What they're really thinking: the truth about 'Eroica'

What they're really thinking: the truth about 'Eroica'
Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ is lauded as the symphony that changed everything, a musical masterpiece so revolutionary that its influence is felt in everything we hear two centuries later. But is this just marketing rhetoric, a grandiose claim made by people whose job it is to entice audiences to a concert?

Well, we put our players in a room together and asked them what they really think of the symphony; what it’s like to perform, what it means to them, how it fits into musical life today. Here’s what they said, warts and all…

Let’s start at the beginning:

Tom Lee (Percussion): “‘Eroica’ has got the shortest introduction of any symphony ever. Two notes. Up until that point, symphonies had started with long, often pretty arduous introductions where you might hear a slow version of a theme that would appear later. But this was the symphony where Beethoven really broke away from the norm and developed his own style. So instead, you just get E FLAT MAJOR! E FLAT MAJOR! START THE PIECE!. It’s very direct, it makes you sit up and take notice; bang, bang and you’re there, right in the thick of it.”

Helena Gourd (Flute): “Straight away you can tell he just wants to break free from the traditions of the era before. He seems quite frustrated as though he just wants to yell “I’ve got something better to say!”


The beginning of the 'Eroica' Symphony, here performed by the Berliner Philharmoniker.

TL: “The first movement is the really heroic part of the symphony because there’s a lot of stress and tension, then reconciliation at the end. That’s like the struggle for the hero of the story. The rhythm in the first movement, all the offbeats, is how he’s injecting tension, all the while pulling at the threads of Classical-era writing.”

Jack Maran Hewetson (Bass):
“I really like the rhythm; it’s the most rhythmic symphony in the first movement. I think it’s amazing – it sounds very modern, not dated at all.”

Sarah Berger (Cello):
“I also think it’s one of the most complicated cello parts I’ve played in a Beethoven symphony. It’s incredibly intricate and the cellos have a lot of melodies, which wasn’t typical for pieces written earlier. It’s a really active part.”

JMH: “It’s also very loud and that’s quite hard, playing so loud for so long. Yet, as much as I love it, ‘Eroica’ does feel like it’s overcomposed sometimes, like it’s overdone. It feels like he poured so much into it that sometimes it seems just very slightly over the top. I enjoy listening to all of it, but there are points where you feel Beethoven might be being a little too self-indulgent; just little moments where you think ‘was that really necessary?’ If you look at Beethoven’s Fifth, it’s not very long at all and the whole thing feels very taut – it’s really to the point, especially in the first movement. In comparison, sometimes ‘Eroica’ is just so expansive.”

TL: “Actually, Jack half-convinced me there because when you hear a piece where every note absolutely matters, you really feel that. But still, in the first three movements of ‘Eroica’ I can’t think of a note that doesn’t matter. But if you were to talk about which of the movements was the most self-indulgent, would it be the first one because of its length? Yet I feel like the first movement really has to take that lengthy journey to cover all the emotional intent, and to reach its climax and really feel it.”

Ioana Forna (violin):
“He’s put all his faith in it and you can really hear that, which might be why it sometimes feels laboured or over-composed. He really believed in something and really wanted that to come across. I think when you play it you desperately want to know what was happening in his head, but of course we don’t really have a clue – we just have to make educated guesses. But to see someone putting all his faith in this belief [of democratic French revolutionary ideals] is really incredible.”

TL: “I think it’s important to be informed about history, and Napoleon in this context, but the thing about Beethoven is that he’s timeless and that it does actually speak to you regardless. ‘Eroica’ is so directly engaging and energised; I heard this piece before knowing the context of it and I think that it can equally be about getting up out of bed in the morning as much as a French revolutionary who goes bad. It’s personal; you draw on your own experiences. To play or hear that second, funereal movement, that’s going to play to your own inner sense – whatever that may be.”

And who exactly is the hero in ‘Eroica’? Is it the young Napoleon, initially so full of liberating ideals?

TL: “It could also be interpreted as quite autobiographical – Beethoven could see himself as the artistic hero, especially in the first movement, as he goes through all this stress. He sees himself as this Übermensch.”

Tinny Cheung (Oboe):
“Yet the idea of the symphony, regardless of its dedication, is about democracy and freedom for the people, so for me personally there isn’t a particular person but an ideology that’s heroic.”

Bartosz Kwasecki (Bassoon):
“I think the hero is really the audience. The music is written for someone and without the audience, without anyone to listen to it, what’s the point in it?”

Imogen Hancock (Trumpet): “But without the composer there wouldn’t be any music…”

Ralitsa Naydenova (Viola): “...and Beethoven turns music in a completely different way, including for the musicians themselves. He was a very challenging composer for the musicians. At the time people were not so advanced as musicians, technically, and he expands the boundaries by writing very high notes or writing very unusual techniques for string players.”

Great, well that’s that all cleared up then! One thing’s for sure though, this symphony remains contentious and inspiring in equal measure. If you add the boundless energy of conductor Rebecca Miller – described by The Times as “a miracle of perpetual motion” – into the mix, our next Free Rush Hour Concert promises to be a fiery affair.

Find out more about our Free Rush Hour Concerts at St John's Waterloo here.

Find out more about the musicians of Southbank Sinfonia here.