1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

How Beethoven's 'Eroica' was reinvented

Gaby Reucher
September 27, 2016

Even though an angered Beethoven scratched out his dedication to Napoleon, his "Eroica" was a revolutionary piece. For the Beethovenfest, Hugues Dufourt has entirely rethought the symphonic work.

Composer Hugues Dufourt
Image: CC by Hugues Dufourt/A. Karger

A murmur goes through the crowd as Max Nyffeler unfolds the score of "Ur-Geräusch." The oversized booklet in DIN A2 format is by French composer Hugues Dufourt, the result of a special Beethovenfest commission. Just the size of the score is already impressive.

"The reason why it has such a large format is that not only each group of instruments has its own voice; almost every single instrument has one, too. It has a dense and fanned out sound," said musicologist Max Nyffeler, who introduced the work before the concert.

Maximizing the spectrum of music

How is this related to Ludwig van Beethoven? Last year, Beethovenfest director Nike Wagner started commissioning a European composer each year to write a work which refers to a Beethoven composition. Hugues Dufourt chose to build on Beethoven's Third Symphony, known as the "Eroica."

"Yet those who expect to find motifs from Beethoven's 'Eroica' in Dufourt's piece will be searching in vain," explained Nyffeler.

Hugues Dufourt was the one who coined the term "spectral music." In the 1960s, so-called spectralists started using computers to break down sounds to their individual components. The analysis of resonating overtones served as the foundation of a new composition principle. By assembling these overtones - tones that are much less than a semitone apart - they created spherical floating sounds that blur up to the point of becoming noise. 

Tonal border crossing

Nike Wagner
Nike Wagner commissions a new work each yearImage: Beethovenfest/Cornelis Gollhardt

That's exactly what happens in Hugues Dufourt's sound composition "Ur-Geräusch," where the strings and brass instruments in particular deliver sounds that are unlike usual orchestral music. The title, "Ur-Geräusch," refers to an article Rainer Maria Rilke wrote about the phonograph in 1919.

Why did Dufourt select Beethoven's "Eroica"? "It is its dynamic that fascinated me," said Dufourt. "In his music, Beethoven went way beyond the borders of the typical sounds at the time, and that's what I'm doing, too."

Beethoven's musical fight for freedom

Beethoven completed his "Eroica" in 1804 during the period following the French Revolution. The middle class was becoming stronger. Napoleon fought his way to power and Beethoven believed, like many of his contemporaries, that the great general would defend the values of Enlightenment - "liberty, equality and fraternity" - throughout Europe.

Beethoven started composing the "Eroica" in Vienna at the age of 33. At that time, his hearing had already deteriorated so much that he had predicted his upcoming deafness and the end of his creative phase in his letter known as the "Heiligenstadt Testament."

He increasingly wrote music without being able to hear it. Racing against time, he plunged into his work. During this phase, not only did he compose the "Eroica," but also his only opera, "Fidelio."

The influence of the French Revolution

Beethoven's manuscript for his Third Symphony
On the cover to the "Eroica" manuscript, Beethoven tried to erase his dedication to NapoleonImage: picture-alliance/Leemage

Beethoven then dedicated his "heroic" work, the "Eroica," to Napoleon. However, when Napoleon declared himself emperor, it enraged the composer. "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!" he is said to have told his student Ferdinand Ries.

Beethoven erased the dedication from his score.

However, Ludwig van Beethoven was musically impacted by the French Revolution. The wide dynamic range of the "Eroica" that inspired Hughes Dufourt, the impulsive and contrast-filled changes of moods, all represent not only the state of the composer's mind, but also the turmoil of the times.

Beethoven construed the second movement as a funeral march inspired by the ceremony for the fallen heroes of the Revolution. This had never been done before.

The 'Eroica' at the Beethovenfest

With the "Eroica," Beethoven went beyond the framework of a symphony. Critics considered the work too long, which is hard to imagine nowadays. The Third Symphony is among Beethoven's most popular and most frequently played works. It is at the center of this year's Beethovenfest, which builds on the motto "Revolutions."

Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin and conductor Marek Janowski
Marek Janowski managed to evoke spherical sounds from the WDR Sinfonieorchester Image: picture-alliance/F. Toulet/Leemage

The symphonic orchestra of the Westdeutscher Rundfunk public broadcaster, conducted by Marek Janowski, not only premiered Hugues Dufourt's work but also performed the original version of the "Eroica," which was welcomed with enthusiastic applause. Compared to Hugues Dufourt's "Ur-Geräusch," Beethoven's "Eroica" was a walk in the park.

Does Hughes Dufort see himself as a revolutionary? "In principle, I'm also a revolutionary - but it is an aesthetic revolution."

Hugues Dufourt is convinced that whoever wants to make music seriously today must always be innovative and progressive. "You can't make music that's based on commemorating nostalgia."  Even if one is inspired by Beethoven, it must lead to something new. Just like Beethoven allowed diverse inspirations to always create something new.