Beethoven’s “Eroica”: The Fire of Prometheus

Question: What makes a familiar piece of music stay fresh to the mind and ear?

One Answer: Learning something new about it.

Josh plays violin in an orchestra made up of passionate musicians who, by day, are psychiatrists, pediatricians, teachers, students, hedge fund managers, software engineers, etc. ranging in age from 18 to 80.

He writes the Program Notes for their concerts to help audiences listen with heightened awareness and pleasure. We bring you here a classic performance by Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic.

A suggestion: Read the Program Notes first as you watch and listen. Then just listen.

Sometime during the summer of 1817 Beethoven happened to be dining with the poet Christoph Kuffner. At one point the conversation reportedly went as follows:

K: Tell me frankly, which is your favorite among your symphonies ? ( The Ninth had not yet been written.)

B:–[in great good humor] Eh! Eh! The “Eroica.”

K:  I should have guessed the C minor.

B: No, the “Eroica.”

Studying Beethoven’s creative process, I am awed by the extent to which the “Eroica” Symphony is fueled by an inspirational fire like no other.

A vital clue as to how this magnificent masterpiece came together can actually be found in its last movement. The basic material heard there can also be found in the seventh of a delightful set of dance miniatures, the “Twelve Contradances,” from around 1801. It reappears as well, in more developed form, as the finale to Beethoven’s ballet score, “The Creatures of Prometheus,” Op. 43, from the same period. It can also heard, in much more highly evolved form, in the so-called “Eroica” variations for solo piano, his Op. 35 from 1802.

This speaks to his passionate engagement with the myth of Prometheus and its association in his mind with particular musical material. Going by copious circumstantial evidence, it would be no exaggeration to say that Beethoven thought of himself as a latter-day Prometheus, that great hero of Greek mythology who defied the gods by stealing fire from heaven to bring warmth, light, and enlightenment to mankind.

Turning to the political arena, it is clear that Beethoven initially saw Napoleon Bonaparte as another Prometheus, one who would bring “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” to not only France but all mankind. However, by the late spring of 1804, after his revolutionary work was complete, the news came to him that Napoleon had had himself crowned Emperor, ending the dream of a new epoch of Freedom. In a rage, Beethoven tore up the title page with the name “Bonaparte” in its dedication, renaming it “Sinfonia Eroica, composed to celebrate the Memory of a Great Man.”  (I added the italics.) Everything about Beethoven’s “Eroica” symphony shattered the musical status quo.

[Start the video now.] The first movement, after two whiplash chords on E-flat, outlines the notes of that chord in the cellos in the four following measures, only to throw us off balance in the fifth measure with a disruptive shift to C-sharp.

A mighty struggle is now joined in this opening symphonic movement, the likes of which had never been heard before. We have to wait for the climactic coda for a full realization of this opening idea. There, two perfectly matching four-bar phrases–first heard in the French horn starting in measure 631 (16:53)–at last begin to resolve the struggle.

There  are three more such statements–in violins, then in cellos, culminating  in the triumphant trumpets.  Beethoven’s process of reaching a resolution translates into a tortuous journey of bold key relationships, masterly motivic manipulation and counterpoint, repeated duple disruptions of what is supposed to be triple meter, dynamic contrasts, and dissonance of unprecedented intensity.

A telling dissonant moment comes at 9:26. Another can be heard at  11:54  as the recapitulation is about to begin: an impatient French horn  jumps  the gun, coming in sounding the notes of the home key, while hushed violins play a dominant chord–a chord built on the fifth note of the key.   (11:54)

The intensely expressive second movement, the funeral march, is riveting from the moment it starts, with the dark sound of the open G string (violins and violas) and the imitation of solemn drum strokes in the cellos and basses. Its grief-stricken outer sections frame a midsection where we briefly find consolation in the sunshine of C major, only to then turn dark and tragic again in a double fugue. This fugue is followed by a series of restatements in which the main theme assumes almost apocalyptic intensity.

Beethoven introduces a clock-ticking rhythm in his coda–a hint at human mortality–which in turn brings back the main theme,  now heard as a series of sobs from the violins. The ensuing scherzo, in 3/4 time, is so fleet-footed that we can feel only a single beat per measure. The Trio puts three  French horns on show as they cavort heroically in E-flat.

A headlong, plunging line in the strings launches the finale; it is as though Prometheus himself has come down to earth to ignite our own fire. Beethoven proceeds to lay down a pizzicato bass line–really underpinning the earlier Prometheus melody. Two variations follow. In the third variation, the oboe introduces the Prometheus melody itself–in effect, a countermelody. What follow are eight variations of path-breaking compositional virtuosity, where Beethoven draws upon virtually every trick in his toolbox. The music ranges in scope from an earthy contradance variation to the most intricate fugal writing. A return of that headlong, hurtling line launches the Presto coda  as we all surge ahead in glorious triumph. What a transcendent moment!

Program Notes for St. Thomas Orchestra (copyright J. Berrett, 2012)

**Now, listen again and discover what has changed for you. Tell us your experience by writing to us at

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Spring is Coming, and Not a Moment Too Soon


This sign made us smile while we waited in a long line at the car wash recently.


Another snow day. It’s been a rough winter here in the Northeastern US. We wonder if our Butterfly Bush will survive the cold. The Rhododendron’s leaves are rolled up so tight, they look like pencils. When we shovel, there’s no place to put more snow.

What brings a sense of hope is that March has now arrived. With that more cheerful thought in mind, we bring you a visualization to music that is one of our favorites.

Visualization is a form of Meditation. It employs images to take the listener on an inward journey of personal discovery. Music adds another dimension to this process as it resonates in the body.

Click on the button below to go on your own journey.


If you’d like to listen to this atmospheric music all by itself as well–we use Claude Debussy’s Nuages played by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy–click on the button below.

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A Great Passion for Music

Josh and Lynne Berrett

Josh and Lynne having fun “playing the building” in NYC

Interviewing people about the music they love to listen to is endlessly fascinating. Every story is different. Yet, a common thread runs through them: they are all stories of discovery and a deep commitment to consciously choosing the music in their lives. We find this inspiring and contagious.

We hope you can approach the music we include in these posts with a sense of curiosity and in a spirit of exploration. Perhaps you will want to share your musical preferences with us too. Perhaps you will find yourself listening to “your” own music more consciously–with even greater appreciation for its value to you in ways you have not recognized before.

So, as the last interview of 2014, we bring you the story of Frank. Now 58, Frank has been passionate about the blues since the age of eleven. He speaks of how he gets a thrill–a physical feeling–“everything starts to tingle”–as a melody gets into his heart.

Growing up in a coal mining family in West Germany during the years of the Cold War, he was always hearing music around him. His grandfather sang in a Communist choir, and his father played guitar and sang German and French folk songs. The American Music Hour broadcast by Radio Luxembourg made a lasting impression on him. He vividly remembers lying in bed at night, listening enraptured until well after midnight through his hand-held transistor radio and ear plugs while reading under the covers with a flashlight.

The death of his father when he was still quite young brought a time of great trial and tribulation. He ran away from home and ended up living with three different families. Music was his salvation during that dark period, he says.

As he grew older, and especially after coming to the States, Frank developed ever broader musical tastes, ranging from Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt, and Dvorak (he particularly loves the artistry of the great violinist Jascha Heifetz) to the music of Africa and Latin America to American icons like Jimi Hendrix, Bonnie Raitt, Robert Johnson, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane.

But the heart and soul of his musical passion is still the blues, particularly the work?of the acoustic slide guitarist Ry Cooder. Frank is in awe of Cooder?s gift for interconnecting a great variety of?musical genres. Frank has created a website to celebrate his passion for acoustic, folk and country blues in the 21st Century (

You can find dozens of artists? profiles there, ranging from the internationally famous to more locally or regionally known musicians. He speaks with special warmth about John Jackson (1924-2002), an illiterate musician from the Fairfax, Va. area who was deeply immersed in the oral African-American tradition.

Here is a sample of Jackson?s music-making called “Red River Blues”:

Like many of our interviewees, Frank is someone with a passion for music who has other passions that are also important to him. He has been director of marketing and communications at a major manufacturer of motor speed controllers for battery-powered and electric vehicles for some twenty years–work he enjoys. Music is a vital part of his day in the office. He credits it with being a source of inspiration, sparking his mind when he writes. It is his comfort food too, helping him deal with everyday stress.

Here are two more examples from his must-have listening list:

Ry Cooder, “Chicken Skin Music” –(Hawaiian and Tex-Mex fusion)

Jimi Hendrix, “Axis: Bold as Love” (the first record Frank ever bought)


© Wickedgood | Dreamstime.comJimi Hendrix Advertisement For George Kalinsky Photo

 Click on the button below to listen.

What music helps you deal with stress? Share in a Comment.

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The Fountain of Youth

One of the more inspiring ways different generations can bond through music is described in this post. Research tells us that positive inter-generational connections are important for our well being.

Here is an exciting example of one way to create a bridge when you listen to music with someone of another generation. If each of you shares what you like about the recording, what happens?

Let us know here. Leave a comment.
Singer, Tony Bennett, now 88, has just released a duet album, “Cheek to Cheek,” with Lady Gaga, age 28, which quickly became No. 1 on Billboard.

Drawing upon the wisdom of his long and rich experience, Bennett says of his current music-making: “I’ve learned that it’s what you leave out of a performance, not what you put into it. Less is more. It’s not because of age, but it’s the right thing to do.”

The extent of his engagement with other singers, many of them half his age and more, is nothing short of astonishing. This goes back more than ten years now and includes names like K.D. Lang, Amy Winehouse, Sheryl Crow, Andrea Bocelli, and Mariah Carey. What is even more remarkable is how these collaborations have tapped hitherto unknown abilities in singers like Lady Gaga, who in the current duet album performs against type–and does so in superb fashion.

The title track,”Cheek to Cheek,” a 1935 classic with words and music by Irving Berlin, first made famous by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, is given fresh life here by our two virtuosi. Listen to how the melodic line is developed from a simple melodic cell of adjacent notes. (If you listen carefully, by the way, you can hear a resemblance to Chopin’s Polonaise in A-flat, Op. 53!) The word painting is such that the melody perfectly matches the intimacy suggested by the lyrics.

For your listening pleasure (share it with someone younger or older, please!):

Vital cue: Track 2, 2:04 on bottom of screen, Lady Gaga sings “Heaven, I’m in Heaven…”

Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga

Vital cue: 0:42 on bottom of screen for melodic cell that quite possibly inspired Irving Berlin.

Vladimir Horowitz performing Chopin Polonaise in A-flat

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George Gershwin: “Stairway to Paradise”

From Josh: I am having a ball these days teaching a course, for mature adults, on George Gershwin for the Lifetime Learners Institute at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut. The many people in my class are so engaged that they give me a special energy. In fact, we seem to energize one other.

One of the recent highlights of the class was my presenting one of Gershwin’s early hits, “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” a showstopper from the George White Scandals of 1922. This was an extravaganza in the mold of The Ziegfeld Follies, with girls dressed in black patent leather strutting up a glittering staircase.

More than anything else from that show, it is this music and its lyrics –Ira Gershwin had a hand in them– that live on. The exuberant introduction to the song begins with a bold leap of an octave (“I’ll…build…”), shortly followed by a juicy, bluesy note (listen to the minor sound on the word “Para…dise”). The upward leap of an octave so often signifies great energy in music, the sense of being transported to another, better place—famously in the very first word of that classic pop song “Some…where over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz. (Try singing it and you will hear what I mean.)

Listen to the catchy, bouncy rhythm of the opening verse, and the buoyant rising melodic line accompanying the words, “All you preachers who delight in panning dancing teachers….” The words that follow deliver an upbeat message to get up and move around: “It’s madness to be always sitting around in sadness, when you could be learning the steps of gladness.” Brain research these days is underscoring the importance of doing just this!

As it also underscores the importance of expanding your horizons, when the song’s chorus continues: “ I’ll build a stairway to Paradise with a new step every day.” Not only a physical step, but the openness to trying something new each day.

Vince Giordano and The Nighthawks give a rousing rendition of this old song with vocals near the beginning of the biopic The Aviator. In the plush setting of the Coconut Grove nightclub in Los Angeles the young Howard Hughes, a man of soaring ambition, is seeking backing for his aeronautic ventures to the accompaniment of Gershwin’s music—a truly vivid aural analogue to what is to be played out in the movie.

And for a snappy, irresistible fox trot version, nothing can match the 1922 recording made by Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra shortly after the premiere of the George White Scandals earlier that year. It brings back for me happy memories of listening when I was writing my book, Louis Armstrong and Paul Whiteman: Two Kings of Jazz (Yale University Press, 2004). What is also worth noting is that the George White Scandals of 1922 brought George Gershwin and Paul Whiteman together and led to a commission that forever changed music history—the writing of Rhapsody in Blue, premiered on February 12, 1924


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