David LoebelConductor David Loebel writes about works he has programmed with the NEC Symphony on February 11, as part of New England Conservatory's year-long festival on the theme of Music: Truth to Power. Joseph Schwantner's New Morning for the World uses texts by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that will be read by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick in this performance. Ludwig van Beethoven's Third Symphony ("Eroica") may or may not be "about" Napoleon, and carries a tale of Beethoven's own evolving view of Napoleon's status as "hero."

Music: Truth to PowerNapoleon to Dr. King:
Where Are the Heroes?

The worldwide outpouring of emotion at the recent death of Nelson Mandela vividly reminded us that celebrity and heroism, while not always the same, sometimes do coalesce magnificently in the life of a great man. Like Martin Luther King (whose moving words are the basis for Joseph Schwantner’s New Morning for the World), Mandela risked his life for the greater causes of freedom and justice. In today’s world, Aung San Suu Kyi and Malala Yousafzai come to mind as heroines following a similar path.

The subtitle of Beethoven’s Third Symphony (“Eroica”) may or may not refer to political or military heroism. Famously, Beethoven originally subtitled the symphony Bonaparte and dedicated it to Napoleon; when Beethoven learned in 1804 that Napoleon had crowned himself Emperor, he angrily erased the dedication. When the symphony was published two years later, Beethoven described it as Sinfonia eroica … composta per festeggiare il sovvenire di un grand Uomo (Heroic Symphony … composed to celebrate the memory of a great man).

What did Beethoven mean by “heroic?” His feelings about Napoleon were always ambivalent. In fact, Beethoven might have had a more mundane reason for the dedication; he was considering moving to Paris and may have thought that dedicating a symphony to Napoleon would help introduce him to the French capitol.

A different hero can be found in the Eroica’s fourth movement. Beethoven had used its main theme in his ballet The Creatures of Prometheus and also in the so-called “Eroica Variations” for piano. In Greek mythology, Prometheus was the creator of mankind who disobeyed the Gods by giving man the gift of fire; his combination of strong action and principled defiance surely appealed to Beethoven. Others have suggested that the hero of the Eroica is Beethoven himself; in this interpretation, the symphony is a self-portrait of a solitary artist rebelling against aristocratic patronage.

Perhaps Lewis Lockwood’s answer to the question is the most equitable:

The “hero” of the Eroica is not a single figure but a composite of heroes of different types and different situations. In the first movement the heroic is felt in musical images that evoke grandeur, conflict and nobility of spirit; in the slow movement a fallen hero is mourned and brought to final rest; in the Scherzo and above all the Trio, we hear horn calls to battle […] And the finale evokes a “Promethean” hero who […] brought wisdom and the arts and sciences to the world.

The identity of the Eroica’s hero would be merely incidental if the symphony were not one of a small handful of works that changed music forever. Just as Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps challenged how composers thought about harmony and rhythm, so the Eroica questioned the very idea of what music could express. It reached higher, inhabited a wider and deeper musical space, and made demands on its listeners as no previous symphony had. Beethoven’s audience must have been completely bewildered by its unprecedented length (the first movement alone is as long as many of Haydn’s or Mozart’s early symphonies), its harmonic and formal adventurousness, and its shocking dissonances.

Toscanini’s quip—"To some it is Napoleon, to some it is Alexander the Great, to some it is philosophic struggle, to me it is allegro con brio"— recognizes that the Eroica’s extra-musical associations are irrelevant to its claim to greatness. Nonetheless, it was that defiant removal of Napoleon’s name from the dedication that ensured the Eroica’s standing as both a towering piece of music and a manifesto for political and spiritual freedom.

The Eroica’s emotional intensity must have struck its early audiences as unseemly, even as later audiences came to recognize its power and relevance. One need look no further than the second movement, a funeral march which remains one of music’s most poignant expressions of grief. Yet, it is surely significant that Beethoven followed this tragic movement with music filled with energy, hope, and nobility.

In doing so Beethoven reminds us that our lives are filled with dualities: freedom and tyranny, light and darkness, acceptance and prejudice, life and death. These dualities are of a piece, each half existing side by side and, by definition, unable to exist without the other. Similarly, Martin Luther King’s message of brotherhood and Beethoven’s affirmation of humankind’s heroic potential continue to resonate, even as we are reminded daily that idealism like theirs remains a lonely and frustrating path.