The music presented here charts two careers, of a simple musical idea, from acorn to oak, and of its creator, from obscurity to daylight. First heard as the modest seventh of twelve ‘contredances’ (WoO 14), Beethoven set this gem of a melody in more resplendent surroundings in the finale of his first large-scale success in Vienna, the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus, Op.43 (1800-1). The following year, he used the theme and its bass line as the subject of Fifteen Variations and a Fugue for fortepiano, Op.35, now known as the ‘Eroica Variations’, before immortalizing them in the finale of his Third Symphony, arguably the greatest and most important symphony ever written. This progress neatly reflects the development of Beethoven’s career. In the late 1790s, the Viennese public danced to his music without caring or probably even knowing who the composer was. With Prometheus Beethoven stood in the half-light of the theatre’s wings, his name overshadowed by the star billing of the ballet’s choreographer and principal dancer, Salvatore Viganò. In the audience at the Burgtheater was Beethoven’s former mentor, Haydn, who two years previously had enjoyed a triumph with his Creation at the same venue. Their conversation afterwards went something
H.: It’s good.
B.: But it’s no Creation. H.:
No, it’s not.
How Beethoven must have been tempted to knock the old man’s wig off! The following year was one of crisis for Beethoven, faced with inevitable deafness and plagued by the black dog. The so-called ‘Heiligenstadt Testament’ of 6 October, 1802, shows him contemplating suicide. This letter, addressed to his brothers but never sent and discovered posthumously, describes the moment Beethoven choose heroism over cowardice – ‘The only thing that held me back was my art.’ Soon he was talking of a new way: ‘I am not happy with my works so far. Henceforth I shall take a new path.’ It was with Eroica, composed during 1803-4, first performed privately in 1804 and publicly on 7 April, 1805, at the Theater an der Wien, that he presented his fully-formed genius and its immortal creation to the public’s – and posterity’s – gaze.