“Of Hunting, Horns, and Heroes: A brief history of E-flat major before the Eroica”

Abstracts: New Beethoven Research Conference
New Orleans, Oct. 31-Nov. 1, 2012
Wednesday morning, October 31, 9am-12pm, Bayside A
John David Wilson, independent scholar, Ph.D. Universität für Musik und Darstellende Kunst, Vienna

“Of Hunting, Horns, and Heroes: A brief history of E-flat major before the Eroica”

Numerous writers on music in the 18th and 19th centuries elaborated upon the belief that each major or minor key was appropriate for the expression of a distinct affect or character, a sentiment that Beethoven appears to have concurred with. Just how this belief impressed itself on compositional practices, in specifically musical ways, is a more difficult question to answer. This is because the choice of key for a

composition in Beethoven’s era entailed several intertwining factors, both instrumental/acoustic and symbolic/traditional in nature. The analysis of musical topics (or topoi) provides a promising framework with which to study this issue, as particular topoi were frequently employed in vocal music in combination with certain keys. That these combinations of topos and key also frequently appeared in

instrumental music shows that even without a text, composers held the same aesthetic attitude toward keys.

The key of E-flat major offers an interesting example of this complex interplay of instrumental and symbolic associations which were determinative of key character. As the principal tonality he chose for such epoch-making compositions as the Eroica symphony and the fifth piano concerto, E-flat (along with

its relative C minor) is frequently mentioned in connection with Beethoven’s “heroic” style. The association of heroism and Tugend with this key however neither began with Beethoven, nor was it purely invented by 19th-century audiences of his music. Rather it had its roots in the musical culture of German-speaking

Europe in the late 18th century, clearly evident in opera and oratorio known to audiences throughout the area. Part of this tradition originated in hunting music and the natural horn whose sonority became metonymous with the hunt, an area of research which has recently been given authoritative treatment by Joseph Pöschl and Raymond Monelle. Yet this does not explain why E-flat major became the key of choice for heroic sentiments: contrary to received wisdom, Austro-Germanhunting horns were typically not pitched in this key until the very late 18th century, and orchestral horns had long been capable of playing in multiple keys. Through the lens of musical topoi, this paper takes a fresh look at the musical sources, including music-dramatic works known to Beethoven in his youth in Bonn, and traces their heroic symbolism into the realm of instrumental music.