“Tuning In” is LACO’s signature behind-the-music blurb that gives additional context to the repertoire that the Orchestra performs..
When we think of Ludwig van Beethoven, we often picture the famously belligerent composer with wild hair, furiously scribbling pages of music his deaf ears will never know. There is perhaps no better anecdote that illustrates the accuracy of this image than the story behind the name of Beethoven’s Third Symphony: “Eroica,” or “Heroic.”
At the turn of the 19th century, Beethoven’s world seems to be crashing down around him. His hearing is failing, he is withdrawing into solitude and his music is the only thing preventing him from suicide. It is in this tumultuous time that the idea for his third symphony is born.
Given the circumstances, it may seem surprising that Beethoven would write such an heroic piece. However, while experiencing his own personal hell, Beethoven finds hope in Napoleon Bonaparte. Fresh off the victory of the French Revolution, Napoleon has catapulted to power, much to the delight of the non-aristocratic classes of Western Europe.
Beethoven finds solace in Napoleon, and comes to idolize him as a champion of the common man—a true hero. In his admiration, the working title for his third symphony becomes “Bonaparte,” and on the title page, he signs his first name as Louis, the French translation of Ludwig.
Then, Napoleon declares himself Emperor.
Needless to say, Beethoven did not take the news well. Ferdinand Ries, the man who broke this news to Beethoven, recounts that the composer flew into a fit of rage, ripping the dedication from the page and proclaiming Napoleon “no more than a common mortal…a tyrant.” To this day, the manuscript’s torn visage reflects the immensity of Beethoven’s wrath.
Following Beethoven’s disillusionment, the symphony is renamed “Eroica,” and Beethoven’s subsequent works embark on a darker path, reflecting the composer’s descent into madness. Nevertheless, the question still stands: why “Eroica?” Perhaps the composer viewed the symphony’s themes as too triumphant to name it anything else. Or perhaps, it is because music itself is Beethoven’s only remaining hero.