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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 12 The First Romantics
Richard Taruskin

Whether it is fair to infer a causal nexus will forever be a matter for debate, but almost immediately after Beethoven’s confession of his progressive deafness and his social alienation, his music underwent a momentous transformation in style. As early as 1798, the ambassador to Vienna from revolutionary France, General Bernadotte, suggested to Beethoven that he write a “heroic symphony” on the subject of the charismatic young general Napoleon Bonaparte, then riding the crest of adulation for his brilliant campaigns in Italy and Egypt. In the summer of 1803, with Napoleon now (as First Consul) the effective dictator of France and idolized throughout Europe as the great exporter of political Enlightenment, Beethoven was moved to realize this plan.

The work he produced, a sinfonia eroica originally entitled “Bonaparte,” was conceived on a hitherto unprecedented scale in every dimension: size of orchestra, sheer duration, “tonal drama,” rhetorical vehemence, and (hardest to describe) a sense of overriding dynamic purpose uniting the four movements. The monumentally sublime or “heroic” style thus achieved became the mark of Beethoven’s unique greatness and, for his romantic exegetes, a benchmark of musical attainment to which all had now, hopelessly, to try and measure up. The fact that Beethoven, enraged over Napoleon’s crowning himself Emperor of the French in 1804, rescinded the dedication before the first performance of the work, substituting the possibly ironic title “Heroic Symphony Composed to Celebrate the Memory of a Great Man,” only enhanced its sublimity. It took the work beyond the level of representation into the realm of transcendental ideas.

A quick survey of the first movement of the Eroica, as it is now familiarly called, will at once reveal the astonishing earmarks of the new heroic style that seemed so suddenly to spring from Beethoven fully armed, like Athena from the head of Zeus. Analysts and critics never tire of pointing out the insignificance of the theme from which the whole huge edifice derives (a veritable bugle call), or its fortuitous resemblance to the first four bars of a theme by the twelve-year-old Mozart. The latter comes at the beginning of the Intrada (overture) to a trivial little singspiel, Bastien und Bastienne, that the boy wonder tossed off to entertain the guests at a garden party hosted by Dr. Franz Mesmer, the quack healer (Ex. 12-1).

The Eroica

ex. 12-1a W. A. Mozart, Bastien und Bastienne, first theme of intrada, mm. 1–8

The EroicaThe Eroica

ex. 12-1b W.A. Mozart, Bastien und Bastienne, intrada, whole first period

The Eroica

ex. 12-1c Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony no. 3, Op. 55 (Eroica), I, mm. 1–44 in thematic outline

There is some point to this comparison. What it shows is not that Beethoven’s theme is inane or insignificant, but more nearly the opposite: that his new style is founded on a new and explosively powerful concept of what produces a significant musical utterance. Mozart’s theme, up to the point quoted in Ex. 12-1a, is entirely conventional in its symmetry. In fairness to the young composer, Ex. 12-1b shows how the continuation of the theme is cleverly “unbalanced.” The second phrase is repeated, and its first two bars are extended in sequence, so that the total length of the theme up to the elided cadence is an interesting fourteen bars in length (4 + 4 + 2 + 2 + 2). But even these departures honor symmetry in the breach. They are by no means unusual or atypical in the music of Haydn and Mozart’s time.

Beethoven’s treatment of the same four-bar fanfare idea is altogether unprecedented in manner (Ex. 12-1c). The C♯ that immediately follows the E♭-major arpeggio on the downbeat of m. 7 is possibly the most famous single note in the entire symphonic literature, for the way it flatly contradicts all the fanfare’s implications. Rather than initiating a balancing phrase, like the fifth bar of Mozart’s theme, it can only be heard (thanks to the slur) as a violently unbalancing extension—so violently unbalancing, in fact, that the first violins, entering immediately after the C♯, are made palpably to totter for two bars. Relative harmonic stability is restored in m. 9 by the resolution of the uncanny chromatic note back to a normal scale degree (the leading tone), marked with the first of countless sforzandi to give it the force necessary to prop the tottering violins. But the two-bar “time out” in mm. 7–8 has scotched all possibility of phrase symmetry—all possibility, that is, of “themehood,” at least for the moment.

All one can do is try again. A cadence, reinforced by the wind instruments, clears the slate in mm. 14–15. (The first stab at the first theme, not counting the two-bar chordal preparation at the outset, has lasted not Mozart’s interestingly subdivided fourteen bars, but an entirely undivided and indivisible thirteen—probably the most hopelessly and designedly off-balance opening in the symphonic literature.) Balance having been provisionally restored, the winds restate the opening four-bar fanfare. In dialogue with the strings the ascending arpeggio at the end is detached and developed sequentially until the dominant is reached; whereupon harmonic motion is stalled (m. 22), preventing closure.

The long series of syncopated sforzandi that now follows (mm. 24–33) seems to push hard against a implied harmonic barrier, until an exhilarating breakthrough to the tonic (m. 36) initiates what is obviously a climactic statement of the original fanfare motif, coinciding with the first orchestral tutti, replete with martial trumpets and drums. Even this statement, however, dissipates in a sequence without achieving closure. Instead, after eight bars (m. 42), a decisive pull away from the tonic (by means of an augmented sixth resolving to F, the dominant’s dominant) launches the modulation to the secondary key.

What we have been given, in short, is a thematic exposition that furnishes no stable point of departure, but that instead involves us from the beginning in a sense of turbulent dynamic growth: not state, so to speak, but process; not being, to put it philosophically (and romantically), but Becoming. The theme is not so much presented as it is achieved—achieved through struggle. The clarity of metaphor here, instantly apprehended by contemporary listeners, lent this music from the beginning an unprecedented ethical potency.

Not that the metaphor was in any way categorical or determinate in meaning. As the music theorist Scott Burnham has put it, the struggle-and-achievement paradigm could be attached to Napoleon (as “Beethoven’s hero”) or to the composer himself (as “Beethoven Hero,” Burnham’s name for the “author-persona” of the Eroica).26 It could as easily be felt as a metaphor for the listener’s own inner life, thus potentially symbolizing bourgeois self-realization, or liberation, or religious transcendence. In any event, as Burnham points out, Beethoven’s achievement provided the supreme symbolic expression of the chief philosophical and political ideals of its time and place. He calls it, in the tradition of German cultural history, the “Goethezeit,” the time of the great polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832)—poet, playwright, philosopher, and natural scientist in one. He makes it clear, though, that the time might better have been called the “Beethovenzeit,” for precisely with Beethoven, and by force of his example, music achieved its century-long preeminence in the eyes of all romantic artists.

The Eroica

fig. 12-7 Goethe in the Roman Campagna (1787) by Johann Heinrich Tischbein.

But of course the Eroica movement is only just getting underway. Closure is deliberately, indeed demonstratively, withheld even from the climactic statement of the theme. Dynamic process continues through the modulatory section that now ensues, carrying the listener along through a great wealth of new melodic ideas before the second theme is even reached—and when it finally arrives, at m. 83, it provides no more than a brief touching-down on the way to the main cadence of the exposition.

The formal development section having been reached, the same structural/ethical process that shaped the opening theme will be seen to operate at the global level as well, giving shape to the entire 691-measure movement, which thus emerges not as a gigantic sprawl but as a single directed span—or, to recall Goethe the naturalist, a single organic growth. The same rhetorical gesture that governed the very first statement of the fanfare—that of a disruptive detour enabling a triumphant return—will shape the movement as a whole, lending the opening statement a quality of prophesy and the whole a quality of fated consequence.

Of course the “there-and-back” or pendular harmonic plan had been a fundamental shaper of musical form for a hundred years or more when Beethoven composed the Eroica; of course his music was rooted in that tradition and depended on it both for its coherence and for its intelligibility. Moreover, his accomplishment could be looked upon as a continuation of Mozart’s and (particularly) Haydn’s earlier project of dramatizing the binary plan: that, we may recall, is what “symphonic” style was all about from the beginning. And yet the difference in degree of drama—or more to the point, of disruption and concomitant expansion—in Beethoven’s treatment of the plan seemed to his contemporaries, and can easily still seem, to be tantamount to a difference in kind.

Consider the move to the “far-out point” (FOP) in the development section, starting (for those with access to the score) at m. 220. That measure recommends itself as an access point because tonal progress up to it has been slow. In fact, the harmony is the same E♭ triad that elsewhere in the piece functions as the tonic. Here, however, owing to its preparation (an augmented sixth on F♭, precisely analogous to the one on G♭ with which Ex. 12-1c ended) it is clearly identified as the local dominant of A♭, the global subdominant. The harmony rocks gently back and forth for a while between the local dominant and the local tonic before a move to F minor (m. 236) incites a fugato, a common tactic for speeding up harmonic rhythm toward an implied goal.

And then it happens. Just as in the exposition at m. 25 ff, the harmony stalls and strains against an invisible barrier suggested by the same syncopated sforzandi as before (Ex. 12-2). Only this time (m. 248) it stalls not on a primary harmonic function of whose eventual resolution there is no doubt, but on a diminished-seventh chord built on G♯(—enharmonically equivalent to A♭, the local tonic, but now implying resolution to A, a note altogether outside the tonic scale. The stall therefore arrests the harmonic motion at a far more threatening point; for even when resolution takes place (m. 254), there is no sense of achievement—just another stall. Six measures later the A minor harmony is resolved “Phrygianly” to an even more remote sonority, a dominant-seventh on B-natural, presaging even less satisfying prospects for resolution than before (see Ex. 12-2).

The EroicaThe Eroica

ex. 12-2 Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony no. 3, Op. 55 (Eroica), I, mm. 248–65

And it is indeed to that unlikely goal—E-natural, seemingly a further-out FOP than ever approached before—that resolution is eventually made, but not before one last detour through another set of wrenching harmonic stalls that finally reapproaches the dominant-seventh-of-E through the Neapolitan of that unclassifiable key, expressed in a fiercely dissonant form that retains as a suspension the high flute E from the preceding C-major chord (the flat submediant of the looming key, suggesting that it will materialize in the minor). The suspended E rubs painfully against F, the chord root, in the other flute part. For fully four excruciating measures (mm. 276–279) this ear-splitting harmony is hammered out—and then simply dropped (Ex. 12-3).

The grating semitone between the flutes is never resolved; resolution takes place only by implication, in another register, played on other instruments (the E resolving to the first violins’ D♯ in m. 280, the F, most unconventionally, to the viola F♯. The resolution chord, delayed by a disruptive rest on the downbeat of measure 280, still throbs tensely owing to the second violins’ C-natural, suspended from the preceding chord, which adds a minor ninth to the dominant seventh on B. Tension is reduced by degrees: the C moves to B in measure 282, the remaining dissonance (A, the chord seventh) to G in measure 284. The smoke has metaphorically cleared, and we are left in E minor, the “unclassified” tonality adumbrated twenty-four measures before, with no immediate prospect of return to harmonic terra firma.

The Eroica

ex. 12-3 Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony no. 3, Op. 55 (Eroica), I, mm. 276–288.

So far from home no symphonic development had ever seemed to stray before. Having dramatized the disruption, Beethoven now dramatizes the sense of distance by unexpectedly introducing a new theme in the unearthly new key (mm. 284ff). It has been argued that this theme is a counterpoint to an embellished variant of the main theme of the movement (see Ex. 12-4), hence not really a new theme at all. But even if one accepts the demonstration shown in Ex. 12-4, the novelty of the music at m. 284 is striking—as indeed it must be, because it performs an unprecedented function within the movement’s dramatic unfolding. By far the most placid, most symmetrically presented melody in the movement, it expresses not “process” but “state” for a change—the state of being tonally adrift.

The Eroica

ex. 12-4 Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony no. 3, Op. 55 (Eroica), I, the relationship between the E minor theme at mm. 284ff and the main theme of the first movement

And yet, there being only twelve possible tone centers, and only six degrees of remoteness (since once past the midpoint, whether reckoning by the circle of fifths or by the chromatic scale, one is circling not out but back), one is never quite as far away from home as one is made at such moments to feel. Beethoven engineers a “retransitional” coup similar to the one we have already encountered in the slow movement from Mozart’s G-major piano concerto, K. 453 (Ex. 11-5), whereby the seeming outermost reaches of tonal space are traversed in a relative twinkling. But where Mozart did it with maximum smoothness, to amaze (and perhaps amuse), Beethoven does it with maximum drama, to inspire and thrill.

Understood enharmonically, as F♭, E-natural is equivalent to (II, the flatted or “Neapolitan” second degree of the scale, just a stone’s throw from the tonic on the circle of fifths. Beethoven does not take quite such a direct route home; but he might as well have done, since by mm. 315–316 he has achieved the essential linkage, hooking up the flat supertonic broached in m. 284 with V and I of the original key, its implied successors along the circle of fifths. All harmonies on either side of this essential link amount to rhetorical feinting, staving off the inevitable moment of “double return,” when the tonic key and the first theme will at last make explosive contact.

The purpose of strategic delay, or “deferred gratification,” is, as always, the enhancement of the emotional payoff when the long-awaited event is finally allowed to occur. It does not happen until m. 398, by which time suspense has been deliberately jacked up to an unbearable degree (see Ex. 12-5, which begins twenty measures earlier)—so literally unbearable, in fact, that at m. 394 the first horn goes figuratively berserk, personifying and “acting out” the listener’s agony of expectation by breaking in on the violins—still dissonantly and exasperatingly protracting the dominant function in a seemingly endless tremolo—with a premature entry on the first theme in the tonic.

The EroicaThe Eroica

ex. 12-5 Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony no. 3, Op. 55 (Eroica), I, mm. 378–405

So unprecedented was this bold psychological stroke that it was at first mistaken, even by the composer’s close associates, for a sort of prank. His pupil and assistant Ferdinand Ries (1784–1838) described it in his memoirs as a “mischievous whim” (böse Laune), and recalled that

At the first rehearsal of the symphony, which was horrible, but at which the horn player made his entry correctly, I stood beside Beethoven, and, thinking that a blunder had been made, I said: “Can’t the damned hornist count?—it’s so obviously wrong!” I think I came pretty close to receiving a box on the ear. Beethoven did not forgive the slip for a long time.27

Far from a blunder or a miscount, the horn entrance dramatizes once again in retrospect the unprecedented scope of the tonal journey the movement has traversed and the pent-up emotional stimulation such a journey generates as it nears its desired fulfillment.

Nor is this the only way in which Beethoven will exploit the sense of disruption caused within the movement by the digression in mid-development to a new theme in a remote key. As in the exposition of the first theme, what is done first at a local level is later recast on the global plane. Full redemption of the movement’s disruptive forces, and full discharge of its tonal tensions will come only after the apparent end of the recapitulation, in a mammoth coda that begins at m. 557 with a shockingly sudden irruption of D♭, the enharmonic equivalent of the pitch that sounded the first disruptive note of all, way back in m. 7. This probably comes as a bigger surprise than anything else in the movement, but like most of Beethoven’s “disruptions” it is a strategic maneuver, enabling the control of longer and longer time spans by a single functional impulse.

The coda thus convulsively introduced takes up and resolves two pieces of unfinished business. First it effectively recapitulates the E-minor theme within the normal purview of the tonic by having it appear in F minor, the ordinary diatonic (“unflatted”) supertonic. But that is only by the way. The coda’s main business is at last to provide the fully articulated, cadentially closed version of the opening theme that has been promised from the very start of the movement, but that has never materialized. It arrives at m. 631 in the form of a quietly confident horn solo that makes up, as it were, for the horn’s harried “false entrance” 237 bars earlier. Its swingingly symmetrical eight-bar phrase finally juxtaposes tonic and dominant versions of the opening arpeggio, thus for the first time closing the harmonic circle at close range (Ex. 12-6).

Four times the phrase is repeated, together with its rushing countersubject, in a massive crescendo that ultimately engulfs the whole orchestra, the trumpets and drums entering on the third go-round with a military tattoo (pickup to m. 647) and, on the fourth, finally breaking the melodic surface in a final thematic peroration. Yet even this crest is immediately trumped by one final disruption, the diminished-seventh chord in mm. 663–664, with D♭/C♯ (what else?) as the climactic note in the bass. From here there is nothing left to do but retake the goal in one last eight-bar phrase, after which only a clinching I-V-I remains—with the V extended through one more characteristic “stall” (mm. 681 ff) to bring home the final pair of tonic chords (mirroring the pair at the other end of the movement and retrospectively justifying it) as one last victory through struggle.

The EroicaThe Eroica

ex. 12-6 Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony no. 3, Op. 55 (Eroica), I, mm. 631–639

One listens to a movement like this with a degree of mental and emotional engagement no previous music had demanded, and one is left after listening with a sense of satisfaction only strenuous exertions, successfully consummated, can vouchsafe. Beethoven’s singular ability to summon that engagement and grant that satisfaction is what invested his “heroic” music with its irresistible sense of high ethical purpose and power. It is not the devices themselves—anyone’s devices, after all—that so enthrall the listener, but the singleness of design that they conspire to create, the scale on which they enable the composer to work, and the metaphors to which these stimuli give rise in the mind of the listener.

The exalted climactic statement of the opening theme in particular makes use of a cluster of devices—accumulating sonority over an ostinato swinging regularly between the harmonic poles—that as the “Rossini crescendo” would soon cap the overtures to the zaniest comic operas ever written, operas that ever after would scandalize Beethoven’s high-minded German devotees with their Italianate frivolity. Anyone’s devices indeed: their effect is entirely a matter of context.

In the Beethovenian context, far from a light amusement, the big regular crescendo brings long-awaited closure to a tonal drama of unprecedented scope. That long-deferred resolution is what creates in the listener what Hoffmann called the “unutterable portentous longing” that is the hallmark of romantic art. That “purely musical” tension and release, powerfully enacted in a wordless context, is what produces in the listener such a total immersion in what Hoffmann called “the spirit world of the infinite.”


(26) See Scott Burnham, Beethoven Hero (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), p. xviii.

(27) Ferdinand Ries, Biographische Notizen über Ludwig van Beethoven (1838), in Beethoven: Impressions By His Contemporaries, ed. O. G. Sonneck, (New York: Schirmer, 1926), p. 54.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 12 The First Romantics." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 6 Apr. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-12005.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 12 The First Romantics. In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 6 Apr. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-12005.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 12 The First Romantics." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 6 Apr. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-12005.xml