From the First to the Second Symphony is a step, from the Second to the Third is a giant leap. The Third is Beethoven’s longest symphonic work, except for the choral Ninth, and it was the first credited with a significance beyond its purely musical value, the first in what was known as the “heroic” style. The tone of the symphony is in keeping with the spirit of the age: revolutionary from the first thundering chords onwards, a final farewell to the 18th century. The dedication to Napoleon, which Beethoven scratched out in patriotic rage after Bonaparte had himself crowned Emperor, is one pointer to the purpose and message of this resolute work; another is the use of music from the French Revolution, admittedly in a thoroughly symphonic way. Monumental and at the same time full of variety in all directions, the “Eroica” has nothing ordinary about it and it is no surprise that Beethoven’s contemporaries were puzzled, not to say dumbfounded. Take the unprecedentedly massive extent of the first movement, in which a simple broken-chord motif is constantly given new treatment, enriched with a wealth of new ideas and propelled forward in a succession of great waves of heroic effort. The epic scale and inner conviction of the Funeral March and the intricate, pent-up rhythms of the Scherzo are followed by a Finale that takes the form of a highly unusual set of variations on two different themes: the melody and its accompanying bass line. Beethoven took both of them from his earlier Prometheus ballet suite in a revealing allusion to the classical demigod, friend of mortals and “bringer of culture”, which must surely be as important as that – deleted – dedication to Napoleon.
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