful effects seem bewilderingly simple. The two opening chords act both as gesture and as rhythmic markers, allowing the E flat major theme in bar 3 an ease and impulsion it would not possess without them. The sonic ferocity of the symphony is signalled at the end of the exposition in a mass of misplaced accents and dissonant tonic-plus-dominant chords as shocking as anything in Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps. The dissonant climax of the development section is even more ferocious, after which an entirely new melody sings out in the remote key of E minor. (“A song of pain after the holocaust”, as Leonard Bernstein once memorably expressed it.)

The search for a bridge back to the recapitulation is one of the most astonishing passages in all Beethoven, beginning with an abortive attempt by the second horn to claim the movement’s opening theme for itself. Fifteen bars later, the first horn does acquire it, dolce and in F major, before the flute, serenely poised over rising and falling strings, secures the transition with a resolution of that C sharp = D flat ambiguity that had been posited 400 bars earlier.

The symphony’s second movement, the revolutionary Marcia funebre, is best seen as a threnody not for one hero but for any hero. Musically, it is a huge rondo which becomes ever more colossal as the initiating ideas develop and fragment within the music’s intensely slow-moving progress. Using the same key centres, C minor and E flat major, which Mozart had deployed in his Masonic Funeral Music,Beethoven sublimates grief whilst at the same time creating a superb essay in the musical picturesque: a solemn cortège set against louring temples and crumbling classical pediments such as David or Delacroix might have painted.

The finale quotes and freely develops a theme from Beethoven’s Prometheus ballet. Outwardly jaunty, this too undergoes an amazing transformation three-quarters of the way through the movement when in awed tones the solo oboe leads a solemn hymn, a moment once likened by the distinguished English musicologist Sir Donald Tovey to “the opening of the gates of paradise”. In a postscript to the Heiligenstadt Testament Beethoven wrote, “O Providence – grant me at last but one day of pure joy.” Just such a sense of “pure joy” is felt in the final moments of the “Eroica”.

Tragedy commingled with joy also informs the incidental music to Goethe’s prose tragedy Egmont on which Beethoven lavished so much care and attention six years later. A Fleming and a fervent democrat, Beethoven was greatly stirred by the life of Lamoral, Count of Egmont, the governor of Flanders, who was executed by the occupying Spanish in 1568.

The grinding discords of the overture’s baleful slow introduction, its progressively “poisoned” harmonies, and the perceptibly Spanish pulse of the rhythm in the bass vividly depict the Spanish oppressor, while pleading wind phrases evoke the plight of the subject peoples. The two ideas are powerfully contrasted in the overture’s symphonically shaped central development before the death-blow itself and the transforming “Victory Symphony” in which Beethoven sets before us the rising of the Flemish people and with it the posthumous triumph of Egmont’s political and moral vision.

Richard Osborne