As I prepare to see the Detroit Symphony Orchestra perform all nine Beethoven symphonies during the next 2 weeks, I am reminded of the great stories behind the composition of Beethoven’s 3rd symphony (Eroica). Legend goes that Beethoven had originally composed the symphony in dedication to his political hero Napoleon and titled the piece Bonaparte. However, when Napoleon emerged as an imperialist and declared himself Emperor, Beethoven went into a rage and tore up the title page of the music manuscript. He then proceeded to rename the symphony Eroica, though the symphony was published in October 1806 with the subtitle, “per festeggiare il sovvenire di un grand Uomo” - “to celebrate the memory of a great man.”
I found this article from Napoleonic Scholarship: The Journal of the International Napoleonic Society to be a fascinating dig into the subject: “The Eroica Riddle: Did Napoleon Remain Beethoven’s Hero?” The author, Christopher T. George, points to other reasons – that may have eluded Beethoven’s biographer – the composer may have had for renaming the piece and scratching the dedication to Napoleon.
Interestingly, DSO Conductor Leonard Slatkin thinks that Beethoven’s rage may “account for the ferocity of the first two chords of the piece.” Follow me on Twitter @karendecoster.