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Published on Nov 11, 2008
Ludwig van Beethoven Leonard Bernstein New York Philharmonic
In his late twenties, Beethoven started to hear buzzing and ringing sounds in his ears. A few years later in 1802, he wrote a distressed letter in a town near Vienna that was addressed to his brothers (yet it remained in his own possession until his death at age 57). The note discussed Beethoven's deteriorating hearing (he eventually went deaf), how it made him feel lonely and anxious around others, and it laid out a will such that his siblings would inherit his wealth when he died.
However, he also wrote in it, "I would have ended my life—it was only my art that held me back." Historians later dubbed this letter, the Heiligenstadt Testament, after the town in which it was written.
This triumph over personal adversity happened concurrently with a significant change in Beethoven's musical style. The works composed after his emotional breakdown in 1802 radiated a new boldness and intrepidity, which often broke the formal rules of the Classical era in music. In fact, the first musical ideas for his Third Symphony—which was completed in 1804—were jotted down merely a few weeks after the Heiligenstadt Testament. Putting these ideas into perspective, it is no wonder why Beethoven's Third Symphony is sometimes deemed a nexus between the Classical and Romantic musical periods.
The Third Symphony's nickname is Eroica, which is Italian for "heroic." Originally, Beethoven planned to call the work, Bonaparte, after Napoleon Bonaparte. But once he learned that Napoleon proclaimed himself the emperor of France, he crossed out the dedication and wrote on the title page, "Heroic Symphony composed to celebrate the memory of a great man."
There are a lot of syncopations (stresses at unexpected times) and dissonances (unstable tone combinations), and wider pitch (highness or lowness of sounds) ranges and dynamics (loudness or softness in sounds) and heavier uses of accents (emphases on notes), to name a few deviations from the Classical era's typical way of writing a symphony.