Classical Moment: Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E Major, more popularly known as the ‘Eroica Symphony‘ is one of his most celebrated works, one which showcased his ability to compose large-scale symphonies that broke musical boundaries in form, length, harmony, and emotional content.

In this post, we revisit this magnificent symphony, with the help of commentaries from the icon of American classical music, Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990). Following are excerpts from an essay by Bernstein, Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 in E Flat Major, Opus 55 “Eroica”, published in Bernstein’s wonderful book, The Infinite Variety of Music (Amadeus paperback, 2007).

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), American pianist, composer, conductor, music educator, author and humanitarian.

“The years 1802 to 1806 was an exciting time in the history of western music. During these years, Beethoven singlehandedly reinvented nearly all the principal genres of the Classical style, putting his stamp of boldness, drama and authority on works like the Waldstein and Appassionata piano sonatas, the Eroica Symphony, the Fourth Piano Concerto, and the Razumovsky string quartet, among others. In all these works, we see Beethoven building his thematic universe out of the most basic elements of the style, a universe that evokes unity and harmony in apparent discord.”

“In all the realm of the arts, you will never find a simplicity to match Beethoven’s. It is a simplicity that shines all the more purely for the intricacy of human feeling that envelops it. For Beethoven, like the greatest of prophets and teachers, knew how to pluck from the air the essential, the elementally true, and develop from it a complex superstructure that embraces all human experience.”


“Beethoven always started with a fact, an axiom; and his art consists in examining that fact with so universal a range of vision that the axiom becomes living experience … Beethoven’s predecessors, Haydn and Mozart, also believed in starting a symphony with a commanding sound, a major announcement of something to come. But Beethoven announces something on a scale of grandeur unknown to the others. He is announcing a heroic work, a monument. It is not enough for the rafters of the concert hall to tremble at his coming; the whole world must tremble too.”


Leonard Bernstein on Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony, “Eroica”

Beethoven: Symphony No 3 in E flat major, “Eroica”, performed by the Berliner Philharmoniker.


Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 21 in C major, Op. 53, known as the Waldstein, is one of the three most notable sonatas of his middle period, written around the time the Eroica Symphony was composed. Completed in summer 1804, and surpassing Beethoven’s previous piano sonatas in its scope, the Waldstein set a standard for piano composition in the grand style.

David Barenboim playing Beethoven’s Sonata No. 21 in C Op. 53 “Waldstein”, 1st Movement.

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