Beethoven composed his Third Symphony in 1803 and conducted the first public performance on April 7, 1805, in Vienna. Written during one of the lowest points in Beethoven’s life, after the painful confirmation of worsening deafness and mounting depression, the challenge of an important and substantial new symphony became, for the composer, a great rallying cry and a heroic feat in its own right. Beethoven intended to name his Third Symphony for Napoleon Bonaparte having contemplated such a piece since 1798, however, when the news reached Vienna that Napoleon had declared himself emperor, Beethoven tore up the title page in a fit of rage. A century later, Toscanini famously stated, “Some say it is Napoleon, some Hitler, some Mussolini. For me, it is simply Allegro con brio.” When it came time to publish, Beethoven suggested, “Sinfonia Eroica, composed to celebrate the memory of a great man,” without mentioning to which man he referred.
The greatest achievement of the Eroica is that Beethoven created a symphonic energy that frames and proclaims a human drama, thus marking the beginning of the Romantic period in classical music. To the Viennese audience at the first performance, the unexpected length of the first movement and the miserable funeral march that follows sounded like nothing else in all of music. It’s the mysterious momentum that is the true “heroism” of the work. The victory at the end, not traditionally quick or breezy, but a lengthy set of variations and fugue, doesn’t simply represent Napoleon, or Beethoven, but all possibilities of triumph.