Beethoven was no hero. Was he?

Beethoven was no hero. Was he?


norman lebrecht

March 14, 2020

Welcome to the 44th work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition

Symphony No 3 ‘Eroica’, opus 55 (1805)

So much nonsense has been spouted about the origins of the Eroica Symphony that we need to get the dedication page out of the way before we can discuss the music. Back to the earliest testimony, Beethoven’s secretary Ferdinand Ries writes that he named the symphony for Napoleon, ‘but Buonaparte when he was First Consul. At that time Beethoven held him in the highest esteem and compared him to the great consuls of Ancient Rome. I, as well as other close friends, saw this symphony on his table, fully scored, with the word “Buonaparte” inscribed at the very top of the title-page and “Luigi van Beethoven” at the very bottom.’

Ries says he felt obliged to tell Beethoven that Buonaparte had declared himself Emperor, at which the composer cried, ‘a tyrant!’ Seizing the top of the title-page, he tore it in half and threw it on the floor. ‘The first page was rewritten and … the Symphony entitled Sinfonia eroica.’

The first edition reads ‘Sinfonia Eroica … composta per festeggiare il sovvenire di un grande Uomo (composed to celebrate the memory of a great man)’. Who was the great man? Could it have been the memory of Napoleon before he became a megalomaniac? Beethoven never explained. What we do know is that he received a fee for the work from an Austrian nobleman, Prince Lobkowitz, whom he could not afford to offend by mentioning a French conqueror. In changing the title, he fudged the issue. Yet it is this symphony, more than any other until the Ninth, that earned Beethoven his reputation as a romantic hero, a rebel against autocracy.


The symphony makes a martial opening statement, dissolves into a funereal second movement, quickens into a nervous scherzo and reverts to a heroic finale in which the main theme is plucked provocatively on strings. That finale theme is taken from a frivolous ballet. Beethoven is playing games with our minds, tossing out ambiguities, appealing in different ways to hearts and minds. At around 50 minutes, the symphony is daringly long, twice as long as any of Haydn’s or Mozart’s. The first performance, on April 7, 1805, at the Theater an der Wien, was received with mixed admiration and irritation. Several reviewers advised Beethoven to shorten it before the next concert.

In its recorded history, two lines are drawn in the sand – the heroic attitude, exemplified by Felix Weingartner (1936) Toscanini (1939) and others of that troubled era – and the ambivalent, most compellingly evoked in December 1944 by Wilhelm Furtwängler in Vienna, an account in which the conductor is determined not to be pinned down which side he is on. No maestro so vividly captured time and place as the wispy Furtwängler, a sensistised human barometer on two stick-like legs. His funeral movement sounds like an irreligious requiem for the whole of civilisation. Recording the symphony again eight years later in Berlin, at even more sombre tempo, he draws shafts of light and hope. Whatever Furtwängler was feeling at the time, that’s what we hear.

I am completely gripped by Oskar Fried’s 1924 recording from Berlin, starting with what sounds like a firing squad and proceeding to embrace all of Beethoven’s shifting shadows, most notably at the opening of the finale. Fried was one of Gustav Mahler’s proteges, the first to conduct the Resurrection Symphony under his guidance; there is something of Mahler in his structural security and emotional finesse. By contrast, another Mahler acquaintance, the composer Hans Pfitzner, is horribly over-explicit in his 1929 Berlin recording of the opening movement. Curiosity seekers will find more to enjoy in a courteous performance by King Frederick IX of Denmark, a capable musician by all accounts, with a very safe hand on the baton.

The music director of La Scala, Victor de Sabata, came to London in 1946 to make a Decca recording with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. His approach to the opening movement of the Eroica is so much gentler than Toscanini’s that you rub your ears in amazement that these two share the same culture and language. De Sabata’s is a highly agreeable account, so agreeable it errs on the side of neutrality.

Hermann Abendroth – Leipzig, 1949 – is magnetic in the funeral movement. One of the most skilled batons of his time, Abendroth whitewashed his Nazi past by becoming a member of the East German state assembly and a cultural ambassador for the oppressive regime. He died a national hero in 1956, unappreciated abroad.


Erich Kleiber with the Concertgebouw in 1950 is indispensable, and I don’t use that word of many recordings. If you need to teach someone how to conduct the Eroica, start here. At no time in a brisk 45 minutes do you think the symphony could be played any other way.

No less definitive are Ferenc Fricsay (Berlin, 1961), with the most finely tuned Scherzo movement of all, and Otto Klemperer (Vienna, 1963), a crusty old master who belies his image to deliver a reading of true tenderness.

No less deceptive is George Szell in Cleveland (1957), where, after a peremptory opening, the conductor allows himself to linger, Karajan-like, on transient beauties without disrupting the flow. Szell used disciplinarian methods to create a great orchestra in a smokestack city. An insecure man, he fretted over poor record sales and expected to get fired any day by CBS Records, which also had Bernstein on its books. Bernstein’s Eroica is one of his most inspired recordings, but Szell here gives a masterclass, fault-free and foolproof.

The period instrument movement of the 1980s brought a welter of alternatives, among whom Frans Brüggen and Roger Norrington shoot to the top of the pile with readings of unflashy integrity – unlike John Eliot Gardiner who just can’t get out of the Eroica fast enough. Nikolaus Harnoncourt, with a slimline Chamber Orchestra of Europe, conjures up the small confines of his noble family’s Viennese ballroom. Even more intimate is Maxim Emelyanychev and the Soloists of Nizhny Novgorod, performing in 2018 as if for a few friends in a railway station waiting room.

Among 21st century takes, Claudio Abbado, Simon Rattle, Philippe Jordan and Manfred Honeck deliver enjoyable performances that fall just short of commanding. The conductor who arrests my attention is Riccardo Chailly with Gewandhausorchester Leipzig in 2011, extremely fast at 43 minutes and combining Toscanini whiplash with the memorial solemnity of Szell and Fricsay in orchestral sound of maximal clarity.

If I could only have three Eroicas, I’d pick Furtwängler, Szell and Chailly, with Emelyanchev a very close contender. None is remotely heroic.



  • Escamillo says:

    When Napoleon died and his remains were returned to Paris in the greatest pomp and ceremony, Beethoven was asked if he was going to commemorate the event with a musical composition. He replied that he had already done so – with the funeral movement of the Eroica. So, clearly the Napoleonic connection remained intact as far as Beethoven was concerned.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    Toscanini, Furtwangler, E. Kleiber, Fricsay, Klemperer, Karajan.

  • John Borstlap says:

    The piece has been played far too much, but nonetheless it is a marvellous work, not only for its ‘heroism’ but for its narrative and construction, full of invention and expression, and yet thoroughly classical in spirit.

  • Peter San Diego says:

    Weingartner, Furtwangler, E. Kleiber, Fricsay, Klemperer, Szell, Norrington

    and Napoleon Symphony by Anthony Burgess. 😉

    • Yi Peng Li says:

      Would you add Gardiner’s version to your list too? I find that Norrington underplays some of the moments of high emotion in this piece.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Fora truly heroic eroica there’s Furtwaengler’s live 1944 VPO recording, with no audiene, unimaginably intense. All hisothers, live and studio, are worth hearing. The opening thermo-nu clear chords,the tread of the giant, the funeral march and its double fugue, the scherzo’s horn trio, and the vertiginous finale stay long in the memory.

  • Yi Peng Li says:

    I’ve heard Norrington’s two versions of the Eroica, both his 1980s London Classical Players version and his SWR retake.

    There is momentum, verve and clarity in the livelier passages and I agree with Kenyon’s observation in the Building a Library programme on the Eroica that he penetrates a little more than the other 80s period instrument recordings (Hogwood and Goodman). However, at times I felt he underplayed some of the climactic moments of high emotion. His two readings of the funeral march tend to be faster than others, and only Grossman’s version with Ensemble 28 outpaces him there.

    Gardiner’s DG Archiv reading might be one of the highlights in his cycle. He is not afraid of the ruffianly tendencies in the music and the shocking discords in the development. Also, his version of the funeral march expands a little more than it does in the two Norrington performances.

    I am wondering if you’ve also discussed Mackerras’s Hyperion version and even Antonini and the Kammerorchester Basel in the symphony? I’m sure they can be strong 21st-century contenders alongside the likes of Rattle, Abbado or Chailly.

  • Brian says:

    [redacted: falsehood]
    But what about the music, the variations, the “hunting” horns in the scherzo? What about the third theme in the Allegro, the Fugato in the Marcia Funebre? Toscanini replied to the question what the Eroica represented to him: Allegro con brio.
    And yes, the piece is heroic. Not so much for breaching conventions as such but for the fact that the Allegro doesn’t fall apart despite the third theme. It should be unbalanced but miraculously it still somehow works.
    My favourite Eroica: the one I witnessed in the RFH with Muti and the VPO, no recording available.

  • M McAlpine says:

    Chailly is far too concerned with speed for me and the whole thing is breathless.Klemperer is too slow in the first movement for Allegro con brio but the funeral march is magnificent. I was never too much taken with Karajan’s last DG cycle but it does contain a magnificent Eroica in the remastered Gold edition. Gardiner also conducted a really good Eroica for the movie Eroica – better than his studio version.

    • Yi Peng Li says:

      I’m hoping that Gardiner and the ORR have the chance to issue new recordings of the symphonies on the Soli Deo Gloria label.

      Tell me, have you also heard Mackerras’s Scottish Chamber Orchestra version on Hyperion and also Antonini with the Kammerorchester Basel/ Mackerras is fastidious and detailed. I am fond of his Scottish version because he has more affinity with this orchestra. Also, Antonini’s version benefits from the given-and-take between the different sections and the way they shape phrases into conversation. I like the way they scale up their sound for big tuttis and I like the poise and gravitas in the way they do the funeral march.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    I am a bit surprised to see no mention of the Cleveland Orchestra’s fine 1983 recording with Christoph von Dohnányi on the Telarc label.

    I am even more surprised not to see at least a mention of the astonishing interpretation of Hermann Scherchen (the Westminster recording with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra). He risks all, particularly in the three allegro movements – con brio for the first, vivace for the scherzo, and then molto for the finale, where it is as if the music has been thrown down the stairs in a fury before presenting the variation theme, utterly removed from any thought of the ballet.

  • Evan Tucker says:

    Klemperer ’57 in Copenhagen or Cologne, Karajan’s last go in 1984, Abendroth in Leipzig with the MDR, Scherchen’s blitzkrieg in Vienna, Bernstein in Vienna, Wand – especially with the DSO Berlin, Tennstedt with the NDR, Leibowitz, and Szell but with the Czech Philharmonic at Salzburg in ’63.

  • Edgar Self says:

    The unusual NEOS CD published in 2004 re-reates the semi-private first performance of the “Eroica” led by Beethoven with 28 players in the Lobkowitz Palace. Walter Grossmann conducts “Ensemble 28” with the same forces in the same place. It works. Their scherzo horn trio is perhaps the best I’ve ever heard anywhere.

    I want to hear the Scherchen mentioned by Mr. Nelson. When he’s good, as in Leonore Two, William Tell, or St. Matthew Passion, he is full of ideas and hard to beat.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Beethoven wrote a touching note to the first performance’s organizer saying that he really needed three or four good violins he could depend on.

  • bs1860 says:

    Hermann Scherchen???

  • Willem Philips says:

    Confusing. Why a photo of Ristenpart’s Checkmate (Nonesuch) recording with absolutely not a word of comment about it?

  • Charlie says:

    Furtwängler’s 1944 Vienna version plays as I write. It is staggering. The Funeral march seems to be for all of Europe. You’re so right that whatever WF had on his mind is what one hears at each performance, even a studio one. His later performances (of pretty much any music) are sad statements of a disillusioned man, and compelling in their own way as such. This, in 1944, is clearly doom-laden and at times caustic. (If it’s a live recording, then for the time it’s in amazingly good sound, by the way… does anyone know if that’s the case? The date of 19-20 December give the impression it was a studio effort… and if it is I bet WF did it in 4 takes, one per movt.)