Beethoven's Eroica Revisited BBC Proms


Beethoven's Eroica Revisited

The Aurora Orchestra play Beethoven's Eroica Symphony entirely from memory, following an on-stage dissection of the score by Tom Service and conductor Nicholas Collon.


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Transcript


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Tonight we've got something a little different for you - Beethoven's Eroica symphony from memory,

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and unpacked onstage by the conductor Nicholas Collon, and...

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well, yours truly.

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APPLAUSE

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Welcome to the Royal Albert Hall.

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An empty stage behind me.

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But not for much longer, because for the next 25 minutes,

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we're going to journey inside the single most revolutionary

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piece of orchestral music ever composed.

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Beethoven's Third Symphony, the Eroica, the heroic.

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And we're going to explore what makes the Eroica so special

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in new ways, opening the score up,

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and we're also going to be opening up the orchestra, who you'll see

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and hear in new forms and combinations on the stage behind me.

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Well, I mention an orchestra, so we need our musicians.

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Ladies and gentlemen,

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please welcome on stage the players of Aurora Orchestra

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and their conductor, Nicholas Collon,

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your heroes for the rest of the night.

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CHEERING AND APPLAUSE

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CHEERING

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This is a symphony that wants to change the world,

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and it sounds like it too.

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That's the shocking call to attention at the start

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of the final fourth movement of the Eroica symphony

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where we're going to start our heroic exploration.

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But what happens next?

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-Nick, over to you.

-Thanks, Tom. Good evening, everyone.

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Well, what we need next is a grand heroic theme,

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something appropriate for this epic finale.

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-And that is it...

-LAUGHTER

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..except there's nothing grand or heroic about it.

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I mean, it's laughably simple, isn't it?

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And yet these few bars contain the musical DNA of the entire

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last movement. Now, since we're going to be playing this theme

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rather a lot this evening,

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I suggest we get to know it a little bit better

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by having a go at singing it together.

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LAUGHTER

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What unexpected enthusiasm.

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LAUGHTER

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It's actually... It's not too hard. So this is how it goes.

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I'm going to get the orchestra to sing it once first.

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The first few bars are a little bit like hot cross buns...

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-ALL:

-# Dum, dum, dum, dum... #

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Followed by a snappy, jazzy ending.

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# Dum, dum, dum

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# Dum, dum, dum, dum, dum, dum. #

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-LAUGHTER, APPLAUSE

-Easy.

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Now, you're always worryingly good.

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APPLAUSE

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Let's dive straight in, shall we? After two. And, one, two...

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-AUDIENCE:

-# Dum, dum, dum, dum

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# Dum, dum, dum Dum, dum, dum, dum, dum, dum. #

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Just watch out.

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There were a couple of you, I think you know who you were...

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LAUGHTER

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# Dum, dum, dum...

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# Dum, dum, dum, dum, dum, dum. #

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There's a nice little rest there.

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-No-one down here did that.

-LAUGHTER

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OK, shall we have one more go all together?

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and...also not so elephantine, perhaps.

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LAUGHTER

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Creepy little mice. Here we are. After two.

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And one, two...

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# Dum, dum, dum, dum

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# Dum, dum, dum Dum, dum, dum, dum, dum, dum. #

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That's genuinely very beautiful.

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-LAUGHTER

-Thank you. Fantastic.

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So what does he do with this phrase? Well, he repeats it,

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this time introducing the woodwind in a kind of copying game.

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It's like a game of cat and mouse, and the two animals

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find each other at the end... # Dum, dum, dum, dum, dum, dum. #

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..for that last little bit.

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Now, it's always been an ambition of mine to hear what it might

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sound like with 6,000 people in the Royal Albert Hall....

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-LAUGHTER

-..singing this in antiphonal chaos.

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So look, if we divide... Here's the middle point.

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Anyone this side of the middle point with me and the strings over here,

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anyone on that side of the middle point with Tom and the woodwind...

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We're going to win. It's going to be fine. LAUGHTER

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Just to show that this works, Tom and I, bravely,

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are going to have a go first. Are you ready, Tom?

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-No, but never mind.

-OK. It goes like this.

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-# Dum...

-Dum...

-Dum...

-Dum...

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-# Dum...

-Dum...

-Dum...

-Dum...

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-# Dum...

-Dum...

-Dum...

-Dum...

-Dum...

-Dum...

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BOTH: # Dum, dum, dum, dum, dum, dum. #

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CHEERING AND APPLAUSE

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Your turn.

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OK, following me, following Tom.

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What could go wrong?

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Here we are. After two. And...one, two...

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THEY ALL SING

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-Wow. How about that?

-That's really good!

-Fantastic.

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APPLAUSE Well,

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you've already performed at the Royal Albert Hall this evening.

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LAUGHTER

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The thing is, that's actually, I'm afraid, only half the theme.

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So, Nick?

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Well, this is what happens next.

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A bar of complete silence followed by...

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..three ferocious knocks...

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..a quiet, unison pause...

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..and more copying between the two.

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Well, now that you all, and Beethoven, have given us

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this quirky theme, what's he going to do with it?

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Well, we're really going to focus in on what happens next

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because it's a masterclass in the kind of thing that only Beethoven

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can do in getting so much out of this strange musical cell.

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Well, he starts off by using it as the basis of a set of variations.

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All the strings are involved in this conversation

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and, in fact, what they have to say is so interesting that our attention

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is often drawn away from the theme onto the ornamentation around it.

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And yet, the theme is always there with all of its elements intact.

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The knocking, the hot cross buns, the syncopated ending and the pause.

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Now, in the first variation,

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the theme is played by the second violins here at the front

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of the Royal Albert Hall stage,

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and they're using their bows this time.

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The knocking...

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the pause...

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And now the first violins have the theme.

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Now here's the real surprise.

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If you've been sitting there thinking that this tune

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is too simple, or too tuneless, even,

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to be the grand theme of this epic finale, you're quite right.

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It turns out that this is just a simple bassline after all.

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All this time, Beethoven has been holding up his sleeve

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the real theme of this finale,

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now gloriously introduced by the singing oboe whilst the bassline

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that we learnt has been relegated to the cellos and basses underneath.

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Now, together, this oboe theme and its bassline create

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what's called an Englischer, an English dance.

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And in fact, it's a tune that Beethoven had written,

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a catchy little number a few years earlier

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and he was really pretty obsessed by it.

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It starts off as an orchestral dance.

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He uses it in his only ballet, the Creatures of Prometheus,

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and he wrote a set of variations for solo piano on it too.

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But anyway, it's at this point in the finale of the Eroica symphony

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that things can really get going,

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because Beethoven can use the melody and the bassline

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in so many different ways,

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like an actor dressing up in different costumes.

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Here the bassline is the basis of a fugue which flies around

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the orchestra like a kind of supercharged children's round.

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And with the Aurora Orchestra on stage here in this huge arc

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in the Royal Albert Hall, you'll be able to see and feel and hear

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the melody soar through them.

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It starts in the first violins.

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Now the seconds...

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..and violas.

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And on it goes round the circle.

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Now, on its own, this fugue theme is a little dry, or perhaps academic.

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But the magical thing about a fugue

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is that once each orchestral section has introduced the fugue theme,

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it carries on playing in the background,

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providing busy activity, or what we call counterpoint.

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Now, by the end of this fugue, the themes are coming thick and fast

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and they get faster and faster, these introductions,

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as it goes round the circle.

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Let's hear the whole thing ripple around the Royal Albert Hall stage,

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gathering momentum like a tidal wave at the end.

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It's a crazy, chaotic labyrinth of counterpoint that Beethoven creates,

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but he keeps up the energy

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of this symphonic carousel of characters.

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Here are a group of wild anarchic dances with the second violins

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and violas in the middle in a frenzy.

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He adds the dance on top...

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-Hey!

-LAUGHTER

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..and the bassline underneath.

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Hey!

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Hey!

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LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE

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It's...

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It's amazing, the variety that Beethoven can create from this

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simple tune and its strange bassline.

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The energy keeps building in the orchestra.

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They get louder and louder until we feel

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that there's kind of nowhere for them to go.

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The orchestra comes to a loud and sudden stop, it's a pause,

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and then Beethoven returns to the oboe theme.

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Remember how it sounded when we first heard it.

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Well, here, later in the movement, it's transformed into a prayer.

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It's much slower,

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with some achingly beautiful changes to the harmony underneath.

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It's pretty gorgeous, that music, isn't it?

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I think you can give them a round of applause. I...

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APPLAUSE

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Thank you.

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So if that moment of magic, towards the end,

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it's nearly where the Eroica symphony ends

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in this kaleidoscopic fourth movement, its finale,

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but where does the symphony begin?

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Well, let's rewind not just to the beginning of the first movement

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of the Eroica symphony,

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but to how Beethoven composed it in 1803 and 1804.

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He needed to recover himself from a deep depression

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that he'd suffered the year before in 1802.

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He realised with terror how bad his deafness was becoming

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and that shook him to the brink of suicide.

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So the composition of this symphony

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symbolises his return to the world, to his powers.

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But as well as this personal victory,

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this is a symphony with a subject. Napoleon Bonaparte.

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Beethoven originally dedicated this symphony to Napoleon

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but he scratched out the dedication

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when he heard that Napoleon had called himself emperor.

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But that means that during the composition of this piece

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Beethoven was driven by the idea that his music, this music,

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could be the sounds of a new society.

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Talk about ambitious. Well, the Eroica symphony starts with a bang.

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Not just one bang, but two.

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And abruptly he continues with a simple cello tune

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that follows the contours of an arpeggio of E flat major.

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But Beethoven is going to confound our expectations

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time and time again in this first movement,

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and even in these early bars he does so here by taking a wrong,

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unexpected turn to a sour C sharp.

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And listen to how Beethoven intensifies the impact

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of that C sharp by introducing at that very moment

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the first violins above, jerky and syncopated

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before they join the cellos together like a duet partner.

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Now, when you add the middle of the texture as well,

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put it all together and I think as the opening of a symphony,

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this is pretty much unbeatable.

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But that really is only the start,

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because this movement goes on to become the single longest

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continuous band of pure orchestral music that had been written

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up to this point,

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and Beethoven is pushing everything to its limits in it.

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We could talk about melody, harmony, orchestration, but we're all of us

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-in the Royal Albert Hall going to focus on rhythm, aren't we?

-We are.

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Well, he writes this first movement in three-four, which means

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there are three beats in the bar. It's a simple dance in three.

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Just think of that cello tune...

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One, two, three, one, two, three, one...

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You have a nice impulse on the downbeat.

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Bearing that in mind, listen to this passage, bar 27.

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So it's pretty early on in the movement.

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I don't know about you, but I certainly feel that he's

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completely disrupted my sense of one, two, three, one, two, three.

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-It's a bit awkward when you're a conductor.

-LAUGHTER

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But the amazing thing about how he undermines this

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is that he's introducing explosive orchestral accents,

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not just on the first beat now,

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but on the second and third beats of the bar.

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The story goes that in the very first rehearsal of this piece

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in 1804, in Prince Lobkowitz's palace, Beethoven,

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who was conducting, got so carried away with his music that he started

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following his own accents instead of conducting

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with three beats in the bar, which is pretty much what I'm supposed

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to be doing this evening when we play the symphony proper.

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And of course, the whole orchestra fell apart.

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Now, just to give you a little impression of...

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-not the falling apart bit, but...

-LAUGHTER

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..but what's going on here, I'm going to ask the orchestra

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to demonstrate upon this beautiful stage

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of the Royal Albert Hall what their accents sound like.

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And I'll conduct a little bit like how Beethoven might have done

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in that rehearsal. It goes like this.

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-THEY STAMP FEET ON THE FIRST BEAT

-One, two, three, four, five, six, seven...

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one, two, one, two, one, one, two, three, four, five...

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one, two, one, two, one, two, one, two...

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one, two, one, two, one, two, three

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one, two, three, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven...one.

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-Like so.

-APPLAUSE

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Now, to truly see how far he's moved away

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from that sort of Viennese waltz... One, two, three, one, two, three...

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..we need a little bit of help.

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Don't worry, you're not going to have to do that.

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But maybe if you could help me set up a nice three-beat pulse

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and we'll put that against you.

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OK, so here we go. A three-beat pulse is very straightforward.

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A gentle clap is going to work for this.

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One, two, three, one, two, three...

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I need you all to do this, by the way.

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This is not solo clapping.

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AUDIENCE CLAPS One, two, three,

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one, two, three, one, two, three...

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Keep it going And the musicians will join in.

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CLAPPING CONTINUES

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MUSICIANS STAMP THEIR FEET

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That is pretty spectacular. What an audience this is, you know.

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37 beats there. It's something like that, isn't it, altogether?

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Anyway, congratulations. That sounds...

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In fact, it goes further, actually, in its rhythmic revolution

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than some of the music of Steve Reich, in fact.

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But that's nonetheless what's happening inside the fabric

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of the first movement of the Eroica symphony.

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Now, that's only, though, one movement,

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or one part of the first movement.

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But he's shattering conventions throughout

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all the movements of the Eroica symphony.

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So let's move to the scherzo, the third movement.

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The thing about this,

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the third movements of symphonies by Beethoven's predecessors

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like Mozart and Haydn were usually in the form

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of a courtly minuet, a rather slow and stately dance.

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So here's what Beethoven's scherzo, the third movement of the Eroica,

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its opening, could have sounded like as a Haydn minuet.

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So what does Beethoven actually do?

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Well, first he asks for it to be staccato, which means short.

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And then he says, pianissimo, or very quiet.

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Now he speeds it up, this is the terrifying bit,

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to get to an allegro vivace.

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So Beethoven transforms the Haydnesque minuet into this

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fast and dangerous scherzo, paving the way for the scherzos

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of later symphonies like Mahler and Shostakovich.

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And yet there is a vestige of the influence of Haydn

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in this movement too, in the central section, the trio, which is

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this rip-roaring rustic eruption for the three horns

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of the Eroica symphony.

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APPLAUSE

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There is, though, one movement of the Eroica symphony

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we haven't discussed yet, arguably the most influential of all.

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The second slow movement that Beethoven calls a marcia funebre,

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a funeral march.

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Well, the question is, whose funeral is this?

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Is it those dead on the battlefield,

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or are these the sounds of mourning for the hero Bonaparte himself?

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This movement is all of those things and more. It's a tragic pageant.

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It's nothing less than a catharsis of grief.

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And at the very start of it, the double basses are playing this,

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they're mimicking the sounds of funeral bass drums.

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You can imagine the procession.

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Well, above that virtuosity in the abyss of the orchestra there,

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Beethoven adds rich harmony and a melody in the first violins

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that's like something out of French Baroque music

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complete with stately dotted rhythms.

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But not everything in this movement is so subdued in atmosphere.

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In fact, it's full of extremes that Beethoven cuts to

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from one to the other like a film director, from this...

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..to this.

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From this...

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..to this.

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Throughout its 15 minutes, this music, it confronts its grief

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and then it exorcises it

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and finally, by the end of the movement, it's exhausted.

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It's a whole process of mourning in music, still one of the most

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dramatic and ambitious ideas ever attempted in instrumental music.

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But who is this funeral procession for?

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Who is the hero of this whole symphony?

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Napoleon Bonaparte, ideal societies, English dances,

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they're all there, for sure.

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But the definitive answer to who the hero of the Eroica symphony is -

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it's Beethoven, of course.

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CHEERING AND APPLAUSE

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If you enjoyed that, Aurora Orchestra also played

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Richard Strauss's Metamorphosen as part of this prom,

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and that performance is available to watch now on BBC iPlayer.

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The fearlessly brilliant members of Aurora Orchestra put Beethoven's revolutionary Eroica Symphony under the Proms microscope. Presenter Tom Service and conductor Nicholas Collon perform a lively and revealing on-stage dissection of the score that changed musical history. The Prom culminates with a full performance of the symphony, which the orchestra will play entirely from memory.


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