Between Revolution and Restoration.“Eroica” in its historical Context

Seminar Paper, 2018

7 Pages, Grade: 1,0



Between Revolution and Restoration - The “Eroica” in its Historical Context


Between Revolution and Restoration - The “Eroica” in its Historical Context

A milestone in European history

By constantly running up against the limitations of his epoch, Ludwig van Beethoven went down in history as the archetypal Romantic hero, imparting his innermost thoughts and feelings through the intensity of his work.1 I am hereby aiming to put Beethoven’s “Eroica” in its historical context in order to examine to what extent major occurrences of the early 19th century have influenced and shaped his work. I intend to elaborate that distinct European historic events have led to the composer’s transition from Classicism to romantic, heroic music.

The era Ludwig van Beethoven lived in was characterized by enormous political and social change. Initially, the composer was raised in a liberal manner, being perfectly in accordance with the pro-revolutionary sentiment of his native town Bonn. The adolescent, coming from a Prussian dynasty of musicians, quickly became a talking point as a prodigy due to his creation of sensational new music. Nevertheless, a likely stellar career came to an abrupt end as French revolutionary forces threw Europe into turmoil. In order to escape war-infested Germany, the young genius abandoned his country of birth to seek shelter in Vienna.2 Ironically, the mother of all uprisings, the French revolution, pushed this child of Enlightenment in the arms of the deeply repressive Austrian realm. In order to make a living, the composer had to resign himself to the traditional taste of the Austrian nobility. To comply, Beethoven emulated and enhanced the music of his predecessors Haydn and Mozart and consequently Beethoven’s so-called “Early Compositional Period” dawned.

One of his greatest creations for the Viennese elite is the First Symphony from 1799, dedicated to a Habsburg official. Beethoven’s first orchestral piece is highly influenced by Viennese culture and draws heavily upon symphonies of Haydn and Mozart.3 Beethoven, alike his former teacher Joseph Haydn, manipulated musical parameters in order to fashion the movements to fit the character of the Classical style.4 Although a certain sense of humour and irony can be found, the heavy emphasis on the trim first movement and on formal strictness as well as symmetry is emblematic for Viennese Classicism.

The peaceful early years of creation were preceded by Beethoven’s decisive phase of maturing, both as human being and as artist. I am firmly convinced that his musical output would have been utterly diverging without Napoleon Bonaparte and his warfare, which drastically heralded the “Middle Period of Creation” (1803-1814). Particularly crucial for Ludwig van Beethoven’s life was the War of the Second Coalition (1798-1802), which involved a French occupation of Vienna. At first Napoleon rekindled the republican ideals of Beethoven and he was in favour of a liberation war. The composer originally even intended to dedicate his latest grand oeuvre, the Third Symphony, to Bonaparte (and thus risking to lose

the goodwill of Viennese nobility). At first Beethoven might have seen the general as a Prometheus-like bearer of liberty, equality and fraternity, but after learning about Napoleon’s self-crowning he furiously obliterated the envisaged inscription.

The atrocities of the Franco-Austrian war shook Beethoven to the very foundations and changed him both as a person and musician. With constant shelling leading the way, Napoleon’s occupation led to his ongoing depression and physical decline. It is namely my belief that the thunder of cannons tipped Beethoven’s ability to hear over the edge. Subsequently the composer wrote the “Heiligenstädter Testament”, one of the most powerful statements ever written by an artist, in which he dealt with his willingness to persevere composing, in spite of his hearing loss.5 Thenceforward, struggling against misery became a common musical theme. His personal and social tragedy caused by the gruesome Napoleonic wars gave thus rise to exploring unprecedented musical worlds. In further consequence, Beethoven was also not able to listen to works of other composers anymore, which freed him from musical rules and conventions6. It can be said that through his psychological battles and forced musical austerity Beethoven was able to develop a totally new style of tonal expression.


1 Karina Wilson, “My Man Ludwig Van - The Tortured Genius of Beethoven“, Lit Reactor, 26. March 2015, (accessed 6. December 2017)

2 Martin Geck, Beethoven: Der Schöpfer und sein Universum (München: Siedler Verlag, 2017), 135.

3 Stephen Taylor, “Beethoven's Three Compositional Periods: The Early Period“, Spinditty, 21. April 2016, (accessed 25. December 2017)

4 Jessica M. Abbazio, A melody favoured by Beethoven in Ballet, Contredanse, Variations, and a Symphonic Finale (Potomac: CDL Press, 2010), 12.

5 Stephen Taylor, “Beethoven's Three Compositional Periods: The Middle Period“, Spinditty, 20. April 2016, (accessed 2. January 2018)

6 Jan Caeyers, Beethoven: Der einsame Revolutionär (München: C.H.Beck, 2017), 269.

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Between Revolution and Restoration.“Eroica” in its historical Context
University of Groningen  (Arts, Culture and Media)
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between, revolution, restoration, eroica”, context
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Antonia Tremmel-Scheinost (Author), 2018, Between Revolution and Restoration.“Eroica” in its historical Context, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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