The finale of Beethoven's Symphony no. 3, Eroica, does not get the attention it deserves. We often read about the length of the symphony, the funeral march, the hilarity of the scherzo, the horn coming in 'too early' before the reprise of the first movement, among other things. But what about the finale? How great would this symphony be, really, if it were not for the brilliant manner in which Beethoven closes this epic work?
The last movement utilizes a theme from his ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus; the theme also appears as no. 7 in his Contredances, but Beethoven is not on record anywhere having said or written anything about the appearance of this theme in the finale.
In all of his symphonic music, the finale is the closest he comes to sheer theatricality. The opening is all ablaze, fast and furious, before it comes to a halt on a dominant chord. (If you don't know what the dominant is, no worries -- just think of it as a chord that desperately wants to drop the other shoe.) The tension resolves in the most curious way: a skeletal, bare bones theme (if you can call it that). Beethoven aficionados know this to be a specialty, starting with something so banal that it can only go up from there. What ensues is a series of variations on the skeleton, before he unveils the Prometheus theme.
In the finale of Symphony no. 2, Beethoven uses a hybrid form first used by Haydn in the finale of his Symphony no. 85, La Reine, combining the rondo with sonata form. In the Eroica, Beethoven goes one better, conflating sonata form with theme and variations. It is a structural tour de force. Early in the development, one of the variations is a fugato, with lots of call-and-answer, similar in style to the first variation. Later, the basses play the skeletal theme in a Hungarian style, with heavy boots, bringing the development to an apparent close (but not really). When the second violins get another chance at the bare bones theme, they play it . . . upside down! What's going on here? And why are we getting yet another fugato -- wasn't one enough?
The reason may be in the structure; it feels like a return, and the harmonic homecoming would suggest it. But again, not really. Only when Beethoven arrives at another big cadence, again on the dominant, tension filling the room, does he truly announce the real return. But this statement is in a completely new tempo, slower, more stately, and unimaginably beautiful. For me, it is the most beautiful passage in all of Beethoven's nine symphonic masterworks. This is the Beethoven who loved Mozart, who often employed operatic turns in his instrumental music.
It is Beethoven at his most theatrical, his most courageous, his most vulnerable. No wonder this was his favorite.
I think it's my favorite, too.