When Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) arrived in Vienna in 1796, he began a rapid rise to fame as a performer and later as a composer. Roughly concurrent with his arrival he started to experience trouble with his hearing, a condition that worsened with time.
Under the guidance of Haydn, Albrechtsberger, Förster, Salieri and others, he quickly mastered the classical style and his early works were well received. Despite this success, he began to feel that he had absorbed everything his teachers had to offer. The decision facing him was whether to devote his life to emulating the Viennese classicists or to seek a new avenue of expression. To those close to him, he spoke of a ‘new path’. To many others, he didn’t speak at all. His hearing, by then, had deteriorated to the point where he was avoiding social contact.
In the autumn of 1802, while resting in Heiligenstadt, Beethoven drafted a tortured letter in the form of a will that has come to be known as the Heiligenstadt Testament. In this document, he bequeaths his belongings to his brothers but writes mostly of his realization that his hearing was worsening and would likely leave him completely deaf in time. Though he struggled for the words, his fears were eventually laid to rest and his determination led him in the direction of a new, revolutionary style of musical expression.
Soon after his return from Heiligenstadt, Beethoven approached his work with renewed energy. His philosophy and style of composition underwent a transformation and his music from that point on possessed a new expressive dimension. Within weeks of returning to Vienna, he began his first sketches for the Eroica. Clearly, the Testament had been a means of exorcising his fears but the Eroica would became an impassioned codicil to that will, a yearning to strike out on a new path. Self-determination and triumph over adversity may well be the program of the Eroica with Beethoven as hero.
Much is made of Beethoven’s intention to dedicate his symphony to Napoleon and his change of mind when he learned of Napoleon’s assuming the title of Emperor. Beethoven did indeed scratch out the name Napoleon on the title page of his symphony. It seems that Beethoven was making plans for a move to Paris and thought that this dedication would ease his introduction. When it became apparent that this move would not materialize but that Prince Lobkowitz was interested in licensing the symphony for a period of time, Beethoven removed the so called dedication and renamed the symphony “Eroica.”
One of the most perplexing issues of the Eroica-Napoleon connection has been: why did Beethoven include a funeral march followed by a joyous scherzo and finale? Nineteenth century commentators were at a loss to explain the seeming contradiction of death and celebration in the context of an homage to Bonaparte.
Additionally, early writers noted thematic similarities between the Eroica and Beethoven’s own ballet, Die Geschöpfe des Promethus (The Creatures of Prometheus) Op 43 as well as his Variations, Op 35 and 12 German Contradances WoO 14. They were able to trace, passage by passage, the parallels to be found in the music but never touched upon the deeper kinship between the Eroica and Prometheus. The distinguished Beethoven scholar William Kinderman, citing the work of Constantin Floros, has now proposed the possibility that the whole of the Eroica symphony is an allegory for the Promethus legend. That is to say, the Prometheus legend as portrayed in Beethoven’s ballet.
In the various Greek versions of the legend, Prometheus is punished by being chained to a rock where upon an eagle eats his liver every day only to have it regenerate each night. After years of suffering Prometheus is finally freed. In the version staged by Beethoven and the dance master Salvatore Vigano, Prometheus is put to death for his transgression and is later re-born.
Tracing the sequence of certain events in the ballet and comparing the resulting scenario to the progression of movements in the Eroica we arrive at a convincing fit. Kinderman:
“Floros’s work has shown that the links between the ballet and the symphony are more substantial than has usually been assumed. Floros traces various rhetorical and formal parallels between the opening Allegro con brio of the symphony and, in particular, the eighth piece of the Prometheus music, the ‘Danza Eroica’. Still more important is the affinity of the two following pieces of the ballet, the ‘Tragica scena’ (no. 9) and ‘Giuocosa scena’ (no. 10, in which the dead Prometheus is restored to life), to the progression from the Marcia funebre to the scherzo in the symphony.” Beethoven, William Kinderman; Oxford University Press, 1997
That the Eroica could be a symphonic expansion of the Prometheus ballet, with the main character symbolizing the tortured and misunderstood artist, is more than plausible. The scenario – heroic, tragic, joyous – seems to be more than a coincidence.