One of the Wonders of Symphonic Music–Beethoven's Third Symphony

Ludvig von Beethoven was a revolutionary. This was never more evident than in 1806, when his Third Symphony premiered in Vienna. What it did was shatter all the norms of the genteel, highly-refined symphonies of his peers– Franz Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Mozart. It was fitting, because, what with the revolution in France and in America, it was the age of change; a time to celebrate the rights of man, as free, egalitarian, and, most of all, democratic in choice of government.


What Beethoven did to the symphony was tantamount to driving a truck through a carefully-tended bed of flowers. First of all, he did away with the third-movement Minuet, and replaced it with something he called the Scherzo, which roughly translates as "musical joke". Beethoven rudely punched up the first movement and made it big and overpowering, with several original themes competing for dominance, that are eventually resolved in one final glorious theme.


Beethoven did not want anyone dancing to his music; he wanted them to be awakened to the new age of freedom, but most of all he wanted people to actively listen to his music. Haydn, who had been one of Beethoven's early teachers, was shocked by what his student had done to the symphonic form, which, over the previous 40 years, Haydn had developed from the framework of the three-movement Italian opera overture, and carefully refined into the classic four-movement symphony.


As with many of his generation, Beethoven initially thought of Napoleon Bonaparte as a champion of the ideals of the French Revolution, and a hero to the common man. Beethoven intended his Third Symphony as a tribute, and in August 1803 wrote Bonaparte's name across the score's title page. Nine months later, when he learned that Napoleon had crowned himself Emperor, Beethoven angrily scratched out the word "Bonaparte" and tore up the page. When the symphony was published in 1806, it carried an inscription that said this: "Herioc Symphony, composed to celebrate the memory of a great man."


The second movement "Marcia funebre" (possibly intended for Bonaparte) was a funeral march to end all funeral marches–grim, ominous, a solemn dirge without letup. To lighten things up, the third movement scherzo that follows is ushered in with blaring horns and dancing strings. The fourth movement is a brilliant set of variations on two themes–that Beethoven liked so much, he later incorporated them in his ballet "The Creatures of Prometheus".


Beethoven's Third Symphony is one of those wonderfully inventive musical scores you can hear again and again, and find something new with each listening.


It requires a maestro's touch to conduct such sophisticated music, and only a few have managed to plumb its emotional depths. Below are three such examples:


Wilhelm Furtwangler conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, December 1944. Furtwangler took a lot of liberties with the scores–sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn't. This legendary recording, taken from a radio broadcast, is one that worked. Available from Music & Arts (#17685 08142).


Otto Klemperer conducting London's Philharmonia Orchestra, 1956. One of the giants of Germany's old school of conductors, Klemperer tended to favor a more lyrical approach to his music; this particular studio recording finds the conductor adhering strictly to the score in what is for him a bracing and direct approach to the music of Beethoven. EMI Classics (#72436 77412)


Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. Bernstein had an affinity for Beethoven's symphonies, and it shows in this 1978 recording. Deutsche Grammaphon (#28943 10242).


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