Wellington’s Victory: How Beethoven Celebrated Napoleon’s Defeat in His Music


What did Beethoven think of Napoleon?

Atonce upon a time, Beethoven idolized Napoleon Bonaparte, seeing the French military leader as the embodiment of democratic freedom for the people. But when Napoleon crowned himself Emperor of France in 1804, Beethoven furiously accused “the little corporal” of becoming a tyrant himself and violently crossed out the word “Bonaparte” (the original title) from the cover of his book. Third Symphony.

Nine years later, Beethoven was ready to bow to Napoleon again. The occasion this time was the defeat in June 1813 of Napoleon’s forces at the Battle of Vitoria in Spain, where a predominantly British army was commanded by the Marquis of Wellington. The idea – to celebrate victory in music – was simple and was suggested to Beethoven by a friend, the inventor Johann Nepomuk Maelzel.

Enter Beethoven Wellington victory

There was only one take: entrepreneur Maelzel wanted Beethoven’s new work to be played on the panharmonicon, a device he had recently developed. It was basically a giant music box, capable of imitating orchestral instruments and sound effects, including gunshots and cannon shots. Beethoven seemed happy to comply at first, but as the piece developed he and Maelzel realized the need for a larger canvas than the creaky, screeching panharmonicon could offer.

Thus, the 15-minute orchestral work that we know today as Wellington’s victory was born. Its first section depicts the battle itself, supplemented by quotes from “Rule Britannia” and the French song “Marlbrough is going to war” (known as “Because it’s a good guy”). Percussion banks were staggered in an antiphonic way and fired volleys of “blows” against each other, with a part for the barrels marked precisely in the score. The second part is a “Victory Symphony”, in which Beethoven comes out “may god save the king‘to announce the British triumph.

How was Beethoven Wellington’s victory has received?

Wellington’s victory has not been kindly judged by history. Beethoven biographer Jan Swafford calls it “a colossal piece of opportunistic gadgets, fortissimo hokum ‘, and his point of view is typical. But the audience of the first night heard Wellington’s victory differently. It was created during a special concert held at the University of Vienna on December 8, 1813 for the benefit of Austrian and Bavarian soldiers wounded by Napoleonic forces at the Battle of Hanau.

One reviewer called the performance Wellington’s victory “Completely extraordinary” and believed that “nothing in the field of musical painting can match it”. Another recorded the “indescribable” enthusiasm of the audience and the excellent playing that Beethoven pulled off as the conductor of the “bounteous” orchestra, which included other composers Spohr (violin), Salieri (drums ) and Hummel (no more battery).

Wellington’s victory was not the only work on the program tonight in December, and not the only one to garner appreciation. The concert began with “a whole new symphony” – Beethoven’s Seventh, completed a year earlier in 1812. Its premiere received what one newspaper called an “extraordinarily good reception”, and the famous slow movement was immediately kissed. Between the two large works, a pair of marches by Dussek and Pleyel were included, the solo part played by a “mechanical trumpeter”, another Maelzel apparatus.

Beethoven and Maelzel then argued over who should benefit financially from the future performances of Wellington’s victory, and the composer briefly threatened legal action. But then he softened enough to use a new invention by Maelzel, a metronome, to define the tempos of his compositions.

And while Beethoven surely knew his Seventh Symphony was far superior artistically to Wellington’s victory, he remained curiously on the defensive last piece. Stung years later by negative comments from a writer on work, Beethoven scribbled in the margin of the offending article, ‘Ah you pitiful scoundrel my shit is better than anything you ever thought’.

Read reviews of Beethoven’s latest recordings here

Learn more about Beethoven and his works

Best Image Credit: Getty Images


About Author

Comments are closed.