Beethoven’s Third Symphony is one of only two symphonies that he entitled himself.1 When the orchestra parts for his Third Symphony were published for the first time in 1806, Beethoven called the work “Sinfonia eroica” on the title page, and added the subtitle “composta per festeggiare il sovvenire di un grand Uomo”. (“Heroic symphony / composed to celebrate the memory of a great Man”.) The title page also carried a dedication of the work to one of Beethoven’s most important patrons, Prince Lobkowitz.
The work has been called the Eroica Symphony ever since. But what did Beethoven mean? Who was this “great Man” whose memory he wanted to celebrate? And what is heroic about the music of the symphony? (Why, for example, is its second movement a funeral march?) Behind the answers to these questions lies a story that has never been fully told.
Part of the reason the story remains unknown is that a key source to its unfolding is largely inaccessible. In the archives of a state library in Moscow reposes a sketchbook that Beethoven used in the years 1802-1803. Beethoven kept his sketchbooks with him all his life,2 and used them to lay out preliminary ideas for his compositions, which he then worked and reworked in further sketches until he felt ready to begin the preparation of a final score, or autograph, which would be given to the publisher for engraving and printing, or sometimes to a trusted copyist for further deciphering.3 The sketchbooks survived the more than 50 moves that Beethoven made during his lifetime in Vienna,4 and were included among the personal items auctioned after his death.5 Although they were largely indecipherable, many buyers and collectors considered them valuable as having been written by Beethoven himself. As a result of the sale, the collective treasure which the sketchbooks represented was broken up, disassembled, and scattered first to the far corners of Europe, and from there to all parts of the world.
The sketchbook now in Moscow, called by some musicologists the “Wielhorsky” sketchbook after the Russian count who was first revealed as its owner some 33 years after Beethoven died,6 was published in a three-volume edition in 1962. One volume was a photographic facsimile; the second was a transcription of each page into conventional notation, and the third was a volume of analysis and commentary written by the book’s editor, the Russian musicologist Nathan Fishman. (See Appendix A.) However, because the edition appeared only in the Soviet Union, and the notes and commentary were entirely in Russian, its contents have received minimal notice in the English-speaking world.7
The Wielhorsky sketchbook contains drafts for compositions that Beethoven was working on in 1802 and 1803—chief among them the piano variations opus 35, which some also call “Eroica” because of their musical similarity to the Symphony’s fourth movement;8 the oratorio Christus am Oelberge (“Christ on the Mount of Olives”), opus 85; and various lesser works. However, immediately after the sketches for the piano variations, which he offered to a publisher on October 18, 1802, Beethoven laid out a preliminary plan for three movements of an orchestral work.9 The first movement begins with a stately introduction in the key of E-flat major, which is the key of the Eroica Symphony, and transitions to a theme in 3/4 time. The second movement is designated by Beethoven as an “adagio C dur”, or adagio in C major; there are indications for passages in C minor as well. Beethoven titles the third movement in his sketch “Menuetto serioso”, or a minuet to be performed in a solemn, serious manner; then he returns to sketches for the first movement in E-flat. There are no sketches or plans for a fourth movement. The draft breaks off after filling two pages, and there are no other related sketches in the remaining 129 pages of the sketchbook.
If these sketches by Beethoven represent a preliminary draft of a symphony, it is striking how they parallel the first three movements of the Eroica in character, key and sequence. Beginning with the nineteenth century, and continuing to the present day, those scholars who have examined the sketchbook have pronounced them the precursors of that ground-breaking work.10 It was only with Fishman’s publication of the full book in facsimile and transcription, however, that specialists in the study of Beethoven’s sketches could see the close relationship between the sketches on pages 44 and 45 and Beethoven’s work on the variations for piano that fill the immediately preceding pages. Scholars are now mostly agreed that the reason that there are no separate sketches for a fourth movement is that Beethoven had already formed the intention to use the music of those variations as the basis for the finale of the symphony.11
In other words, the sequence of the drafts in the Wielhorsky sketchbook provides evidence (1) that Beethoven’s idea for his Third Symphony came to him in the course of his sketching out the variations for piano, opus 35; (2) that he decided to use the work he had done on the piano variations as the basis for the last movement of that Symphony; and (3) that immediately after finishing his work on the variations, he laid out a plan for the Eroica’s first three movements, i.e., he conceived the work as an entirety. His ideas for the Symphony, therefore, grew out of its last movement, which in turn grew out of his work on opus 35.
This is not the end of the analysis, however. After Beethoven had sent the piano variations off to be printed, he wrote the publisher and instructed him to ensure that the title page of the composition named the source of the theme on which he had composed them: a ballet he had written in 1801, called Gli uomini di Prometeo (“The Men of Prometheus”).12 Shall we then say that the genesis of the Eroica symphony lies in the ballet music for Prometheus?
It turns out that scholars are sharply divided on this point.13 Beethoven also used the same Prometheus-theme in a set of ballroom dances he produced for the Viennese social season in the winter of 1801-02.14 Many think (or assume) that the salon-music preceded the ballet (essentially, because it is in simpler form). If the theme originated from a straightforward monetary commission for a set of ballroom dances, it is difficult to see why Beethoven felt there were any “heroic” aspects to its character. Indeed, some musicologists have tried to deny Beethoven any originality in his Symphony whatsoever, by suggesting that he borrowed both the Prometheus-theme and the theme of his first movement from earlier works. Some argue that the latter, for example, must have been taken from Mozart’s comic opera, Bastien and Bastienne:15
Fig. 1: W.A. Mozart, Intrada to Bastien et Bastienne (1768)
Another scholar claims to show that Beethoven borrowed the Prometheus-theme itself from Clementi:16
Fig. 2: Muzio Clementi, Sonata in G Minor, op. 7, No. 3, first movement, bars 102-09
Evidence from the Wielhorsky and other sketchbooks provides the key to demolishing these claims of borrowing. Instead of appearing from the outset in its final form, as though Beethoven had “remembered” it from some earlier work, the first-movement opening theme evolved in a linear progression that can be traced in the sketches, from the already-composed Prometheus-theme which Beethoven planned to use in the Symphony finale. As for the latter theme, it emerged, as we shall see, from Beethoven’s systematic depiction of the artistic growth experienced by “Prometheus’ creatures” (die Geschöpfe des Prometheus) in the ballet.
The sketches for the E-flat symphony in the Wielhorsky sketchbook take up, as stated, only two pages near the front of the book. The next sketches for the symphony appear in the so-called Eroica sketchbook (N 1880), which Beethoven began in the late spring of 1803, just after he had filled up the Wielhorsky sketchbook.17 They are much closer to the finished version. It is probable that there are interim loose-leaf sketches which are missing, but the only evidence we have indicates that Beethoven turned his attention away from his planned symphony after the fall of 1802, and did not resume work on it until the summer of 1803. If he was so inspired as to plan out the entire work after completing his sketches for opus 35, why did he then leave the project dormant for nearly nine months?
After he resumed work on the symphony in earnest, and it was near completion, Beethoven apparently formed an intention of dedicating the composition to Napoleon Bonaparte.18 The story of his outburst upon learning that Napoleon had crowned himself Emperor, and of his furiously scratching out the symphony’s inscription “intitolata Bonaparte” (“entitled Bonaparte”), is well known.19 But what connection, if any, existed in Beethoven’s mind between Prometheus and Napoleon? Who was the “hero” that Beethoven had in mind while he actually worked on the Third Symphony?
In this article, I shall use the evidence from the sketchbooks, from Beethoven’s correspondence, and from contemporary accounts to offer answers to these questions. I will build on the ground laid by Fishman and others, as well as on an honors thesis I wrote in 1966.20 The story to be told has often been surmised in part, and indicated in bits and pieces scattered here and there through the literature.21 It will be the purpose of this article to try to bring them all together.
ENDNOTES1 The other is, of course, the Sixth Symphony, which Beethoven christened “Sinfonia Pastoral”.
2 For a survey of the known sketchbooks, see JTW, especially 1-43. For a description of how Beethoven used sketchbooks in the compositional process, and their significance for Beethoven studies, see Brandenburg 1977 and Cooper 2000b.
4 See Smolle 1970.
6 Mikhail Jur’evich Wielhorsky [or in stricter transliteration, “Wiel’gorskij”] (1787-1856), who had met Beethoven on a visit to Vienna in 1808 and became a promoter of his works in Russia. See Fishman, vol. III, 39-40, where he cites an article (Lenz 1856) which credits Count Wielhorsky with being the first to distinguish the so-called “three styles” of Beethoven.
7 No general discussions of the sketchbook in English have appeared apart from Schwarz 1961, Brown 1963 and JTW, 130-36; see also Abraham 1975, to which this article is in part a response. Sketches which the book contains for individual works have been discussed and analyzed in the articles and books cited infra; see also the discussions in Tyson 1970; and the pages indexed under “SV 343” in Cooper 1990, 316. Nathan Fishman has also published two brief articles in German summarizing his findings regarding the sketchbook: Fischman 1970 and Fischman 1978. A translation of the history of the sketchbook given by Fishman in his 1962 edition appears in the Appendix to Haley 1966, and may be viewed here.
8 It is a mistake to do so, as explained infra, text following n. 106.
11 See the discussion following Fig. 27 and sources cited in n. 142.
12 BGA No. 140 (undated), which editor Sieghard Brandenburg believes was written at the end of May or the beginning of June in 1803 (p. 167, n.1). The Italian title was translated first into German as “Die Menschen des Prometheus”, then—just a week before the ballet’s opening—it was changed to “Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus” (infra, n. 40). It is from the latter title that the English title most commonly associated with the work is derived: “The Creatures of Prometheus”, with “creatures of P.” understood in the sense of “humans created by P.” The Italian “uomini” means “men”; “humans” would be “umani”. In German, however, “Menschen” has both meanings, while “Geschöpfe” has the broader connotation of “creatures”, or “things created”. Since Prometheus created one human of each gender, a literal translation of the Italian has never seemed appropriate for the work.
13 See "Which Came First — Contredanse or the Ballet?", infra.
14 Zwölf Contretänze für Orchester (WoO 14), first published in 1802 (KH 449-51).
15 E.g., Grove (repr.) 1962, 58-60, 93; Bekker 1912, 216. Mozart was twelve when he wrote Bastien et Bastienne in 1768 for the renowned Viennese hypnotist, Dr. Franz Anton Mesmer. The work, which is only 35 minutes or so in duration, appears to have been given a single performance in the garden Marionettentheater (puppet theater) at Dr. Mesmer’s home. It is not known to have been performed elsewhere, or to have been published, until after its rediscovery in connection with the Mozart Zentenarfeier in Vienna in 1891. (See Kloiber 1973, at 315.) The contrast between the formal manner in which the twelve-year-old Mozart uses the theme in the opera’s short intrada and the organic way in which Beethoven uses it to engender a complete symphonic movement (which lasts almost as long as Mozart’s entire opera!) could not be more striking. As will be shown by the evidence to be reviewed in this article, Beethoven evolved the theme linearly, out of his work on the piano variations op. 35, and thus, apart from the difficulty in envisioning how Beethoven could even have been aware of Mozart’s once-performed Singspiel, it can be concluded only that the similarity between the two works is sheer coincidence. As Lewis Lockwood stated after examining the Beethoven’s early sketches for the Symphony, “. . . even now this myth [of Beethoven borrowing from Mozart] dies hard in some quarters, but it surely can be laid to rest for good.” Lockwood 1981, at 469, repr. Lockwood 1992, at 144.
16 See Ringer 1961, esp. 457-58. Needless to say, just as in the case of Mozart, the same considerations furnished by the sketches negate any conscious borrowing from Clementi. Subconsciously, the case fares no better, since the character of the theme in Clementi’s hands is so very different: it is in G minor, not E-Flat Major (although the passage quoted in Fig. 2 is over an E-flat pedal-point); melodically it is not the same, and the feature that most links Beethoven’s theme with its bass—the ascent to the fifth, as its climax—is wholly missing in Clementi, whose theme descends throughout. (Compare Fig. 2 with Fig. 16, infra.) Similarly, the hypothesis of Derr (1984) (stated by his article’s title) relates chiefly to keyboard similarities between the two works mentioned. It does not take into account the genesis of the ballet or the contredanse; the similarities that Derr points out could well have arisen while Beethoven was composing variations for the piano, without saying anything about how the theme evolved out of his work on the ballet.
17 The last pages in the Wielhorsky sketchbook contain sketches for the first two movements of the “Kreutzer” violin sonata, op. 47, which Beethoven first performed with the British violinist George Bridgetower on May 24, 1803. See the discussion of the determination of the sequence Kessler-Wielhorsky-Eroica infra, text at nn. 128-34; see also JTW, 125-28 (Kessler), 133-34 (Wielhorsky), and 139-43 (“Eroica” [Landsberg 6]); but see n. 153, infra, and Seyer 2006.
18 Letter from Ferdinand Ries to Nikolaus Simrock (first published in Müller 1929, 27f), BGA No. 165. Müller gives the date of the letter as October 22, 1803, but the location of the original is now (after World War II) unknown.
20 Haley 1966. This article reproduces (and updates) most of what that thesis had to say about the genesis of the Eroica Symphony.
21 I have tried to credit each individual contribution of which I am aware in this article, and have cited the sources as they are relevant on individual points. To anyone whom I happen to have overlooked, my apologies.