The Third Symphony’s Finale: Creativity, and Heroic Humor
Notes by Fred Haight
In two recent episodes of Daily Doses of Beethoven, we examined the monumental first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 “Eroica”, which addresses the idea of a hero—a world-historic figure. We also heard his epic second movement, a Funeral March, expressing the loss felt at the demise of such a Heroic. How did Beethoven combine such seemingly irreconcilable opposites, to bring about a satisfactory conclusion to his “Eroica” symphony?
Today we present the amazing fourth movement. The great French poet, Francois Rabelais, expressed it best when he said “laughter is appropriate to man”. Heroism always involves creativity, and thus laughter and joy!
After a brief fanfare, we hear a simple, yet playful theme, in 2/4 time, played pizzicato, with long rests between the notes.
Eb /Bb /Bb /Eb /Eb /D /Eb /E /F /D /Eb /A /Bb (repeat).
Bb Bb Bb/ /Bb /A /G /A /A /Bb /Bb /Eb (repeat)
At first hearing, the audience must have been asking themselves if Beethoven was being serious. Such a trivial theme to end such a titanic work? The theme however, came from the Finale of Beethoven’s only ballet, “The Creatures of Prometheus”. In ancient Greek drama, Prometheus was a God, a Titan, who defied the head God, Zeus, by giving the gifts of fire—the gift of knowledge of science and art to man. Beethoven would never have treated such a concept in a trivial manner. He lived for it.
Sometimes though, Beethoven would put a theme forward as an hypothesis. The proof of that hypothesis lie not in itself, but in its contrapuntal development. He developed this theme in three different works, The Finale of “The Creatures of Prometheus”, his Variations and Fugue for Piano in E♭ major, Op. 35—so called the “Eroica Variations”, and this symphony. It starts out simple, but grows.
However, if you compare the opening of the symphonic movement to the Finale of the ballet, you might be hard pressed to find the resemblance. That’s because Beethoven does not quote the main theme, but the underlying, and scarcely heard bass line—the foundation—as his source.
This symphonic movement is a “Theme and Variations”. We have heard two such movements in this series, the “Variations on God Save the King” on April 7th, and the slow movement of his Piano Trio in C Minor, Op. 1 No. 3, on March 31st (look back on those posts to see where we gave the times of each variation.)
If you wish to hear Beethoven’s tremendous progress over a few short years, simply make the comparison. The earlier works are inventive, but relatively linear by comparison. The Finale of the Third Symphony is easy to follow as a set of variations for a short time (though the melody as presented in earlier versions does not enter until 2:12). At 3:09 it suddenly becomes a fugue! Try following in a linear way now!
From here on, Beethoven overturns the form, while remaining true to it. Reason, not form, must lead, if you desire to follow him. Reason alone, will allow you to understand what he is doing.
We have omitted discussing the short third movement of this great work. We leave it to your genius, to figure our where it fits.