Using literature’s hero myth as a blueprint for music

Even casual fans of music know that Beethoven’s Sym­phony No. 3, the “Eroica,” has to do with hero­ism, and prob­a­bly know the back­story of how it was writ­ten for (and then denied to) Napoleon.

But if you con­sider the hero myth as an over­all aes­thetic goal–the heroic journey–you begin to hear it all over Beethoven’s music. In fact, it is so dom­i­nant that Scott Burn­ham wrote a book about it called Beethoven Hero (1995).

I’ve just com­pleted a new piano solo called Dantes Vari­a­tions in which I start with a heroic theme and sub­mit it to many vari­a­tions. Quite late in my com­po­si­tion process I came across this image from Wikipedia, and I thought I would share it here. Con­sider all the fan­tas­tic ways you can take your music if you think of some of these ideas: “call to adven­ture,” “thresh­old (begin­ning of adven­ture),” “helper,” “death and rebirth,” trans­for­ma­tion,” “atone­ment,” “gift of the goddess.”

It sounds like a recipe for a great piece of music! And inspir­ing: what would be meant by the “helper” in a musi­cal com­po­si­tion? Per­haps a sec­ondary theme, but also per­haps sim­ply an insis­tent pitch, or even a rhythm.

But I also won­der about how things can be changed up. For instance, what if some of these ideas were taken out of sequence? What if “gift of the god­dess” comes first and then “death” with no rebirth?

One last con­sid­er­a­tion: There are so many vari­a­tions of heroes. The tragic hero, the anti-hero, the super hero: Can any of these be expressed in a dis­tinct musi­cal way?

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About Richard D. Russell

This was written by Richard D. Russell, New York City based composer of fine music.