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The Chronology

The Wielhorsky sketchbook thus supplies the missing link between the Prometheus music and the Third Symphony. It enables us to see in its entirety the organic process by which the latter evolved from the former. To be sure, we are still missing evidence for some of the interim stages: the opening sketches for the first movement in the Eroica sketchbook (Landsberg No. 6) are well advanced from those on pages 44 and 45 of Wielhorsky, and it is probable that Beethoven made some sketches in the winter of 1802-1803 which are now lost.143 If, however, with the evidence supplied by the Kessler, Wielhorsky and Eroica sketchbooks, we now have the correct chronology of Beethoven’s occupation with the idea of Prometheus, we may conclude that the sequence was as follows:

In early 1801 Beethoven, while working on the commission for Gli uomini di Prometeo, became inspired by the ideal of Prometheus as a Titan who brought enlightenment and deliverance to humans, but who in consequence suffered unjustly at the hand of the gods. Yet Prometheus endured his punishment nobly, and survived to elevate the humans to whom he had given life to the point where they were fit to consort with the gods themselves. In the course of composing the music for the ballet, he wrote both tragic music for the staged death of the hero, as well as a theme which expressed the joyful exuberance of the humans and Prometheus in their concluding triumph.

In summer 1801 Beethoven wrote the first lengthy descriptions we have of his increasing deafness to his old friends Franz Wegeler and Carl Amenda,144 in which he confides that “Often have I cursed the creator and my existence, [but] Plutarch has taught me resignation; I will, if it’s otherwise possible, brave my destiny, even though there will be moments in my life when I will be the most miserable of god’s creatures.”145

In November 1801 Beethoven assembled an autograph score of a dozen contredanses, some of which were commissioned by a “Monsieur de Friederich” for the forthcoming ball season in Vienna. Included in the set, as the third of the first group of four, was a version of the theme he used in the finale of Prometheus, which by then had enjoyed some thirteen performances at the Hoftheater and was a moderate success. Added at the last minute was another dance taken from the same finale. In the same month, Beethoven confided to his friend Wegeler that although his deafness continued to get worse, and that he was not satisfied with results from the treatments prescribed by his doctors, he was nevertheless enjoying again “einige seelige Augenblicke” (“a few blessed moments”), because he was in love with a young woman (“Mädchen”) who loved him, and whom he hoped, despite their difference in rank, he could marry.146 This was most likely the sixteen-year-old Countess Giulietta Guicciardi, then one of his piano students, who may have played the coquette with Beethoven, but who never seems to have seriously entertained the idea of marrying him.147 Alexander Thayer speculated that Beethoven might have converted the dance from the Prometheus finale “so that it would become better known”,148 but this ignores the fact that there were two dances so adapted, as well as the fact of the popularity which the ballet already enjoyed. Speculation in a similar vein might entertain the thought that Beethoven wanted to impress with his compositions the young Countess, who doubtlessly partook of the ball scene in 1801-02, and that (subconsciously?) he reached back to a theme that already embodied his ideal that low-born humans could attain, through proper instruction in the arts, the ability to dance on equal terms with the gods (sc. the Viennese nobility) themselves.

The first part of 1802 was taken up by Beethoven’s struggles to get his music published at what he considered a fair price, and increasingly he left negotiations to his brother Karl. He concentrated on finishing the violin sonatas op. 30 and the piano sonatas op. 31. His loss of hearing continued despite a variety of treatments, and on his doctor’s recommendation he retreated in April to the quiet countryside of Heiligenstadt for some rest.

In the summer of 1802, at Heiligenstadt, the enormity of the loss he was enduring was brought home to him one day by the incident with the shepherd playing his flute. It is at this point that Beethoven seems to have seen himself as a modern-day Prometheus, unjustly tormented by fate, who returns to the music he has written for the ballet and determines to write a massive set of piano variations based on it. In the course of sketching the variations, he tries out the bass of the theme as a fugue subject, and a whole new world of inspiration opens up.

In October 1802, still at Heiligenstadt, Beethoven commits all his despair and self-doubt to paper, in a “testament” for his brothers intended to be read after his death. Within a few weeks of that low point, when he declared that he was kept from suicide only by his art, Beethoven completes his work on the fugal finale of the Prometheus variations op. 35. His ideas for the theme are far from exhausted: he turns to a fresh page, and lays out a plan for the first three movements of a new symphony, whose first movement is thematically linked to the Basso del Tema, and whose fourth movement will build upon the work he has already done with the theme.
Nota bene: Page 44 of the Wielhorsky sketchbook shows us the moment of conception of the Eroica. There is nothing in the sketch or the surviving documents from Heiligenstadt to support any theory of its origin other than that it grew out of the wealth of ideas Beethoven had generated in sketching the Prometheus variations. In particular, there is nothing in this evidence to suggest that the Symphony was conceived as a means of honoring Napoleon Bonaparte (or any other contemporary hero). The first hint that Beethoven was entertaining such an idea comes one year later, after Beethoven had finished sketching the work, in a letter written by his pupil Ferdinand Ries.149

Later in 1802, after returning to Vienna, Beethoven became embroiled in a lengthy and bitter controversy over the publication rights to his string quintet, op. 29, at the same time he was seeing to the details of publication for the variations op. 34 and 35.150 In early 1803 he was engaged by the Theater an der Wien to compose an opera. He received also living quarters there and the right to give a concert of his works. He had a new symphony (the Second) and a piano concerto (the Third) to perform, but wanted to present a choral work as well. Still obsessed with the concept of a beleaguered hero, he was drawn to the libretto prepared by Franz Huber for Christus am Oelberge (Christ on the Mount of Olives), depicting Jesus’s last hours before his capture by soldiers. After collaborating with Huber on the text, he worked intensively on the music of the oratorio until its first performance, on April 5, 1803. As Barry Cooper has postulated, passages expressing Jesus’ anguish and terror at his impending suffering resonated with Beethoven’s own innermost feelings as expressed in the Heiligenstadt Testament.151 There was no need to turn back to his Prometheus-ideas while the oratorio was on his mind.

In May 1803, after performing his “Kreutzer” sonata with George Bridgetower, Beethoven rented rooms for the summer in a house in Oberdöbling, outside of Vienna. Here, as can be seen in the Eroica sketchbook, he works mostly on the first three movements of his new symphony, and surpasses in scope anything he has written before. The first-movement theme from Wielhorsky is now replaced by a continuous melodic line that is still thematically linked to the theme of the finale;152 there are probably missing sketches that document this transition. In four large sketches he develops the plan of the movement until it exceeds in length any entire symphony theretofore written.153 From the outset he had planned a slow march in C major / C minor for the second movement; reaching back to his ideas beginning with the Prometheus death-music from the ballet, he now transforms them into a stately Marcia funebre that attains extremes of expression never before put into music. With this movement mostly finished, he turns to the third, and the Menuetto serioso is quickly transformed into a lively scherzo, punctuated by a trio of horns.154 The opening of the fourth movement contains strong parallels to both Act I of the ballet and to the introduction of op. 35, and work on it proceeds rapidly as the summer draws to a close.

In the fall of 1803, back in Vienna, Beethoven puts finishing touches on the fourth movement, which he performs at the piano for his boyhood friend Stephan Breuning and a guest.155 His genius has now transformed the Prometheus-music into far more than just a fugue with variations. As others have noted, the Eroica finale is an apotheosis of musical form that in its inimitable way reprises both the opening scene of Act I as well as the varied divertissements enacted for Apollo on Parnassus in Act II of the ballet.156 As such, it encapsulates Beethoven’s entire experience with, and transformation achieved through, the Prometheus ideal.

In October 1803 we have the first indication of Beethoven’s intention to dedicate the Symphony to Napoleon,157 probably in connection with his plans to leave Vienna and move to Paris.158 He grows more cautious in December, when Ries writes that he will not sell the Symphony, but take it with him to Paris.159 His plans do not take into account the gathering clouds of war.

In the spring of 1804 we find that Beethoven has sold the Symphony after all, to his patron Prince Lobkowitz, and that the unusual arrangement includes the provision of both a rehearsal room (now called the Eroica-Saal in the Palais Lobkowitz in Vienna) and a full orchestra, with the requisite three horns, to try out the work before its public performance.160 As a result, we can fix the date of the Eroica’s completion in score as early June 1804.

May 1804, on the other hand, is the usual date given for the famous incident described by Ferdinand Ries,161 when Beethoven reacted with anger to the news that Napoleon had accepted his proclamation as Emperor of France, by ripping the title-sheet of the Symphony score in two and throwing it to the floor. However, this date is difficult to reconcile with subsequent letters of Beethoven: in July 1804 he wrote to Gottlob Wiedebein, a church organist, and mentioned he was still planning to leave Vienna the coming winter, probably for Paris;162 and in August 1804, he wrote Breitkopf & Härtel offering them the Symphony to publish in score, and said it was “eigentlich betitelt [B]onaparte” (“actually entitled ‘Bonaparte’”).163 The resolution of these paradoxes may lie in recognizing what actually went on in France at this time. The French senate passed a resolution offering Bonaparte the imperial title on May 18, 1804, and Napoleon gave his assent that same day. However, the acts of the senate awaited ratification by a plebiscite, which did not occur until November 6, and Napoleon was not publicly crowned emperor of the French until the ceremony in Nôtre-Dame Cathedral on December 2, 1804. While Beethoven was an avid reader of newspapers, he may simply have missed the May announcement, or else may have counted on the plebiscite to stave off the end of the French republic. Ries’s description makes it sound as though Beethoven was reacting to the fact of the coronation, in which Napoleon showed his true bent by seizing the imperial crown from the Pope and placing it on his head himself.


In August 1804 Beethoven has a working score entitled “Sinfonia grande / [intitolata Bonaparte] / del Sigr / Louis van Beethoven (see Plate XV).164 At a later date, the words “intitolata Bonaparte” (“entitled ‘Bonaparte’”) have been scratched out so severely that there are three holes in the title sheet at that point. In a darker ink, and a different hand, is written “804 im August” right under the scratched-out dedication. Under the name of the composer (note that it is given in French), Beethoven has scrawled in pencil, “geschrieben auf Bonaparte” (“composed on Bonaparte”). Thus the scratching out of the words “intitolata Bonaparte” may have occurred the following December, when the republican Beethoven finally realized that he could not go to Paris to live as the subject of one who had destroyed the French republic. Even then, he could not disavow entirely his intention to connect the Symphony with Napoleon, and added his note in pencil. At the bottom of the title page are the words “Sinfonia 3” and at the right, “op. 55”. These obviously were added to the title page much later, when the Symphony could be assigned an opus number.165 Note, however, that even then the Symphony has not received its final title of “Eroica” —that word is missing completely from the title page.

In December 1804 Beethoven conducted a performance of the Eroica in Prince Lobkowitz’ palace, followed by another performance the next month at the home of the banker Joseph Würth. The first public performance of the Symphony took place in the Theater an der Wien on Palm Sunday, April 7, 1805, where its reception was decidedly mixed.166

In June 1805 Breitkopf & Härtel returned the score of the Symphony to Beethoven,167 who had demanded its return when they indicated they were not willing to pay the price he asked for it.168 The orchestral parts were not published until October 1806, when—for the first time— Beethoven called the work “Sinfonia Eroica”, and added the words “composta / per festiggiare il sovvenire di un grand Uomo”. The work was dedicated, not to Napoleon, but to Beethoven’s loyal patron, Prince Lobkowitz (Plate I).


143 Nottebohm (N1880 [Mies (ed.) 1924], p. 4) noted that there were five missing leaves near the very beginning of Landsberg No. 6 when he examined it; perhaps these contained earlier drafts of the first movement. Nevertheless, Fishman (vol. III, at 110-28) is able to connect the Wielhorsky sketches with those in Landsberg No. 6 quite well. His detailed analysis of the sketches on pp. 44-45 of Wielhorsky shows how the so-called “new” E-minor theme of the first movement’s development section (in Landsberg No. 6) originated from the secondary theme of the Wielhorsky sketches, how the famous dominant-tonic clash just before the recapitulation was already contemplated in the Wielhorsky sketches, and he shows much that connects the Wielhorsky sketches for the second and third movements with their counterparts in Landsberg No. 6 as well. His report to the International Musicological Congress in Berlin 1970 (Fischman 1970) gives a brief summary of his findings in German, but his Russian commentary on the sketches has yet to be published in English. (An English translation can be found in the appendix to Haley 1966, reproduced here.)

144 BGA Nos. 65 and 67.

145 From BGA No. 65: “. . . ich habe schon oft den schöpfer und mein daseyn verflucht, Plutarch hat mich zu der Resignation geführt, ich will wenn’s anders möglich ist, meinem schicksaal trozen, obschon es Augenblicke meines Lebens geben wird, wo ich das unglücklichste Geschöpf gottes seyn werde.” Notice the reference to Geschöpf—Beethoven is regarding his relation to his creator as akin to that of the animated clay figures to Prometheus.

146 BGA No. 70.

147 Solomon 1998, at 196-97.

148 Quoted supra, text at n.90.

149 BGA No. 165.

150 TDR II, 261ff.; Thayer-Forbes, 309ff.

151 Cooper 1995; see also Tyson 1970, at 551, 582-84, repr. Lang 1971, at 49, 79-82. Cooper makes the case for a transferal of Beethoven’s anguish at Heiligenstadt to the suffering of Jesus depicted in the oratorio, on which Beethoven presumably worked from November 1802 to March 1803. While I certainly do not disagree that such a transferal occurred, it is noteworthy that it happened after Beethoven’s resort to the Prometheus-music to get him through his period of despair at Heiligenstadt, and in the interim before he resumed work on the Eroica. (The story is then continued by Beethoven’s taking up the subject of Florestan in Fideliosee the articles by Lewis Lockwood and Mosco Carner cited in n. 58 supra).

152 Lockwood 1981, at 469, repr. Lockwood 1992, at 143.

153 N1880 [Mies (ed.) 1924], 6-18. Katherine Seyer (Seyer 2006, at 172-78) thinks that the sketches for the Marches for Piano (op. 45) which are in the Eroica Sketchbook at pp. 44-48, and which are surrounded by sketches for the second movement of the Eroica, were written while Beethoven was at Heiligenstadt in 1802; if so, this could mean that Beethoven continued work on the Eroica in late 1802, but in Landsberg No. 6 rather than in Wielhorsky.

154 Harry Goldschmidt (Goldschmidt 1975), at 32, sees in the sequence Marcia funebre – Scherzo – horn trio a recapitulation of Nos. 9, 10 and 11/12 in the ballet: tragic muse – comic muse – Pan and his followers.

155 TDR II, 403; Thayer-Forbes, 337.

156 See text at n. 115, supra.

157 Letter from Ries to Simrock, October 22, 1803 (BGA No. 165).

158 Letter from Ries to Simrock, August 6, 1803 (BGA No. 152).

159 Letter from Ries to Simrock, December 11, 1803 (BGA No. 173).

160 Volek and Macek 1986; Albrecht (ed.) 1996, vol. 1, No. 81. A correspondent of Dohms and Rodenbergs Salon II, Heft 9 wrote (TDR II, 426 n. 1): “. . . a contemporary and—even more—a member [of Lobkowitz’s court orchestra] claimed that Lobkowitz had formed his orchestra precisely with the purpose that Beethoven could try out his works before their publication!” (“. . . ja ein Zeitgenosse und sogar Mitglied [der Kapelle von Lobkowitz] behauptet, Lobkowitz habe die Kapelle ganz eigens zu dem Zwecke gebildet, um die Werke Beethovens vor ihrer Veröffentlichung zuerst zu versuchen!”) Apart from this, Peter Schleuning suggests that Prince Lobkowitz had heard of Beethoven’s plans to dedicate the Symphony to Napoleon and to move to Paris, and intervened to keep both Beethoven and his Symphony in Vienna (Schleuning 1996, at 395-96).

161 Wegeler/Ries, 78-79 (Eng. tr., 68).

162 BGA No. 181.

163 BGA No. 188.

164 The score is preserved today, along with the oldest known set of orchestral parts, in the Library of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna. See Tusa 1985.

165 The piano sonata in F Major, op. 54, was not published until April 1806 (KH 127).

166 See Appendix I for two contemporary accounts.

167 BGA No. 226.

168 BGA, No. 223.

Fishman, vol. III, at 47, sees an appeal that is wholly abstract, apart from the circumstances of Beethoven’s life: “The composer saw the power of Prometheus—a proud and irreconcilable foe of tyranny—in his creative energy, in a life of action, in a high affirmation of human consciousness.” Alan Tyson refuses to speculate: “What, if anything, did the figure of Prometheus mean to Beethoven: the fettered Titan hurling imprecations at Zeus? Or the ingenious craftsman who created men out of clay? . . . Unlike other works discussed here the subject-matter may have meant nothing to him. Yet in June 1803, when his op. 35 variations were about to appear, he asked for the theme’s connection with Prometheus to be made explicit on the title-page (he was even prepared to pay the cost of re-engraving); and later in the year he returned to the theme once more for the finale of the Eroica” (Tyson 1969). Others, beginning with Goldschmidt (1975), at 30-33, Floros (1978), at 103-04, and continuing with Maruyama (1987), pp. 63-64, 78; Schneider (1988), at 69-75; Lockwood (2003), 150-51; and Schleuning and Geck (1989), 63ff., 93-96, as well as Schleuning (1987), see Beethoven as drawn to the figure of Prometheus because the latter embodied the composer’s classical ideals of heroism and of resisting tyranny; from this picture, an easy transference to the human figure of Napoleon is achieved. Mathews (1985), at 184-85, and Sipe (1998), at 19-20, both pick up one of the threads, but leave out the elements of enduring and then triumphing over an unjust punishment. E.g., Sipe writes: “It may not be too much to maintain that, in the fall of 1802, Beethoven did regard himself as something of a Prometheus. Perhaps he saw his mission as that of the mythic Prometheus—the edification of humankind through art. . .” On another axis are Mosco Carner (1970) and Lewis Lockwood (2000), who each consider what the term “heroic” could mean in relation to the Third Symphony and subsequent works—without, however, referring to the ballet or to the figure of Prometheus. Both use Florestan as their paradigm; e.g.: “Beethoven may have seen in the wholly underserved suffering of Florestan his own undeserved suffering as an incurably deaf composer” (Carner 1970, at 361); “In that sense, I repeat, the hero as represented by Florestan is not the one who triumphs but rather the one who endures” (Lockwood 2000, at 43). Although they draw attention to the element of enduring undeserved suffering (as Beethoven also stressed in later correspondence [BGA No. 1292]), neither ties that element, or the other two elements of the heroic myth of Prometheus, into Beethoven’s use of the term “Eroica”. In essence, their inquiries start in the middle of the story, without regard for what preceded. In a similar vein, Gleich (1996), although making the identification between Beethoven’s suffering and that of the Titan, views Beethoven’s subsequent use of the theme in op. 35 and op. 55 as depicting exclusively the struggle of Prometheus himself as he seeks to get free of his chains, followed by music celebrating his triumphant restoration to freedom (pp. 9-10). He makes no connection between the music and the theme of human spiritual evolution as depicted in the ballet.