While all music is, of course, a product of its culture, the notes and rhythms that stem from rebellion and revolution tend to ring louder than most. Among others, Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Doors gave perspective on the Vietnam War, The Clash and The Exploited gave a voice to disenfranchised youth, and David Bowie marked a stark turning point in sexual and gender politics in music. Much of this, unavoidably, is sparked by lyrical content, the words and turns of phrases that spawn ideas, make elders blush, and help ignite the sparks of change.
But what about music without words? The instrumental tradition of classical music may seem tame when stacked against black metal or G.G. Allin, but this hardly diminishes the impact. Divorced from obvious narratives, instrumental music is inherently more abstract than the example provided yet, considering time and context, not necessarily less controversial. Arnold Schoenberg obliterated (or equalized, depending whom you ask) traditional music ideals with serialism. Igor Stravinsky didn’t actually start a riot with the Paris premiere of his Rite of Spring, but he undeniably provoked questions of primitive rhythms in art music. And of course, John Cage has upset scores of uptight purists without a single sound.
With Beethoven’s Eroica: The First Great Romantic Symphony James Hamilton–Paterson focuses on the transition between the Classical and Romantic periods of art music. The former represented restraint, charm, and grace, while the later idealized emotion, introspection, and internal struggle. It’s easy to listen to Beethoven’s third symphony today as a fairly traditionally orchestral work, yet it was avant-garde upon its 1805 debut. Considering the composer’s personal history, a shifting political climate, and reactions to prevalent musical norms, Beethoven’s Eroica is a fantastic read about a revolutionary composition that completely transformed the art music world.
Classical music prior to the 20th century isn’t the most relevant topic in our current cultural zeitgeist. As complex and thrilling as this established canon may be, Kendrick Lamar has far more to say about our complex modern ear. Writing about one of the most important works from the classical tradition for modern audiences is a challenge, but Hamilton–Paterson delivers a rich and engaging text. His introductory chapter/glossary contains enough information about musical structures and stylistic issues to provide a broad sense of context without becoming exhaustive. There’s plenty of avenues for deep dives for the historically inclined, but Beethoven’s Eroica is concerned with the immediate narrative.
In the first few chapters Hamilton–Paterson colors Beethoven’s childhood as a painful experience. Enough is dedicated to tragic home life (ill mother, drunk and abusive father) to catch up uninformed readers without boring music history buffs. Early in the book, the author outlines connections to the Freemasons as links to themes of brotherhood and progressively artistic pursuits. Likewise, Beethoven is painted as a rebellious figure, one concerned less with the (perceived) antiquated notions of his teachers and more with the ideals of the French Revolution. He’s tired of the light, superficial Classical-style conventions. As a composer, Beethoven was far more engaged with heavier, more intellectual trajectories.
Nonetheless, the book does not illustrate Beethoven solely as a bold and innovative hero. He’s flawed and temperamental, flitting between teachers and bouts of success and failure. There’s doubt, tragedy, and complex negotiations between patrons and supporters. Hamilton–Paterson, thankfully, does not engage in any idol worshiping of his central figure. The book is effectively a straightforward account of Beethoven’s career and the cultural, musical, and political conditions of his time. The author discusses few compositions aside from the Eroica, and the ones he does consider are directly related to the symphony through shared themes or correlated motifs. Substantial as his output may have been, Beethoven is not a deity but a man, one wrestling with impending deafness and personal demons.
Four chapters of historical and cultural context prepare the reader before detailing the musical elements of the symphony itself. EvBeethoven’s suffering, political unrest, financial concerns have a respective place and purpose in the lead up to deconstructing the Eroica. The sense of Beethoven’s suffering in the name of a higher purpose — God, the universe, the abstract notion of artistic greatness — gives the work’s construction more weight. In understanding Beethoven’s struggle, we see him as a proto-Romantic musical icon, a dividing point between two epochs of the art music tradition. For a broader context: Beethoven spanned the Classical and Romantic periods, his early period reflecting the charming dinner guest aesthetic of Mozart and Haydn while his later output presents a nearly perfect counterpoint of narrative and psychological weight. It’s far too contentious to isolate a single defining moment with the musical zeitgeist changed from one to another (truly, any transitional period takes years and reflects a struggle between the forebears and the revolutionaries), but Hamilton–Paterson makes a strong argument for the Eroica as a new stain, if you will, that the old guard couldn’t wash out.
When he finally gets to detailing the symphony movement-by-movement, Hamilton–Paterson is succinct. Constituting only 24 pages of text, chapter five, “Constructing a Symphony”, is relatively straightforward. The focus on musical elements is clear enough that even casual listeners can connect the dots and begin to appreciate how the symphony comes together as a harmonious whole. The brief analysis may disappoint the more studious sect of readers, but anything longer would undoubtedly have descended into an esoteric academic treatise.
Beethoven’s Eroica appreciates how messy history can be. In addition to understanding Beethoven as a man rather than some untouchable idol, we glean insight into the symphony’s messy dedication and reception. During its inception, influenced primarily by the French Revolution, the composer intended to dedicate the work to Napoleon, yet shifting politics and stodgy tempers saw the general’s name written and crossed off the title page multiple times. After a challenging premiere with a subpar orchestra, the Eroica was seen as a vulgar work, one that attempted to innovate yet fell victim to odd modernist tendencies. While few championed Beethoven’s accomplishment, the Eroica was generally understood as a troubled symphony of harmonic advancements clashing against structural deviations.
What makes this work such a beloved masterpiece some 200 years later? Hamilton–Paterson doesn’t care to discuss taste or subjective preferences. He perceives the work for what it is and how it resonated in the 1800s. In this way, the book comes across more like journalism than critical assessment, a detailed and objective account of a revolutionary symphony and its troubled composer. Beethoven undoubtedly wasn’t the only musician to attempt innovation between the 18th and 19th centuries, yet for whatever reason, he’s the one traditionally championed as the dawn of Romantic music. Beethoven’s Eroica isn’t concerned with why this happened, but instead what lead the way in all its complicated, revolutionary glory.