The Reading Room
Beethoven and Napoleon: Clash of the Titans
No one in Europe could be indifferent to Napoleon’s ascent. He was its greatest liberator or its greatest threat. Beethoven, who despised ruling classes, was wildly enthusiastic about him. His manuscript for the Third Symphony, the “Eroica,” initially had “Buonaparte” on the title page. A decade later, one of his most popular works would celebrate Wellington’s victory over France.
As a young man in Bonn, Ludwig van Beethoven was attracted to the ideals of the French Revolution but horrified by the Reign of Terror. He wasn’t an unqualified admirer of Napoleon, but he hoped he would lead a better, more stable version of the democratic ideal.
The story is that when Beethoven heard in 1804 that Napoleon had declared himself Emperor, he tore the name out of the title page and proclaimed that Napoleon would be just another tyrant. Like many stories about Beethoven, it relies on his biographers Anton Schindler and Ferdinand Ries, who were prone to exaggeration. What is certain is that Beethoven removed Napoleon’s name before the symphony’s publication. He added a note that the work celebrated “the memory of a great man”; this probably meant Napoleon, who was no longer great in Beethoven’s eyes.
Austria was soon at war with France, and Napoleon’s forces entered Vienna in November 1805 and again in May 1809. During the second attack, the composer had to flee his apartment and took refuge in his brother’s basement, tying pillows to his head to protect what remained of his hearing from the noise of bombardment. His opera Leonore (known today in its revised version as Fidelio) premiered in a city under French occupation to a mostly empty house. His mentor, Haydn, died in the same month, his already weak condition further strained by the war.
In some ways, the occupation granted Beethoven more freedom than before. Austrian censorship was relaxed, and Goethe’s previously banned play Egmont was permitted on the stage. Less than a year later Beethoven wrote incidental music for it, including an overture which remains famous, He considered dedicating his 1810 Mass in C to Napoleon. Nonetheless, having his home city invaded didn’t endear the French emperor to Beethoven.
This wasn’t a matter of Austrian patriotism. Beethoven flattered the nobility when he needed their support, which was often, but he expected to be treated at least as their equal. In an angry letter to Prince Lichnowsky in 1806, he wrote, “There are and have been thousands of princes. There is only one Beethoven.” He met Goethe in 1812 and said afterward that “Goethe is too comfortable with the court air, more than is fitting for a poet.”
In 1813, Beethoven wrote Wellington’s Victory to celebrate the defeat of the French army at the Battle of Vittoria, a decisive battle of the Peninsular War. He originally wrote it for the “panharmonicon,” a bizarre invention by Johann Maelzel that could imitate all the instruments of an orchestra. It proved to be beyond the device’s abilities, and Beethoven rescored it for orchestra with simulated gunfire. Today the work is regarded as Beethoven’s most embarrassing one, but it was a huge success in its time. Another invention of Maelzel’s, the metronome, was far more successful than the panharmonicon.
While Beethoven’s view of Napoleon was not as straightforward as popular legends would have it, the broad outline is clear. At first he thought Napoleon would free Europe from its arrogant crowned heads and bring in a new era in which, as the “Ode to Joy” proclaims, “all people shall be brothers.” Later he recognized the French emperor as just one more conqueror aiming to impose his will on the common people. Beethoven could never stand anyone who claimed to be above him in rank and worth.