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Exploring the "hero" element in Beethoven's Eroica Variations

In 2020, the world will celebrate the 250th birth year of one of the greatest classical music composers: Ludwig van Beethoven. I will take part of the festivities and perform one of his most iconic piano masterpieces, Variations and Fugue in E flat Major, Op. 35, "Eroica," or most commonly known as "Eroica Variations." To me, this great work embodies Beethoven's sense of patriotism, political ideology, and above all, his fascination and self-portrayal of the hero–-a warrior that defies all odds to overcome a certain challenge or obstacle. Certainly, this type of "underdog" mentality and to never give up on something are great lessons that we can learn from these pieces.

As I mentioned in a previous post, the tune from Eroica Variations (1802) was used by Beethoven in two earlier works in 1801: 12 Contredanses for Orchestra and The Creatures of Prometheus. The composer would ultimately use the same theme (also in the key of E flat major) in the last movement of his blockbuster hit, Symphony No. 3 in E flat Major, "Eroica." To my knowledge, these musical "borrowings" are the only instances where Beethoven re-used the same theme in multiple works. But, here is why I think this is significant. Because of the close proximity of these three works, several scholars have suggested that these earlier pieces, most specifically, Eroica Variations, set the foundation of his Third Symphony. Although Eroica Variations is not programmatic (no hidden story attached to the work), I think if we consider the famous story behind the Third Symphony and what the work represents, they might provide greater insights into the piano work.

Beethoven originally dedicated his Third Symphony to Napoleon Bonaparte, who he believed represented the democratic and anti-monarchical ideology of the French Revolution. When the composer learned that the ruler invaded Austria and declared himself Emperor of the French, he tore up the dedication page in rage and exclaimed: "So he is no more than a common mortal! Now, too, he will tread under foot all the rights of Man, indulge only his ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men, become a tyrant!" Instead, the composer decided to dedicate the work to Austrian Prince Joseph Lobkowitz, and titled the piece, Sinfonia eroica (Heroic symphony).

Even though Eroica Variations was written a year before the Third Symphony, I strongly believe that we can hear these heroic elements in this work. The struggles are represented throughout the various mood and key changes (major to minor) throughout the work as well as the triumphant horn and trumpet calls at the end to suggest a more victorious character. In my opinion, this work showcases Beethoven's brilliance as a composer and pianist, and I have always wondered why it is infrequently performed in concert halls. Indeed, it is a major workout for any pianist to tackle on this work as each variation becomes more complex than its previous iteration. In any case, I am excited to share this piece with audiences in 2020. Check my concert schedule to see if I will be in your area!

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