After Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt crisis in 1802, he began sketching out a symphony that redefined symphonies–Symphony No. 3 in E flat Major, Op. 55. Beethoven focused on the composition in May of 1803 and dedicated it to Prince Franz Joseph Lobkowitz, who debuted it at his palace in August of 1804. Beethoven originally entitled the piece Bonaparte due to his admiration for Napoleon before he crowned himself emperor. After this historic event, Beethoven changed the title, and despite Napoleon’s influence on the piece, it was first publicly performed for an Austrian audience on April 7, 1805 at the Theater an der Wien. The audience was especially important in respects to the symphony’s second movement, the Marcia Funebre. Funeral marches were common in French symphonies, but Austrian and German audiences had yet to hear one in a German symphony. Because the notion of post mortem tradition was being formed by France in this period of larger scale wars , Beethoven’s inclusion of a funeral march helped establish a public, ritualistic, French custom on an international level. Beethoven conveys the ritualistic aspect of funeral marches through the second movement’s compositional features; furthermore, this movement’s use in both Beethoven’s time and present day reveals the continued political implications and heroism associated with this genre.
The compositional features of the Marcia Funebre indicate the ritualistic and characteristic aspect of funeral marches that emerged in Beethoven’s time and remained the same ever since. Beethoven’s tempo indication for the movement is adagio assai, or rather slow, suggesting the slow nature of a ceremony meant to remember, rather than speedily celebrate, the deceased. Furthermore, the piece is in 2/4, or duple meter, and includes dotted rhythms, both of which contribute to the processional element. Its opening in C minor, with the strings playing in a lower register creates a dark, somber, and serious mood, which is frequently associated with mourning. The slow tempo, duple meter, and minor key are all general compositional features that indicate a funeral march; however, the length of the movement, fugue within it, and overall aspirational quality distinguish Beethoven’s funeral march from the French ones that came before it. The movement is between thirteen to sixteen minutes long, which is considered lengthy for a middle movement of a symphony . Beethoven’s composition of a longer second movement, with fugue and coda, not only distinguishes his funeral march from others’ but also contributes to the notion that mourning and grief can take a longer time. His inclusion of a fugue elevates the movement’s expressive profile, as the sustained notes, varied entrances of the instruments, and ascending and descending sequences create tension and drama that can be described as a welling up of feeling that is typical at funeral ritual. The overall aspirational quality comes from the various key changes within the movement; the oboe’s first melody is in C-minor and is lament-like. Its second melody is more hopeful and consoling because it comes after a key change to the relative major (E flat major). The retransition brings the piece back to the original key of C-minor, and the fugue closely follows in the subdominant. The many minor to major key changes create little pockets of hope within the sorrowful mood. These oscillating sorrowful and hopeful moods are common in an expression of grief. Finally, the movement ends with the melody halting, like a sob caught in one’s throat, and the theme’s fading away indicates the withdrawal of a funeral procession. These compositional features support the ritualistic and emotional aspect of funeral marches that were emerging in Beethoven’s time and continue to be widely understood in present day. They lay the foundation for how the piece was used in Beethoven’s time and continues to be used in more modern contexts.
The second movement’s use in Beethoven’s time and in more modern times is an important point of comparison, as it reveals the continued political implications of the piece. Conceived as a political piece, it was and continues to be perceived as such; the second movement is especially political because funeral marches publicly commemorate and make a statement not only about the deceased but also the people who remain connected to the person and their values. Since the piece’s composition and publication were in the context of the Napoleonic Wars, Napoleon, a political figure in Beethoven’s time, is understood to be the hero of the Eroica . As the protagonist of the symphony, Napoleon and his troops can be interpreted as the remaining people who mourn the deaths, in the Marcia Funebre, of those who died for the sake of his political cause. Although this movement was almost always performed in the context of the entire symphony during Beethoven’s time, it has been used more recently as a stand-alone piece within political contexts; in 1945, it was used to mourn the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt and in 1963, the Boston Symphony Orchestra commemorated the assassinated John F. Kennedy with a performance of the movement . Its performance after the deaths of two U.S. presidents indicates not only its continued capability to evoke a specific mood associated with an honorable funeral tradition, but also its continued political implications. Because of its compositional features and political nature, it continues to be used as a commemoration for people who contributed to a political cause.
Other performances of the second movement as a stand-alone piece contrast its use during Beethoven’s time. In 1847, the second movement was played at the funeral of composer Felix Mendelssohn and just over a century later, in 1957, it was played at the memorial concert for conductor Arturo Toscanini . Before Beethoven’s time, the notion of how to honor a well-recognized musician was not established or uniform. The commemoration of a composer or musician on a large scale level was infrequent to nonexistent, a primary example being the burial of Mozart in a pauper’s grave. The second movement’s use in commemorating Mendelssohn and Toscanini demonstrates a change in custom that Beethoven’s piece brought about. By introducing the ritualistic custom of public mourning through the funeral march, Beethoven’s work was key in establishing internationally what had been a French tradition. The piece’s expressive profile and other compositional features established it as a common means to recognize publicly loved figures, including composers. The contrast between the second movement’s original use in Vienna as part of a concert hall symphony with political implications to a stand-alone piece commemorating public-figures demonstrates the change of the piece’s use over time. Despite the changing contexts of the piece’s performance, the unchanging element is the way in which it is perceived. Because its compositional features evoke the same feelings and establish a specific mood, the second movement has become a universal symbol and landmark work for commemorating those whom the public respects in a ritualistic, honorable way.
Furthermore, there is a contrast between the reception history of Beethoven’s public and how it is received today. The reception history of the symphony as a whole was polarized in Beethoven’s time. Some audiences of his time first received [it] to be a ?horribly long’ and ?most difficult’ piece of music. Their opinion about the individual movements, especially the second movement, stemmed from the fact that they were longer than movements from Beethoven’s prior symphonies. While the length of the piece was criticized by Beethoven’s general audiences, his very special friends maintain that precisely this symphony is a masterpiece and the public is not sufficiently educated in art to be able to grasp all of these elevated beauties. The Eroica was a symphony that greatly differed from anything that came before it, so his friends’ and the public’s sharply divided views were a response to a work of art that was completely foreign, incomparable to anything else, and eventually a precedent for future symphonies. In Beethoven’s time, public perception of distinguished art was being formed and constantly changing, so his public’s views contrast the contextualized views of today. Today, the piece is well known in the context of all of Beethoven’s symphonies, and the second movement is understood in the context of the entire Eroica. The second movement’s international use to mourn public figures indicates its popularity among and significance to audiences worldwide. This more widespread acknowledgment of the piece as a distinguished art form, which evokes feeling and represents a respected, global funeral tradition, demonstrates the modern public’s more uniform reception of the work. Furthermore, this uniformly respectful and less critical reception could also have to do with the piece’s association with heroism; it is uniformly well-received partly because the composition is a masterpiece in its own right but partly because Beethoven’s name as a great composer, as a hero, carries great weight.
The heroism, associated with Beethoven himself and the second movement is a final important point of comparison. In his time, Beethoven told Carl Czerny that he wanted to pursue a ?new path’ (lecture) after his crisis at Heiligenstadt in 1802. His response to this trying time in his life was to view his crisis as enabling rather than crippling; therefore, he composed the Eroica on a somewhat heroic search for a new ideal type (lecture). Today, even though he is not understood to be the hero of the Eroica, Beethoven’s resilience and composition of this large-scale work is perceived as heroic. The perseverance dimension that he made known in his time continues to be noted in present day, and the result is the acknowledgment of Beethoven’s composition as a heroic gesture. Not only was his composition of the piece after a contemplation of suicide heroic, but the second movement, as a funeral march, is heroic, too. A funeral march inevitably asserts prominence to the deceased due to its public nature; therefore, any time a person is commemorated with this ritual, there is an underlying, implied heroism associated with them. For example, after the Munich massacre at the 1972 Summer Olympics, the eleven Israeli athletes, perceived as international heroes, were commemorated with this piece Furthermore, there is an implied heroism associated with the people who are experiencing the overwhelming feelings, overcoming the grief, and honoring the memory of the deceased. These notions about heroes continue into present day, and the heroism associated with composer and composition are important points of comparison over time.
Beethoven’s composition of a movement that helped define post-mortem culture on an international level indicates the lasting impact of his work. Starting as a German music tradition, the second movement’s performance in the United States and around the world have made it a universal symbol for the honorable commemoration of political figures, composers, and any other publicly-perceived heroes. The second movement’s distinct compositional features support its use over time, as it evokes the same feelings despite differing contexts. Beethoven’s ability to establish and bring about change in custom with this piece indicates his impact on how the public perceives and makes use of music, as a distinct culture, over time.
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