Let's Finally Talk About Beethoven

Image: Eric E Castro

It’s Beethoven! I’ve been writing this column for weeks and I’m finally getting around to Beethoven, which is a little terrifying, I’ll admit. The other guys I’ve written about, the Romantics and the twentieth-century weirdos, have a little less name recognition and feel like deeper cuts. I mean, Beethoven is Beethoven. There’s a dog and everything.

There are, um, a fuckton of Beethoven pieces, several of which I hope to write about over time, but I wanted to start with the Sinfonia Eroica, his third symphony, also known as the “Heroic Symphony.” A fun fact: it took actual years of my life to learn that “eroica” doesn’t translate to erotica; it translates to heroic.

The Eroica, as it’s perhaps most often called, was completed in 1804 and debuted in 1805, which would have our pal Ludwig van be in his mid-thirties. It’s strange to think of Beethoven as a young person (young-ish, at least) when most cultural interpretations of him have been of him as an angry, deaf old man. (Does it make me a bad person that my go-to image for Beethoven is John Cleese yelling at Graham Chapman in drag?) Despite his age, Beethoven’s hearing loss was already very significant at this point. In 1802, presumably soon before if not during his composition of the Eroica, Beethoven drafted a letter to his two brothers, expressing his despair over his loss of hearing. He maintained that the only thing that kept him from committing suicide was an obligation and love for his art.

Beethoven would go on to compose for another thirty years after his hearing loss, but it signified a major change in his composition style, and many of his works following the Eroica followed suite. Eroica was written for Napoleon — Beethoven dedicated it to him, and then undedicated it to him, then dedicated it to one of his patrons, then sort of re-acknowledged Napoleon when he died. The Eroica was also much longer than many other symphonies at the time: its entire first movement is the length of most contemporary symphonies. Audiences at the time found it boring and confusing. Keep in mind that many symphonies at this time were just variations on the same theme. For four movements to be so different from one another and long, to boot, was deeply disorienting and weird for audiences.

It’s not quite programmatic music — there’s no direct narrative about Napoleon here, it’s more inspired by him — but it does sit right on the cusp of Classical and Romantic styles, mostly due to the time in which it was written. There’s a tone of admiration and greatness reflected in it. Regardless of the back and forth about whether or not this has anything to do with Napoleon — I’m calling it now: it does — it’s about Beethoven’s respect for power and a hopefulness that good leaders can triumph in the face of adversity. It starts with two big round notes announcing itself: this is how the world is going to be now.

Beethoven’s Bad Influence

The first movement, the Allegro con brio, is perhaps my favorite, and it feels the most traditionally classical. The main “theme” of the piece passes through each section of the orchestra with various interludes.

The second movement is perhaps the strangest — rather than a traditional adagio, Beethoven wrote an imagined funeral march. Is it strange to write a funeral march for a guy you don’t know who isn’t dead yet? I don’t know! It’s the past! Anything goes. The funeral march has perhaps saturated the most into pop culture: it was played on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s deathbed, as well as at the funerals of our two most well-liked initialled presidents, FDR and JFK.

The third movement, the Scherzo — Allegro vivace, brings the symphony back to its initial energy of the first movement. There are wide, sweeping strings throughout, peppered in with French horns calling out like a fanfare. The Scherzo — Allegro vivace almost reminds me of riding music, galloping along in an Austrian countryside.

The final movement, the Allegro molto, feels like the very traditional type of Beethoven-ian music we know now: upbeat, optimistic, sweeping, and grand. It starts fast and furious string melody then devolves into a quiet pizzicato (which means the strings players are plucking the strings with their fingers rather than drawing a bow across them) and builds itself back up from the ground. The old melodies come back, somehow more textured and nuanced than before. It’s like hearing a song you love on the radio; the familiarity is warm and comforting. The final two minutes of the piece are just, like, if you don’t like Beethoven, what’s wrong with you? It’s a bouncing, roaring finale. It’s done.

The thing about Beethoven is more or less: he’s amazing, he’s prolific, he’s fucking revolutionary. These guys, Mozart, Haydn, what have you, lay the groundwork, but then Beethoven came in, dabbled in the classics then rewrote the rulebook all while losing his hearing. HIS HEARING. Even Mozart said at the time, “One day he will give the world something to talk about.” It’s hard to be glib or unserious about him, because so much about him is about creating art in the face of disability. Anyway. This is the type of thing to listen to and to feel good and strong about what you are capable of doing. Like make a website like this. This website owns.

Fran Hoepfner is a writer who used to be a musician, but not in an acoustic guitar sense, more in the the movie Whiplash sense. As kids her age discovered the popular music of the early ’00s , Fran spent 10–15 hours a week in private lessons for piano or playing timpani in several Chicagoland youth symphonies. Because of that, she didn’t discover pop music until 2008, and now her music library is almost exclusively classical. You should listen to more classical music, not for any self-important reason, but just because it’s more accessible than you think it is. Also it’s very good.