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ARCHIVE: The Artifice

Originally published 1/24/20


In response to “Shakespearean Angst in Beethoven’s Third Symphony” on The Artifice.


I cannot agree that the opening if the Third Symphony represents uncertainty. It begins with two tonic chords, played forte (loud). Typically, Beethoven would have presented tonic (I) and dominant (V) chords at the outset. (Or, as in the First Symphony, dominant and tonic.) As an example, try hearing the opening as I-V. Or even V-I. Not so. Even the first theme is clearly in the tonic key of E-flat. Not until the 7th measure do we feel the uncertainty of a diminished fifth (C#-G). That ambiguous interval, which can resolve in two different directions, was called the Devil’s interval.

The references to Hamlet are a bit thinly based. This symphony was originally dedicated to Napoleon. Beethoven angrily scratched off the dedication and changed the title to Eroica after Napoleon declared himself emperor. A much more secure argument would have been drawing the parallel between the structure of Shakespeare’s plays and sonata form.

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