Beethoven’s Symphony Introduces the Romantic Age Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Ludwig van Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the Eroica, introduced an innovative approach to the symphonic form and, in spite of its negative reception, inspired a generation of composers whose creative musical forms and techniques characterized the period that came to be known as the Romantic era.

Summary of Event

Ludwig van Beethoven began composing music at a time when mainstream musical taste valued disciplined structures, simple melodies and textures, and emotional restraint. Beethoven studied briefly with Joseph Haydn, one of the classical era’s most creative composers, so his early compositions, including two symphonies, were rooted in the styles and traditions of the time. In 1803, however, he began envisioning a symphony that would be dramatically different—longer, with richer textures and more extensive instrumentation. The recent ascent of Napoleon Bonaparte—who arose from the ranks of the common people and became first consul of the French Republic in 1799—epitomized the ideals that were sweeping Europe following the French Revolution French Revolution (1789);aftermath (1789), so Beethoven decided to compose this new symphony in honor of the general whose heroic leadership he admired. When, however, in 1804 Napoleon had himself crowned Napoleon I [p]Napoleon I[Napoleon 01];coronation of Emperor Napoleon I Napoleon I [p]Napoleon I[Napoleon 01];and Ludwig van Beethoven[Beethoven] , Beethoven felt betrayed and marked out the general’s name on the symphony’s title page with such anger that he broke his pen. He retitled his Third Symphony Sinfonia eroica, or the Heroic Symphony. It was now, according to Beethoven, composed to celebrate the memory of a great man. Beethoven, Ludwig van [p]Beethoven, Ludwig van;Eroica Symphony Eroica Symphony (Beethoven) Napoleon I [p]Napoleon I[Napoleon 01];and Ludwig van Beethoven[Beethoven] Music;symphonic Music;German Vienna;symphonic music Romanticism;German [kw]Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony Introduces the Romantic Age (Apr. 7, 1805) [kw]Eroica Symphony Introduces the Romantic Age, Beethoven’s (Apr. 7, 1805) [kw]Symphony Introduces the Romantic Age, Beethoven’s Eroica (Apr. 7, 1805) [kw]Introduces the Romantic Age, Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony (Apr. 7, 1805) [kw]Romantic Age, Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony Introduces the (Apr. 7, 1805) [kw]Age, Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony Introduces the Romantic (Apr. 7, 1805) Beethoven, Ludwig van [p]Beethoven, Ludwig van;Eroica Symphony Eroica Symphony (Beethoven) NapoleonI [p]Napoleon I[Napoleon 01];and Ludwig van Beethoven[Beethoven] Music;symphonic Music;German Vienna;symphonic music Romanticism;German [g]Germany;Apr. 7, 1805: Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony Introduces the RomanticAge[0280] [g]Austria;Apr. 7, 1805: Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony Introduces the Romantic Age[0280] [c]Music;Apr. 7, 1805: Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony Introduces the Romantic Age[0280] Berlioz, Hector Schubert, Franz Mendelssohn, Felix Chopin, Frédéric Liszt, Franz Brahms, Johannes

The work premiered at the Theater-an-der-Wien on April 7, 1805. It was groundbreaking in its creativity, opening with two powerful staccato chords then progressing through four movements that ranged from a celebratory military piece to a mournful dirge, evoking a hero’s ascent, death, and rebirth. Its themes recurred throughout the four movements, surprising a listener with a slow passage where a spirited one might have been expected, as in the final movement, or adding a militaristic undertone to the funeral march, as in the second movement.

The final result was often unexpectedly noisy and possessed none of the unity among its movements that contemporary concertgoers expected. Even worse for these confused concertgoers, at almost an hour in length, the Eroica Symphony carried on long after other symphonies would have ended. The audience grew restless, and one patron is reported to have shouted, “I’ll pay another kreutzer if they will just stop playing!” Early reviews acknowledged the mixed reception the symphony received, and the work was only periodically performed during the rest of Beethoven’s life, but the new Romantic style it introduced would quickly find its way into the work of other composers.

Romanticism acquired its name from its evocation of the medieval romances, epic poems about heroic figures, exotic lands, and unrequited love. The Romantic era proved to be a period of sweeping musical innovation. At the center of the movement was an emotional depth imparted to music by composers who sought to express subjective, personal emotions in musical form. As a result of this expressionistic drive, the texture of Romantic music became richer. Melodies became longer, more dramatic, and more emotional. Tempos grew more extreme. Harmonies moved toward a fuller sound, sometimes even into dissonance, to create more volume and a wider range of expression. Composers even began using newly invented instruments to expand the creative possibilities of musical composition.

The values at the center of the movement—emotional intensity, the beauty of nature, the power of the imagination—had begun to emerge in combination with nationalistic themes in the Sturm und Drang literature Literature;German that swept Germany a generation before. Indeed, Sturm und Drang’s most renowned writers, Friedrich Schiller Schiller, Friedrich and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von , were major influences on Beethoven and other Romantic composers and writers. A decade before the Eroica Symphony was performed, William Wordsworth Wordsworth, William and Samuel Taylor Coleridge Coleridge, Samuel Taylor had published the first great work of Romantic literature, Lyrical Ballads (1798), and had given the movement a literary direction that would shape a generation of poets and authors.

Hector Berlioz.

(Library of Congress)

Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony offered a similar direction to a new generation of musical composers. The year after Beethoven died, an eccentric young composer named Hector Berlioz Berlioz, Hector heard several of his symphonies and was inspired to compose a macabre autobiographical work entitled Episode in the Life of an Artist: A Fantastic Symphony, better known by its French title, Symphonie fantastique. Rooted in Berlioz’s fascination with Goethe’s Faust: Eine Tragödie (pb. 1808; The Tragedy of Faust, 1823), the symphony recounted the tragedy of a lovesick musician who attempted to poison himself but instead fell into a deep sleep in which his passions played themselves out through strange visions. The symphonic form Berlioz used came to be called “program music,” because it told a story in a purely instrumental form. To heighten the narrative effect, Berlioz introduced a technique called the idée fixe (fixed idea), a recurring musical theme designed to convey the same character or concept each time it was played.

Several of Beethoven’s successors in the Romantic movement are now considered to be among music history’s most creative and renowned figures. Franz Schubert, Schubert, Franz who never acquired a patron and was forced to compose his music in tandem with a teaching career, wrote what some consider the first true Romantic symphony, the Unfinished Symphony. Felix Mendelssohn’s Mendelssohn, Felix overture for A Midsummer Night’s Dream is considered the standard for orchestral overtures, and his Scottish Symphony and Italian Symphony are renowned for their evocation of geographic settings. Frédéric Chopin’s Chopin, Frédéric technical brilliance on the piano, as well as his sensitive and expressive compositions, made him one of the most popular figures of his day. Franz Liszt Liszt, Franz is often considered the era’s most innovative stylist. An admirer of Berlioz’s Berlioz, Hector program music and its foremost practitioner after Berlioz, Liszt pioneered the symphonic poem and bold approaches to harmony and motivic transformation. Two generations after Beethoven, Johannes Brahms Brahms, Johannes sought to merge the musical values of the classical era with Romantic tastes, and his First Symphony is sometimes called “Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony.”


Beethoven’s popularity after composing the Eroica Symphony allowed him to become the first prominent composer to earn his living from a broader audience: Lessons, the sale of his compositions as sheet music, and ticket sales for his public performances contributed to his income. The resulting financial independence allowed Beethoven to pursue his own creative vision instead of depending upon a wealthy patron, as had Joseph Haydn Haydn, Joseph , Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus , and other composers of the Baroque and classical periods. As a result, Beethoven’s symphonies evolved to showcase his extraordinary creativity. His Symphony No. 9, his last and the product of years of experimentation, pushed the creative boundaries far beyond the Eroica Symphony, not only through its length and complexity but also through its use of a full choir and vocal soloists in its dramatic final movement. Such a radical departure from tradition paved the way for the next generation of composers to experiment with even more original forms, as Berlioz Berlioz, Hector demonstrated less than a decade later with his Symphonie fantastique.

Beethoven and his Romantic successors brought about an apotheosis for orchestral music. Public concerts become a popular amusement for the emerging middle class, and such audiences preferred works that appealed to their emotions rather than their understanding of musical technique or themes. As a result, not only audiences but also critics and subsequent composers came to consider symphonic music superior to sonatas, chamber works, and other popular musical forms of the period. Eventually, the heightened interest in music led to an increase in musical education and ultimately created a wider audience for sophisticated piano and concert pieces, concerti, “tone poems,” and opera.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Abraham, Gerald, ed. Romanticism, 1830-1890. Vol. 9 in The New Oxford History of Music. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. An exhaustive, scholarly critical survey detailing the diverse musical styles of the Romantic era’s most renowned composers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bent, Ian, ed. Music Theory in the Age of Romanticism. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996. A series of essays by music historians exploring the manner in which audiences and musicians of the Romantic era would have heard and interpreted music, including the Eroica Symphony. The authors utilize a variety of social and cognitive perspectives to provide their analyses.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cooper, Barry. The Beethoven Compendium: A Guide to Beethoven’s Life and Music. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. A detailed and well-organized encyclopedia of Beethoven and his life and works. Includes a broad overview of the time period and social context in which Beethoven wrote, as well as information on the development of musical instruments and musicology in Beethoven’s time.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lockwood, Lewis. Beethoven: The Music and the Life. New York: W. W. Norton, 2003. Aimed at the general reader, this biography focuses on Beethoven’s compositions, placing them within a musical and historical context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stanley, Glenn, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Beethoven. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Series of essays analyzing Beethoven’s personality and musical compositions.

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Ludwig van Beethoven; Hector Berlioz; Johannes Brahms; Frédéric Chopin; Franz Liszt; Felix Mendelssohn; Napoleon I; Franz Schubert; Robert Schumann. Beethoven, Ludwig van [p]Beethoven, Ludwig van;Eroica Symphony Eroica Symphony (Beethoven) Napoleon I [p]Napoleon I[Napoleon 01];and Ludwig van Beethoven[Beethoven] Music;symphonic Music;German Vienna;symphonic music Romanticism;German

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