× Upcoming Events About NCS About Our Musicians About Our Boards 2023/24 Season Donors Corporate Supporters Make a Gift Past Events
Ludwig van Beethoven
Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 55, “Eroica”

Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 55, “Eroica”
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)


The tale of how Beethoven’s Third Symphony acquired its name, “Eroica,” which means “heroic,” is well known. Originally dedicated to Napoleon, the work was to bear the name “Bonaparte.” However, upon learning that Napoleon had abandoned the egalitarian ideals of the French Revolution and declared himself Emperor of France, Beethoven reportedly “went to the table, took hold of the title page by the top, tore it in two, and threw it to the floor.” Indeed, the title page bears literal marks of the composer’s indignance, for he tore through the paper when he erased the original dedication. Thus, the Third Symphony was rechristened as a “Sinfonia eroica, composed to celebrate the memory of a great man.” Napoleon’s reputation as the hero of the French Revolution and the great liberator of Europe, along with the origin story of the “Eroica” Symphony, provide a tempting line of interpretation for the music. Although the symphony is not programmatic (that is, it does not tell a story), scholars and listeners alike have read into the work the narrative of a hero who suffers and overcomes tragedy. Indeed, the universality of such an account is one reason why Beethoven’s “Eroica” has enjoyed such renown for over 200 years.

If the “Eroica” Symphony was born out of a historic revolution, then it, too, exhibits revolutionary musical qualities, for it inaugurates Beethoven’s middle, “heroic,” period. The Third Symphony tears asunder the musical conventions and norms of the Classical period in a number of ways that shocked and even confused the audiences of Beethoven’s time, but which we now consider undeniable traits of the composer. While symphonies composed in the Classical style, such as those by Mozart and Haydn, were written with balanced phrases and proportions, the “Eroica” does away with these attributes. The symphony itself is of epic length – about twice as long as its predecessors. And although Beethoven adheres to popular forms from the Classical period, such as sonata form in the first movement and a theme and variations in the finale, he casts aside Classical preferences of symmetry with long developments and hefty fugal sections. Just as Napoleon shook the foundations of Europe’s traditional political order, so too did Beethoven upset those of its musical world.


  • The arresting first two chords, which set the entire symphony into motion 
  • The prominent role of the horn (the protagonist) throughout the symphony—for example: bringing the orchestra back to the restatement of the theme in the first movement, the horn trio in the middle of the Scherzo, and the majestic, soaring horn lines at the end of the second and fourth movements 
  • Harmonic and rhythmic dissonance between the brass and strings in the middle of the first movement—the two instrument families play clashing harmonies on opposing beats 
  • In the second movement, the plaintive oboe melody of the funeral march and the fugue in the reprise of the music from the first movement 
  • The exciting metrical dissonance throughout the Scherzo: for instance, in the beginning of the movement, the beat is felt in groups of two in the strings but in groups of three in the woodwinds 
  • The introduction of the finale’s theme by pizzicato strings and its development through creative means, such as a fugue and dances 


Two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, three horns, two trumpets, timpani, strings