(It's gratifying to be posting this on what was most probably Beethoven's birthday in 1770)
The Eroica symphony was first performed in August 1804 at a private concert in a palace belonging to one of Beethoven's most ardent admirers, Prince Franz Josef Max von Lobkowitz. Lobkowitz, a good amateur violinist, was an amiable Viennese aristocrat who, according to one Countess Lulu von Thürheim, a later Ruritanian gossip, 'devoted himself to music from morning till night and squandered an immense fortune maintaining the most outstanding musicians and singers in Vienna', leaving his seven children destitute. His wife, Princess Caroline von Lobkowitz, was the sister of Karl von Schwarzenberg, an able Austrian army commander who had distinguished himself fighting the French in the Revolutionary and earlier Napoleonic wars. From this one might deduce that glasses were as seldom raised to 'Napoleon Bonaparte' in the Lobkowitz and Schwarzenberg households as cabinet photos of Hitler adorned the mantelpieces of the Mountbattens; and that Beethoven, for all his earlier admiration for Napoleon, was well advised to rip 'Bonaparte' from the title page of the manuscript of the Eroica symphony, if this eased Prince Lobkowitz' purchase of the performing rights for the next three years or so.
Rehearsals were fraught and the players in Lobkowitz' private orchestra found the work difficult and incomprehensible. Beethoven attended some rehearsals, making generally slight amendments from the rostrum, or just behind it. In the context of tried rehearsal tempers not all these corrections found their way into the full score (the first page is shown above) and to this day, as far as I know, there is no definitive critical edition of the Eroica.
In my days as an amateur orchestral percussionist somehow it never fell to me to play the Eroica, but all the same I try to imagine myself sitting on the drum stool of Prince Lobkowitz' timpanist during those first rehearsals. I imagine his konzertmeister, orchestra leader, coming round with the individual parts, produced by the unsung heroes of practical Classical music-making, the copyists whose unenviable job it was to decipher and transform Beethoven's tempestuous manuscript into something musicians could conveniently read.
He would note first of all the key, E flat, and groan: this would mean tuning his right-hand, tenor kettledrum to the E flat below middle C, and his left-hand, bass drum to the B flat below. Both these notes would be slightly higher than the generally conventional notes to which timpani were tuned, and it might therefore be difficult to keep the highly stretched vellum or calfskin drumheads in tune. He would ask his neighbour, probably one of the two trumpets Beethoven required, to play the note E flat for him to tune from. Holding the note in his head, he would tighten the six square-headed screws around the rim of the tenor drum with a T-key, tapping the head with one of his ebony or leather drumsticks until a good, resonant E flat was reached. When he had tuned his bass drum to B flat in the same way he would be ready, having noted from his manuscript part that the first movement of this new symphony was, unusually, in three-time and that he had to play a loud staccato E flat in the first bar and again in the second, and that thereafter he had 34 bars rest, with nothing to play, which he would have to count, silently and to himself, ONE-two-three, TWO-two-three, THREE-two-three right up until THIRTY-FOUR-two-three when he had to play 8 bars'-worth of E flats and B flats very loud and then settle down to counting out another 20 silent bars before coming in again. If anything, his counting had to be more accurate than his playing: the slightest miscount might spell disaster.
He would be looking forward to exploring his way through this new symphony. During the previous four or five years he would have played several of Beethoven's works, including the 1st and 2nd Symphonies, which were masterfully written in a thorough-going, musicianly way, from which it was clear that Haydn's and Mozart's mantle had fallen on Beethoven's shoulders. They were challenging but not over-difficult to play, good to listen to, full of rich invention, life, energy and high spirits and popular with audiences.
I can imagine the stocky figure of Beethoven, hair awry, dark eyes flashing with a nervous truculence, stepping on to a low wooden rostrum. He would indicate with his hand, or with a roll of paper, how fast he wanted the first movement to go: allegro con brio, fast with spirit, at about one bar per second. He would lift his arms shoulder-high, pause, then flick his hands first up in a preparatory beat and then down at the speed he had already shown. At the bottom of the downstroke the whole orchestra would start to play, including the timpanist with his staccato E flat, and those present, Prince Lobkowitz, some of his family and entourage, and one or two of the composer's friends would witness the first faltering, uncertain realisation of a mighty outpouring that Beethoven had only heard in his head.