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Beethoven's Eroica




(b. 1981)


Concerto for Orchestra WORLD PREMIERE
    Seeker's Scherzo






Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 55, Eroica
       Allegro con brio
       Marcia funebre: Adagio assai
       Scherzo: Allegro vivace
       Finale: Allegro molto



Concerto for Orchestra

Timing: approx. 30 min.
Instrumentation: 2 flutes (incl. alto flute), piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, chimes, crotale, cymbals a2, glockenspiel, slapstick, snare drum, suspended cymbals, tam-tam, triangle, tuned gongs, vibraphone, xylophone, harp, piano, celeste, strings


These performances are the Concerto for Orchestra’s world premiere.

Zhou Tian was born in Hangzhou, China, on December 22, 1981 and currently lives in Hamilton, New York, where he is on the faculty of Colgate University. He dedicated his Concerto for Orchestra to Louis Langrée.

The CSO performed another work by Zhou Tian, Poem from a Vanished Time, in 2013. 

Zhou Tian belongs to the third generation of Chinese-born composers on the American musical scene. This particular instance of globalization in what used to be called “Western” music began in 1946, when a 23-year-old Chou Wen-chung arrived in New York City to study with Edgard Varèse. Later, as a distinguished professor at Columbia, Chou trained several young composers from China who had survived the ordeals of the Cultural Revolution, arrived in their mid- to late twenties, and eventually came to great prominence in this country: Chen Yi, Zhou Long, Bright Sheng and Tan Dun.

Zhou Tian came of age in a new China marked by economic reforms, and was in the United States by his 20th birthday. His teachers here were all American-born, including Jennifer Higdon, Creative Director of the Cincinnati Symphony’s 2012–13 Boundless Series. He maintains strong ties with his native country, where his choral suite The Grand Canal was performed in 2009 during a nationally televised celebration of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

Zhou Tian’s new Concerto for Orchestra is a grandiose symphony in four movements in which every instrument of the large symphony orchestra is treated soloistically. Zhou filled the traditional fast-slow-scherzo-finale format with melodies of great originality, colorfully orchestrated and often subjected to contrapuntal imitation. The agile and wide-spanning opening theme of the first movement (“Glow”) is introduced by the first clarinet; after it has been developed at some length, a second, more dignified theme is played by the cellos and basses. In the central portion of the movement, the trumpets initiate a nervous motif of repeated notes that gradually takes over the entire orchestra. A virtuoso cadenza for clarinet leads to a free recapitulation and a hymn-like “Maestoso” ending.

A slow, lyrical string theme and some florid woodwind writing generate much of the thematic material of the second movement (“Indigo”). At the climactic moment, an inverted version of the first movement’s opening theme appears with great energy, before the music resumes its earlier, lyrical melodic flow.

The third-movement scherzo (the score calls it “Seeker’s Scherzo”) is based on a lighthearted melody first played by the violins and then by the solo flute. The theme becomes much more intense in the course of its development, with the momentum continuing unabated right up to the energetic ending.

The finale begins with a slow introduction, called “Intermezzo,” in which a solo string quintet is subsequently joined by the first clarinet. The entrance of an insistent trumpet fanfare and a timpani solo marked appassionato usher in the fast tempo. Over a series of rhythmic ostinatos, a vigorous Allegro con brio develops, becoming more and more excited as it progresses. Then Zhou suddenly reduces the orchestration and begins a lyrical new section with a new theme played by the first flute, followed by a mysterious passage featuring the percussion section in a soloistic role. A sudden crescendo brings back the vigorous earlier theme, leading directly to the triumphant conclusion.

—Peter Laki

The piece was written as a love letter to the symphony orchestra, with passages ranging from epic to extremely intimate. It’s scored lushly and mostly tonally (there are melodies!). Behind the power and edginess, there is an unmistakable sense of romanticism in the music, which is also one quality that I found to be true of the Cincinnati Symphony. (Zhou Tian)


Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 55, Eroica

Timing: approx. 47 min.
Instrumentation: 4 flutes, 4 oboes, 4 clarinets, 4 bassoons, 3 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings


The CSO has performed this work on 36 previous subscription weekends, including the premiere in January of 1896, Frank Van der Stucken conducting (Pike Opera House), and the most recent in February of 2012, John Storgårds conducting. The Orchestra also has performed the Eroica Symphony on domestic and foreign tours, including to Europe (1969 and 1995) and Asia (1966).

Beethoven was born on December 16, 1770 in Bonn, and died on March 26, 1827 in Vienna. He composed the Third Symphony in the summer of 1803. Franz Clement conducted the first public performance in Vienna on April 7, 1805.

Perhaps the most popular image of Beethoven is of a heroic humanitarian who used music as a force for freedom and against tyranny, as the “man who freed music” (actually the title of a popular biography of the composer). One source of this view is the Eroica Symphony, the work with which Beethoven ushered in a new style that completely and permanently changed the very nature of music. The Symphony was intended to be an homage to Napoléon Bonaparte, the general who had led the struggle for freedom in France, but the composer angrily removed the dedication when Bonaparte had himself crowned emperor. The powerful, liberating, heroic nature of the Third Symphony is unmistakable, whatever the degree of influence Bonaparte really had on its composition.

Beethoven was deeply ambivalent about Bonaparte. He identified with this self-made man who, at least early in his career, fought for freedom, justice and equality. He admired the Frenchman’s courageous leadership and, like many European intellectuals of the time, applauded Bonaparte’s restoration of order in post-Revolutionary France. But Beethoven also deplored Bonaparte’s continual wars of conquest. As early as 1796 Beethoven was composing anti-Napoléonic patriotic songs. He reacted strongly against the suggestion of a publisher that he compose a sonata celebrating Bonaparte:

Has the devil got hold of you all, gentlemen, that you suggest that I should compose such a sonata? Well, perhaps at the time of the Revolutionary fever, such a thing might have been possible, but now, when everything is trying to slip back into the old rut..., to write a sonata of that kind?... But good Heavens, such a sonata—in these newly developing Christian times—ho, ho—there you must leave me out. You will get nothing from me.

Yet Beethoven soon started not a sonata but an enormous Bonaparte Symphony, even though the French general had two years earlier invaded and defeated Austria. It was impossible to live in Vienna and remain neutral about Bonaparte—to compose a work in honor of the conqueror (especially at a time when renewed war was imminent) would have been pointedly anti-patriotic. Why, then, did the composer decide to dedicate a symphony to Bonaparte?

The easy reason is that he was considering a permanent move to Paris, and he thought such a work would provide an entry into French social and intellectual circles. But there were deeper reasons. Beethoven despised the way Vienna’s artists had to depend on patronage from the aristocracy, and he thought that the dedication of a major symphony to Vienna’s enemy, coupled with a well-timed move to the enemy’s capitol, would be an appropriate slap in the face to those who wielded artistic power through wealth. His recent anti-Napoléonic songs and dedications to Austrian nobility had been acts of a faithful servant of the state. But, deep down, he was an independent spirit who hated Viennese society. He saw the French general, who had proclaimed the liberty of all people, as the symbol of his own desired independence from an aristocratic society that supported him financially. The inner manifestation of his struggle to be free of a social system on which he depended for his livelihood was his intense ambivalence toward Bonaparte; the outer manifestation of this ambivalence was the Eroica Symphony.

Shortly after finishing the Symphony, Beethoven received the news that France’s First Consul had declared himself emperor. Beethoven’s friend Ferdinand Ries recounted the composer’s reaction:

Beethoven esteemed him greatly at the time and likened him to the greatest Roman consuls. I as well as several of his more intimate friends saw a copy of the score lying on his table with the word “Bonaparte” at the extreme top of the title page.... I was the first to bring him the intelligence that Bonaparte had proclaimed himself emperor, whereupon he flew into a rage and cried out:

“Is he then, too, nothing more than an ordinary human being? Now he, too, will trample on all the rights of man and indulge only his ambition. He will exalt himself above all others and become a tyrant!” Beethoven went to the table, took hold of the title page by the top, tore it in two, and threw it on the floor.

Bonaparte’s personal ambition may have enraged and disillusioned Beethoven, but it cannot have been a total surprise. The act of removing Bonaparte’s name from the title of the Third Symphony represented the victory of Beethoven’s patriotism over the heady influence of Bonaparte. By his rejection of Bonaparte, Beethoven announced that he would remain in Austria and that he would accept, albeit with misgivings, the Viennese patronage system. The composer titled the Symphony simply “Heroic.”

KEYNOTE. We listen to the Eroica and hear one strikingly original gesture after another. The first such event is the opening sound—a tremendous chord played and reiterated, followed by a melody which simply presents the notes of this chord one by one. Later in the first movement we hear intense rhythms, strongly accented (!) silences, an other-worldly derivative of the opening theme in the far-off key of E minor, a mysterious horn statement of the tonic theme against dominant harmony in the strings (just before the recapitulation), exciting rhythmic interactions of 2s and 3s, and two final tonic chords that mirror the opening. The Funeral March is equally original, from its very nature through its poignant fugue to its shattering climax. The third movement contributes an enormous vitality that comes from wonderfully inventive rhythms—the opening metric ambiguity and its extraordinary resolution, the unexpected move into two-beat rhythms during the restatement after the trio, and the interplay of 2s and 3s (even more involved than in the first movement). The originality of the affirmative finale lies in its form. It starts as a series of variations on a simple theme, which becomes the bass line of a more melodic theme and eventually disappears.

This list of unprecedented gestures in the Symphony could go on and on, but it is not the novelty of materials to which we should listen. Rather it is the originality of conception that matters. Beethoven had a unique idea for his Third Symphony, and in the process of finding music appropriate to that idea he created an expansive, integrated and powerful work.  

Once the Eroica existed, no subsequent composer could ignore it. The development of 19th-century symphonic music is traceable more to the Eroica than to any other single work, and it took composers more than a century to exhaust its implications.

—Jonathan D. Kramer