October 07, 2011
Musical evolution is not a straight line. It looks that way in retrospect because we ignore all the fits and starts and all the things composers still hung on to long after they were popular. Music moved seamlessly from one period to the next with little fanfare. Press releases did not proclaim the end of one musical style and the beginning of another. But every once in a while, a single composer or a single piece made people aware of something new. Beethoven was such a figure, and the “Eroica” Symphony was such a piece. When people first heard it, some of them thought—quite correctly—that things might very well be different from now on.
But of course, that isn’t completely true. Some composers must have considered Beethoven’s “Eroica” an anomaly, a blip on the radar screen, not a herald of a new style to come. Those composers stayed their own course, perhaps never realizing that music was moving in a new direction. It’s only when evidence has built up that many things have, in fact, changed, that historians look back to pinpoint the moment in the past that divides the “before” from the “after.” Beethoven’s “Eroica” might very well be one of these dividing lines.
In graduate school, I had an instructor who had a friend who theorized that the dissolution of tonality in the twentieth century could be traced back to a single chord in the “Eroica” Symphony. This mysterious person, whose name I have never known (and can’t even be sure actually exists), believes that a dissonant moment in the first movement of this symphony was the proverbial first falling domino that started a chain reaction, culminating—about a century later—in the atonal explorations of Arnold Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School. It seems silly to think that a century of music and evolution might have all been possible because Beethoven decided to take a chance and do something different, but that is the kind of power we ascribe to the mythical Beethoven from our vantage point in the present.
Some of the world’s most famous composers had successful careers that spanned decades, but didn’t create pieces that shook up the world. They simply wrote in the established style and produced music that people loved instantly and digested easily, never challenging their fans or the boundaries of their time. Some composers may have had just one moment in their careers when they were raised to the status of innovator. Beethoven did it at least twice with only his symphonies (the Third and the Ninth, of course). He is an extraordinary figure, by any measuring stick.
If you are interested in seeing a dramatization of the debut of the “Eroica” Symphony, and see the reactions of some of the first people to hear it, there is a splendid film available. It’s called Eroica, and it’s a BBC production from 2003 (starring Ian Hart as Beethoven). Not only will you get to hear this piece again, you’ll get to eavesdrop on the conversations at Prince Lobkovitz’s palace when Beethoven first presented the Symphony. (I found a copy on Netflix.)
When you hear the “Eroica,” put yourself in the mindset of a person who has never before heard a symphony so adventurous or so lengthy. Pretend that you have not yet experienced such ingenious harmonies or imaginative rhythms. Imagine that you are on that precipice, staring at a dividing line in history. The silence before those first two signal chords represents “before,” and beyond the final chord lies the bright “after” of music’s future, made possible, in part, by Beethoven.