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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Tonight we've got something a little different for you - Beethoven's Eroica symphony from memory,
and unpacked onstage by the conductor Nicholas Collon, and...
well, yours truly.
Welcome to the Royal Albert Hall.
An empty stage behind me.
But not for much longer, because for the next 25 minutes,
we're going to journey inside the single most revolutionary
piece of orchestral music ever composed.
Beethoven's Third Symphony, the Eroica, the heroic.
And we're going to explore what makes the Eroica so special
in new ways, opening the score up,
and we're also going to be opening up the orchestra, who you'll see
and hear in new forms and combinations on the stage behind me.
Well, I mention an orchestra, so we need our musicians.
Ladies and gentlemen,
please welcome on stage the players of Aurora Orchestra
and their conductor, Nicholas Collon,
your heroes for the rest of the night.
CHEERING AND APPLAUSE
This is a symphony that wants to change the world,
and it sounds like it too.
That's the shocking call to attention at the start
of the final fourth movement of the Eroica symphony
where we're going to start our heroic exploration.
But what happens next?
-Nick, over to you.
-Thanks, Tom. Good evening, everyone.
Well, what we need next is a grand heroic theme,
something appropriate for this epic finale.
-And that is it...
..except there's nothing grand or heroic about it.
I mean, it's laughably simple, isn't it?
And yet these few bars contain the musical DNA of the entire
last movement. Now, since we're going to be playing this theme
rather a lot this evening,
I suggest we get to know it a little bit better
by having a go at singing it together.
What unexpected enthusiasm.
It's actually... It's not too hard. So this is how it goes.
I'm going to get the orchestra to sing it once first.
The first few bars are a little bit like hot cross buns...
-# Dum, dum, dum, dum... #
Followed by a snappy, jazzy ending.
# Dum, dum, dum
# Dum, dum, dum, dum, dum, dum. #
Now, you're always worryingly good.
Let's dive straight in, shall we? After two. And, one, two...
-# Dum, dum, dum, dum
# Dum, dum, dum Dum, dum, dum, dum, dum, dum. #
Just watch out.
There were a couple of you, I think you know who you were...
# Dum, dum, dum...
# Dum, dum, dum, dum, dum, dum. #
There's a nice little rest there.
-No-one down here did that.
OK, shall we have one more go all together?
and...also not so elephantine, perhaps.
Creepy little mice. Here we are. After two.
And one, two...
# Dum, dum, dum, dum
# Dum, dum, dum Dum, dum, dum, dum, dum, dum. #
That's genuinely very beautiful.
-Thank you. Fantastic.
So what does he do with this phrase? Well, he repeats it,
this time introducing the woodwind in a kind of copying game.
It's like a game of cat and mouse, and the two animals
find each other at the end... # Dum, dum, dum, dum, dum, dum. #
..for that last little bit.
Now, it's always been an ambition of mine to hear what it might
sound like with 6,000 people in the Royal Albert Hall....
-..singing this in antiphonal chaos.
So look, if we divide... Here's the middle point.
Anyone this side of the middle point with me and the strings over here,
anyone on that side of the middle point with Tom and the woodwind...
We're going to win. It's going to be fine. LAUGHTER
Just to show that this works, Tom and I, bravely,
are going to have a go first. Are you ready, Tom?
-No, but never mind.
-OK. It goes like this.
BOTH: # Dum, dum, dum, dum, dum, dum. #
CHEERING AND APPLAUSE
OK, following me, following Tom.
What could go wrong?
Here we are. After two. And...one, two...
THEY ALL SING
-Wow. How about that?
-That's really good!
you've already performed at the Royal Albert Hall this evening.
The thing is, that's actually, I'm afraid, only half the theme.
Well, this is what happens next.
A bar of complete silence followed by...
..three ferocious knocks...
..a quiet, unison pause...
..and more copying between the two.
Well, now that you all, and Beethoven, have given us
this quirky theme, what's he going to do with it?
Well, we're really going to focus in on what happens next
because it's a masterclass in the kind of thing that only Beethoven
can do in getting so much out of this strange musical cell.
Well, he starts off by using it as the basis of a set of variations.
All the strings are involved in this conversation
and, in fact, what they have to say is so interesting that our attention
is often drawn away from the theme onto the ornamentation around it.
And yet, the theme is always there with all of its elements intact.
The knocking, the hot cross buns, the syncopated ending and the pause.
Now, in the first variation,
the theme is played by the second violins here at the front
of the Royal Albert Hall stage,
and they're using their bows this time.
And now the first violins have the theme.
Now here's the real surprise.
If you've been sitting there thinking that this tune
is too simple, or too tuneless, even,
to be the grand theme of this epic finale, you're quite right.
It turns out that this is just a simple bassline after all.
All this time, Beethoven has been holding up his sleeve
the real theme of this finale,
now gloriously introduced by the singing oboe whilst the bassline
that we learnt has been relegated to the cellos and basses underneath.
Now, together, this oboe theme and its bassline create
what's called an Englischer, an English dance.
And in fact, it's a tune that Beethoven had written,
a catchy little number a few years earlier
and he was really pretty obsessed by it.
It starts off as an orchestral dance.
He uses it in his only ballet, the Creatures of Prometheus,
and he wrote a set of variations for solo piano on it too.
But anyway, it's at this point in the finale of the Eroica symphony
that things can really get going,
because Beethoven can use the melody and the bassline
in so many different ways,
like an actor dressing up in different costumes.
Here the bassline is the basis of a fugue which flies around
the orchestra like a kind of supercharged children's round.
And with the Aurora Orchestra on stage here in this huge arc
in the Royal Albert Hall, you'll be able to see and feel and hear
the melody soar through them.
It starts in the first violins.
Now the seconds...
And on it goes round the circle.
Now, on its own, this fugue theme is a little dry, or perhaps academic.
But the magical thing about a fugue
is that once each orchestral section has introduced the fugue theme,
it carries on playing in the background,
providing busy activity, or what we call counterpoint.
Now, by the end of this fugue, the themes are coming thick and fast
and they get faster and faster, these introductions,
as it goes round the circle.
Let's hear the whole thing ripple around the Royal Albert Hall stage,
gathering momentum like a tidal wave at the end.
It's a crazy, chaotic labyrinth of counterpoint that Beethoven creates,
but he keeps up the energy
of this symphonic carousel of characters.
Here are a group of wild anarchic dances with the second violins
and violas in the middle in a frenzy.
He adds the dance on top...
..and the bassline underneath.
LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE
It's amazing, the variety that Beethoven can create from this
simple tune and its strange bassline.
The energy keeps building in the orchestra.
They get louder and louder until we feel
that there's kind of nowhere for them to go.
The orchestra comes to a loud and sudden stop, it's a pause,
and then Beethoven returns to the oboe theme.
Remember how it sounded when we first heard it.
Well, here, later in the movement, it's transformed into a prayer.
It's much slower,
with some achingly beautiful changes to the harmony underneath.
It's pretty gorgeous, that music, isn't it?
I think you can give them a round of applause. I...
So if that moment of magic, towards the end,
it's nearly where the Eroica symphony ends
in this kaleidoscopic fourth movement, its finale,
but where does the symphony begin?
Well, let's rewind not just to the beginning of the first movement
of the Eroica symphony,
but to how Beethoven composed it in 1803 and 1804.
He needed to recover himself from a deep depression
that he'd suffered the year before in 1802.
He realised with terror how bad his deafness was becoming
and that shook him to the brink of suicide.
So the composition of this symphony
symbolises his return to the world, to his powers.
But as well as this personal victory,
this is a symphony with a subject. Napoleon Bonaparte.
Beethoven originally dedicated this symphony to Napoleon
but he scratched out the dedication
when he heard that Napoleon had called himself emperor.
But that means that during the composition of this piece
Beethoven was driven by the idea that his music, this music,
could be the sounds of a new society.
Talk about ambitious. Well, the Eroica symphony starts with a bang.
Not just one bang, but two.
And abruptly he continues with a simple cello tune
that follows the contours of an arpeggio of E flat major.
But Beethoven is going to confound our expectations
time and time again in this first movement,
and even in these early bars he does so here by taking a wrong,
unexpected turn to a sour C sharp.
And listen to how Beethoven intensifies the impact
of that C sharp by introducing at that very moment
the first violins above, jerky and syncopated
before they join the cellos together like a duet partner.
Now, when you add the middle of the texture as well,
put it all together and I think as the opening of a symphony,
this is pretty much unbeatable.
But that really is only the start,
because this movement goes on to become the single longest
continuous band of pure orchestral music that had been written
up to this point,
and Beethoven is pushing everything to its limits in it.
We could talk about melody, harmony, orchestration, but we're all of us
-in the Royal Albert Hall going to focus on rhythm, aren't we?
Well, he writes this first movement in three-four, which means
there are three beats in the bar. It's a simple dance in three.
Just think of that cello tune...
One, two, three, one, two, three, one...
You have a nice impulse on the downbeat.
Bearing that in mind, listen to this passage, bar 27.
So it's pretty early on in the movement.
I don't know about you, but I certainly feel that he's
completely disrupted my sense of one, two, three, one, two, three.
-It's a bit awkward when you're a conductor.
But the amazing thing about how he undermines this
is that he's introducing explosive orchestral accents,
not just on the first beat now,
but on the second and third beats of the bar.
The story goes that in the very first rehearsal of this piece
in 1804, in Prince Lobkowitz's palace, Beethoven,
who was conducting, got so carried away with his music that he started
following his own accents instead of conducting
with three beats in the bar, which is pretty much what I'm supposed
to be doing this evening when we play the symphony proper.
And of course, the whole orchestra fell apart.
Now, just to give you a little impression of...
-not the falling apart bit, but...
..but what's going on here, I'm going to ask the orchestra
to demonstrate upon this beautiful stage
of the Royal Albert Hall what their accents sound like.
And I'll conduct a little bit like how Beethoven might have done
in that rehearsal. It goes like this.
-THEY STAMP FEET ON THE FIRST BEAT
-One, two, three, four, five, six, seven...
one, two, one, two, one, one, two, three, four, five...
one, two, one, two, one, two, one, two...
one, two, one, two, one, two, three
one, two, three, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven...one.
Now, to truly see how far he's moved away
from that sort of Viennese waltz... One, two, three, one, two, three...
..we need a little bit of help.
Don't worry, you're not going to have to do that.
But maybe if you could help me set up a nice three-beat pulse
and we'll put that against you.
OK, so here we go. A three-beat pulse is very straightforward.
A gentle clap is going to work for this.
One, two, three, one, two, three...
I need you all to do this, by the way.
This is not solo clapping.
AUDIENCE CLAPS One, two, three,
one, two, three, one, two, three...
Keep it going And the musicians will join in.
MUSICIANS STAMP THEIR FEET
That is pretty spectacular. What an audience this is, you know.
37 beats there. It's something like that, isn't it, altogether?
Anyway, congratulations. That sounds...
In fact, it goes further, actually, in its rhythmic revolution
than some of the music of Steve Reich, in fact.
But that's nonetheless what's happening inside the fabric
of the first movement of the Eroica symphony.
Now, that's only, though, one movement,
or one part of the first movement.
But he's shattering conventions throughout
all the movements of the Eroica symphony.
So let's move to the scherzo, the third movement.
The thing about this,
the third movements of symphonies by Beethoven's predecessors
like Mozart and Haydn were usually in the form
of a courtly minuet, a rather slow and stately dance.
So here's what Beethoven's scherzo, the third movement of the Eroica,
its opening, could have sounded like as a Haydn minuet.
So what does Beethoven actually do?
Well, first he asks for it to be staccato, which means short.
And then he says, pianissimo, or very quiet.
Now he speeds it up, this is the terrifying bit,
to get to an allegro vivace.
So Beethoven transforms the Haydnesque minuet into this
fast and dangerous scherzo, paving the way for the scherzos
of later symphonies like Mahler and Shostakovich.
And yet there is a vestige of the influence of Haydn
in this movement too, in the central section, the trio, which is
this rip-roaring rustic eruption for the three horns
of the Eroica symphony.
There is, though, one movement of the Eroica symphony
we haven't discussed yet, arguably the most influential of all.
The second slow movement that Beethoven calls a marcia funebre,
a funeral march.
Well, the question is, whose funeral is this?
Is it those dead on the battlefield,
or are these the sounds of mourning for the hero Bonaparte himself?
This movement is all of those things and more. It's a tragic pageant.
It's nothing less than a catharsis of grief.
And at the very start of it, the double basses are playing this,
they're mimicking the sounds of funeral bass drums.
You can imagine the procession.
Well, above that virtuosity in the abyss of the orchestra there,
Beethoven adds rich harmony and a melody in the first violins
that's like something out of French Baroque music
complete with stately dotted rhythms.
But not everything in this movement is so subdued in atmosphere.
In fact, it's full of extremes that Beethoven cuts to
from one to the other like a film director, from this...
Throughout its 15 minutes, this music, it confronts its grief
and then it exorcises it
and finally, by the end of the movement, it's exhausted.
It's a whole process of mourning in music, still one of the most
dramatic and ambitious ideas ever attempted in instrumental music.
But who is this funeral procession for?
Who is the hero of this whole symphony?
Napoleon Bonaparte, ideal societies, English dances,
they're all there, for sure.
But the definitive answer to who the hero of the Eroica symphony is -
it's Beethoven, of course.
CHEERING AND APPLAUSE
If you enjoyed that, Aurora Orchestra also played
Richard Strauss's Metamorphosen as part of this prom,
and that performance is available to watch now on BBC iPlayer.
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.