Sunday, November 11, 2012

Beethoven and Bonaparte. The Eroica Was Almost the Bonaparte

Written by: Andy Fein, luthier at Fein Violins
 and Kevin Berdine
What does a cantankerous musical genius and a man of short stature with plans of taking over the whole of Europe have in common? 

When speaking of Beethoven's Symphony No. 3, the "Eroica," Gareth Jenkins wrote "Beethoven was doing for music what Napoleon was doing for society—turning tradition upside down." He later characterized the freedom of expression as being akin to the struggles of the French Revolution.

This characterization, although romantic in its notions, comes surprisingly close to the intentions of the composer. Beethoven was extremely impressed by Napoleon Bonaparte and initially sought out to create a piece that he would dedicate to the French leader. Beethoven's pupil Ferdinand Ries recalls:

"In writing this symphony, Beethoven had been thinking of Buonaparte[sic], but Buonaparte while he was First Consul. At that time Beethoven had the highest esteem for him and compared him to the greatest consuls of ancient Rome. Not only I, but many of Beethoven's closer friends, saw this symphony on his table, beautifully copied in manuscript, with the word "Buonaparte" inscribed at the very top of the title-page and "Ludwig van Beethoven" at the very bottom. …"

Early on, Bonaparte wished to spread the ideals of the French Revolution to all of Europe. He promoted equitable taxation among all classes of society rather than the poor and peasant classes supporting the wealthiest members of society as was the norm. He also sought to minimize the monarchy. The French citizenry began to absorb the ideals of The Enlightenment, equality and freedom of the individual, made famous by Voltaire, Diderot, and Turgot. Additionally, the success of the American Revolution inspired French citizens to strive towards a liberated democracy where the masses ruled. Napoleon sought to spread these ideals. Beethoven admired Napoleon's military prowess and his desire to spread the message of the enlightenment. 

This dedication to Bonaparte was almost lost to financial reasons before it was lost to ethical reasons. Beethoven's patron, Prince Franz Joseph Maximillian Lobkowitz, offered Ludwig a hefty sum to have the piece dedicated to himself. Beethoven struggled with this decision for quite some time, but decided to follow his convictions and go through with his initial intent, to dedicate the piece to Bonaparte. Napoleon proclaimed himself Emperor of the French in December 1804 with the following words sent to the Arch Bishop of Versaille:

"The object of my dearest thoughts has always been the happiness of the French people,  and their glory the object of my labors.  Called by Divine Providence and the Constitutions of the Republic to Imperial power, I see in this new order of things nothing but greater means of assuring,  within and without,  the national power and prosperity.  I take comfort with confidence in the powerful aid of the Almighty.  He will inspire His Ministers to support me by all means within their power.  They will enlighten their people by wise instruction, preaching to them love of duty, obedience to law,  and the practice of all the Christian and civil virtues. They will call the blessing of Heaven upon the nation and on the Supreme Head of State..."

Beethoven became disgusted and went to the table where the completed score lay. He scratched the name Bonaparte out a knife with such ferocity that he created a hole in the paper. He later rededicated the piece with the following inscription "Sinfonia eroica, composta per festeggiare il sovvenire d'un grand'uomo" ("heroic symphony, composed to celebrate the memory of a great man.") Beethoven's student Ries recalls:

"I was the first to tell him the news that Buonaparte had declared himself Emperor, whereupon he broke into a rage and exclaimed, "So he is no more than a common mortal! Now, too, he will tread under foot all the rights of man, indulge only his ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men, become a tyrant!" Beethoven went to the table, seized the top of the title-page, tore it in half and threw it on the floor. The page had to be re-copied and it was only now that the symphony received the title "Sinfonia eroica."

Like Bonaparte's initial ideas, Beethoven continuously challenged himself towards bigger and better things. His Symphony No. 3's 1st movement was as long or longer than most classical symphonies. This first movement as J.W.N Sullivan writes was "an expression of Beethoven's courage in confronting his deafness." The second movement, likewise is a funeral march which depicts the despair he felt upon going deaf. The third movement is a musical metaphor whereupon Beethoven garners up the courage to continue his own creative output. Lastly, the fourth movement is an outpouring of all creative energy. In relation to Bonaparte one could imagine that the movements described the struggles of the French Revolution and its eventual adherence to the tenets of the Enlightenment.

Although this symphony stands well on its own merits, one cannot hesitate to enjoy it even more in the light of a convincing story. 

By the way, we resisted the urge to title this post Beethoven Blown Apart by Bonaparte. Until now, that is. Sorry.

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