Beethoven Unbound: The Story of the Eroica

Beethoven Unbound: The Story of the Eroica
By Allan S. Haley
Eroica Press, 182 pages
A review by R.C. Speck

How can musicology resemble detective work and forensics as much as it can the study of music itself? Allan Haley shows us how in his incisive volume Beethoven Unbound: The Story of the Eroica.

Beginning as a graduate thesis in 1966, Beethoven Unbound reveals Haley’s arguments for what exactly the origin of Beethoven’s famous Eroica Symphony was. For him, it was the “Prometheus” theme found in earlier Beethoven works, including the ballet score The Creatures of Prometheus (opus 43), the Variations and Fugue in E-flat (opus 35), and a collection of contredanses (WoO 14).

But how does one prove that a single theme became the origin of a work which is now nearly 220 years old—especially when scholars disagree on which piece preceded which when coming from Beethoven’s pen? By learning Russian, apparently.

The sketchbook Beethoven used to help compose these works was acquired by a Russian count named Wielhorksy but vanished after the October Revolution in 1917. Found later in the twentieth century, it now resides in a Moscow museum, where Haley studied it intensively. In Beethoven Unbound, Haley’s analysis appears on “three different levels, intended to accommodate different degrees of interest.”1

First, there’s the evolution of the Prometheus theme itself and all the subplots that go with it. For example, Haley describes how one careless sentence from one biographer caused much trouble for musicologists on this topic. It reads like a courtroom drama playing out in a conservatory. Second, there’s the technical analysis of the music. Haley offers excerpts from scores and an abundance of examples from the Wielhorksy sketchbook to prove his points for the musically literate.

Finally, he provides a treasure trove of footnotes and appendices for the completists. Included are contemporary reviews and accounts, essays on the historiographical errors made by some of Beethoven’s biographers, and a 27-page English translation of a seminal Soviet study of the Wielhorksy sketchbook.

Alongside the comprehensive musical analysis, Haley also discusses the literary themes of the Eroica. Beethoven’s early infatuation and later disappointment with Napoleon is well known in this context. But Haley digs deeper to discuss how Promethean themes relate more closely with the symphony. For example, in Greek myth, Prometheus’s unjust punishment for giving humans fire mirrors Beethoven’s unjust punishment of deafness for creating music. Prometheus’ defiance of the gods mirrors Beethoven’s as well. Further, the theme of death, which plays prominently in The Creatures of Prometheus, reappears in the symphony’s second movement, which is a funeral march.

Despite much missing evidence and a thicket of scholarly opinion, Allan Haley, who is a former lawyer, lays out his case impeccably. Beethoven Unbound is both first-rate scholarship and page-turning entertainment.

[1] Allan S. Haley, Beethoven Unbound: The Story of the Eroica (Nevada City, CA: Eroica Press, 2018), page v.

This book review appeared in the fall 2019 issue of Quarter Notes, the member magazine of WCPE Radio, The Classical Station. To receive a subscription, become a member today!

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