An Emperor and his Symphony


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The most famous notes in musical history are perhaps the two E-flats that powerfully punctuate the beginning of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Sinfonia Napoleonica, or the Eroica, as it is now known. Two hundred years ago today, the French forces under Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of the French, were defeated near the small Belgian town of Waterloo by the combined forces of Britain and Prussia in the “damn nearest-run thing” of battles. With this defeat ended the Age of Napoleon, 16 years of war and reform. The powers of Europe, arrayed against France as the Seventh Coalition, heaved a sigh of relief – the Corsican tyrant would trouble them no more.

Jean-Antoine Gros - NapoleonIndisputably one of the greatest military generals in history, Napoleon has had more books written about him than any other world historical figure except Jesus. His personality evoked powerful emotions then as his memory does even today, a hero for many and a warmonger for others. Beethoven saw Napoleon as the embodiment of the Enlightenment and almost dedicated a symphony to him, changing his mind at the last moment after Napoleon crowned himself emperor in December 1804. Dedicated to the heroic endeavour instead, the Eroica would come to be considered as the most pivotal symphonic composition in Western music and a high point in the German musical maestro’s own career. In many ways a metonym for the Napoleonic era, the symphony’s interpretation has rarely been agreed upon and the bitter debates between musicians, historians, and other academicians are themselves worth a quick dekko. Later in life, Beethoven declared the Third Symphony as his best work and by far his personal favourite among his creations.

The Eroica is a grand composition that captures the personality Napoleon and Beethoven’s narrative ambitions very well. Just as its original subject changed the face of Europe, the Eroica changed our idea of what a symphony was. Bold and iconoclastic, Beethoven’s music violated almost every musical convention considered in good taste until then and marked, again like its intended subject, the beginning of a new period. Eroica has four movements, the Allegro con brio, the Marcia funebre: Adagio assai, the Scherzo: Allegro vivace, and the Finale: Allegro molto. As the Italian suggests, the first movement is fast with spirit and vigour, the second is slow and stately, the third is playful and picks up tempo again, and the symphony ends with a fast and cheerful movement. The energy of the Eroica is immediately apparent – three of the four movements are allegro, indicating a fast and stormy tempo that are cheerful, frisky, brisk, and spirited.

Why Beethoven wrote such a composition is itself a mystery. The maestro began jotting down notes for what would become his magnum opus some time in 1802 when he was recovering from depression in Heiligenstadt. Beethoven had even contemplated suicide at a point and written a will, which was found on his person upon his death. In it, he explains why he had thought of suicide but the love for his art eventually prevented him from taking the extreme measure. By October, he was feeling better and returned to Vienna and took up in a theatre to work on his opera while Emanuel Schikaneder produced a libretto for him as he had done for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. When spring came and Schikaneder failed to deliver, Beethoven moved to a small village near Wienerwald called Döbling on the Danube Canal. Here, he would compose his famous work through the spring and summer of 1803.

According to Anton Schindler, personal secretary and friend to Beethoven, the idea of dedicating a symphony to the French leader – Napoleon was First Consul then – came from Marshal Jean Bernadotte. As ambassador to the Austrian court, he frequently held salons that were frequented by the elite and distinguished of Vienna among whom Beethoven was one. In one of these salons, Bernadotte allegedly suggested that Beethoven compose the greatest symphony in honour of the greatest leader of the world. It is a nice tale but there are grievous doubts of its veracity for the simple fact that Bernadotte had been asked to leave Vienna within a few months of his arrival in 1798, a full five years before Beethoven even began work on the Eroica.

The Allegro con brio is the longest opening movement of any symphony written to date and dispenses with violins to carry the melody in favour of cellos. It can be interpreted to symbolise Napoleon’s highly successful early career, lasting until the invasion of Spain in 1806 for some and until the Russian misadventure in 1812 for others. This movement would, then, tell the stories of Auerstadt and Austerlitz, Friedland and Marengo, Rivoli and Wagram, and of Toulon and Vendémiaire. Over most of his career, it seemed that the Little Corporal could do no wrong – in the 63 engagements that spanned his career, Napoleon lost only seven.

Baron François Gérard - Napoleon at Austerlitz While it breaks with tradition is some ways, the allegro con brio is also influenced by that which came before it. For example, the similarity between the opening intervals of Beethoven’s Eroica and Mozart’s operetta Bastien et Bastienne are hard to miss. Yet the dissonant shifts Beethoven uses and Mozart avoids are also quite evident. The standard interpretation of these gritty shifts, particularly the horns that appear to come in early, is that they represent the tension and struggle in Napoleon’s early life. Bonaparte hailed from minor Italian nobility and never mastered the French language; his father had supported the Corsican revolutionaries against the French takeover of the island in 1765 and was out of favour after their defeat. Napoleon was given the opportunity to attend school first at École de Brienne and later at the École Militaire through French acquaintances of his mother, and ironically, on a royal scholarship. Although Napoleon’s star had been on the rise since his lifting of the siege of Toulon in 1793, it was not until 1796 and the Italian campaign that it had truly ascended. We see this development of the bold and ambitious yet still unassuming subject in the beginning characterised by fortissimo as the movement progresses.

Perhaps the most powerful musical play comes in the recapitulation section of the sonata – traditional sonata have three basic subdivisions, exposition, development, and recapitulation, though they may have an introduction or coda present too. Oftentimes, the recapitulation is a verbatim reproduction of the exposition and even Beethoven follows this rule in his first two symphonies. In the Eroica, however, subtle variations remove the earlier anxiety, aggression, and destruction to replace them with an assuredness and stability – the heroic, if you will. These bars could be interpreted to represent the string of successes Napoleon had in Italy, Egypt, back in France, and finally Europe. Napoleon was more established and secure now and he spent much time trying to rule and bring about reforms in addition to winning dashing victories.

Another theory behind why Beethoven might have dedicated a symphony to Napoleon is that the great German composer was considering a move to Paris. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Paris was the jewel of Western civilisation, unequalled in art, literature, music, fashion, cuisine, and splendour. It was only normal that someone of Beethoven’s talent would be drawn to such a bright constellation of talented artists. However, Napoleon’s self-coronation dampened Beethoven’s enthusiasm for the French emperor and he decided to remain in Vienna. This obviated the need of any grand gesture on his part towards the emperor for entry into the Paris elite. Furthermore, the outbreak of war between France and the Third Coalition, of which Austria was a part, in 1805 made the political climate inconducive to dedicating anything to Napoleon.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Joseph Willibrord MählerStill, this does not explain why Beethoven thought highly of Napoleon at all and some historians contend that it was at best an ambivalent relationship. This seems unlikely for several reasons. First, Beethoven’s use of “Luigi” on the coversheet of his symphony indicates a certain warmth and affection for the ruler of the French who was of Italian blood and could not speak French properly and even then with a strong Corsican accent. Napoleon’s parents were both minor Italian nobility, his father of Milanese ancestry and his mother from Florence. Second, Beethoven was heavily influenced by Enlightenment philosophy as a teenager and the French Revolution with its Declaration of Universal Human Rights seemed the fruition of that philosophy. Napoleon was the apotheosis of the French Revolution, bringing the Enlightenment to France and to Europe at the tip of a bayonet in line with the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Third, Beethoven was personally struck by the Revolutionary promise of equality. He had fallen in love with Josephine Brunsvik, the younger daughter of the Hungarian Countess Anna Brunsvik, in the process of teaching her and her sister piano. Despite Beethoven’s acclaim, European society was not ready to accept the marriage of a noblewoman with a commoner and Josephine was married off to another nobleman, Josef Deym. Upon his sudden death in 1804, Beethoven approached Josephine once more and was rebuffed yet again.

The second movement is a drastic change from the first: sombre and restrained, it leaves the carefree and spontaneous air of the first movement behind. Close your eyes, and with the sedate tone of the funeral march, it is almost difficult not to visualise a rag-tag and humbled army marching back from the snowy depths of Russia. A funeral march in the middle of a symphony, though not unique, was certainly rare and raised a few eyebrows among the audience. This movement announces the death of the heroism of the previous movement, or at least its irredeemable and tragic costs. The march opens with a mournful oboe solo, which is then carried out by other sections. Beethoven has the string instruments replicate the drumbeats of a regular funeral march and thereby completely changed the texture of the piece. The string instruments playing sotto voce and the oboe together create a more emotional and personal expression of grief, as if to tell the listener that something dear to him, too, has been lost.

Some historians have suggested that the writing of his movement corresponds closest with Beethoven’s days in Heiligenstadt, reflecting these dark days and moods in the life of the composer as much as the fall of Napoleon, at least in Beethoven’s eyes. It is coincidental – inevitable? – that the Emperor’s trajectory eventually matched Beethoven’s music – his Spanish ulcer, the defeat of his Grand Armée in Russia and then in Leipzig, his exile to Elba, his return and eventual defeat at Waterloo, and his demise at St. Helena in May 1821. The timing of the composition and its correspondence with Napoleon’s career seems to imply that Beethoven had already written the movement even before Napoleon became emperor. This might explain why the funeral march does not sound disappointed, betrayed, or angry but sedate and stately. For Beethoven, his much admired Napoleon was still only a pawn in the grand narrative of History who could only show the way that others would have to tread for themselves.

Antoine-Jean Gros, Napoleon - Eylau, 1807After Beethoven’s disappointment with Napoleon in 1804, he decided to dedicate the symphony to his patron, Prince Joseph Franz Maximilian Lobkowicz. At the first playing, a small, private gathering, the orchestra was as shocked as the audience with the tempo, intensity, and the several other peculiarities of the composition. Beethoven had to reassure them, telling them that they are fine musicians trained to produce beautiful sounds but that is not what he wanted for the Eroica. Beethoven wanted intensity and urgency, struggle, emotion, and harshness. The performances at the Lobkowicz manor allowed the maestro to make several changes and try out other bold ideas before the symphony was opened to the public. These trials did not always go well and often left the musicians and audiences quite confused. During the first performance, for example, Ferdinand Ries, Beethoven’s student, interrupted the playing to scold the horn player because it appeared that he had counted wrong and come in too early. Beethoven nearly boxed his ears and did not speak to him for a while after that!

The third and fourth movements are again upbeat and leaves the listeners wondering what is left to celebrate if the great Napoleon is dead. We must remember that the Eroica was first performed for a public audience in April 1805 and our interpretation of the second movement as the fall of Napoleon is post facto. Contemporarily, the funeral march represented only the death of an idea and so the joyous third movement was to announce the optimisitic message that ideas cannot be slain. This bears a parallel to the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars in that many of the laws that the French emperor had enacted were retained by his former subjects, particularly in the smaller German states. The idea of liberty lived on, as did the notion of human rights and the struggle to preserve those could be fought individually as well as institutionally. We were all subjects of Beethoven’s Eroica, we were all heroes. Hardly revolutionary to 21st century ears, but the Eroica‘s artist-as-hero militated against the artist-as-craftsman order of 19th century Europe.

The symphony was heard by the public for the first time in April 1805. The public reaction was as confused and mixed as that of the little private audiences at the Lobkowicz manor before whom Beethoven had perfected the symphony. Franz Joseph Haydn, Beethoven’s teacher, was far more tolerant of the breaks with classical musical theory but thought the Eroica was too long, too bombastic, and would never become popular. Yet both teacher and student had a history of making acerbic comments about each other’s work and it is difficult to know how seriously to take Haydn’s comments. There is no doubt that Beethoven respected his teacher and Haydn saw great promise in his student despite their barbs at each other.

At Waterloo, the French experiment was stopped or at least delayed for a few years. Yet had Napoleon not been defeated at Waterloo, there would have been another coalition and another battle until he was removed from Europe’s political stage. It is impossible to constantly fight every Great Power in the world singlehandedly for over two decades and come out the victor. At the time when the pace of a horse was the fastest a man cold travel, Napoleon constantly surprised his opponents with his speed and impeccable use of artillery and deception. Europe’s monarchs and generals watched and learned, paying the price in blood and obliterated egos. That fateful day in Belgium, Napoleon faced his enemies with inadequately trained soldiers, weak internal lines of communications, a severe shortage of cavalry, poor positioning, and bad weather – and came within a whisker of carrying the day.

France, 1812To his critics, he will always be the Ogre of Corsica, the warmonger. Yet Napoleon Bonaparte waged peace as well as he waged war. He gave France the Louvre, the civil code that informally bore his name – the Code Napoléon – and instituted a meritocracy in France that saw talent rise from unexpected sections of society. Most of Napoleon’s generals came from humble backgrounds as did many of the civil servants, parliamentarians, and new intellectuals. Discriminatory trade guilds were abolished and equal rights of Jews was recognised. He brought reforms even in the lands he conquered, many of which lived long after he was gone. Napoleon was an excellent civil administrator too. He would surround himself with intelligent people and see their better ideas to fruition. He would himself constantly create drawings of streets, buildings, and neighbourhoods and send them to his engineers for consideration. A man of boundless energy, it is rumoured that the Emperor slept barely four hours a day. He was intensely curious too, and took along with him an enormous scientific team to Egypt in 1798. The results of the research done by the French on that trip alone put French scholarship a the forefront of Egyptology for decades.

The Eroica aptly describes Napoleon – bold, striving, curious, intelligent, and with a sense of urgency around him. It is of little wonder that a whole era is named after the French emperor, an honour of History that not even the mightiest of Roman princeps received. Like Napoleon, the Eroica lives on in admiration long after its creation. Beethoven would have been happy – as he always said, art must look to eternity.

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Napoleon in media:

Film and TV – Napoléon (2002). A mini-series by A&E consisting of four episodes, each approximately 90 minutes in length.

Austerlitz (1960). This is an approximately 150-minute long French film that covers Napoleon’s greatest victory – Austerlitz in December 1805, against the Austrians and the Russians. The first half focuses on Napoleon’s coronation and his reasons for becoming a monarch after the Revolution had just overthrown one noble house. The second half covers the preparations for war and battle itself. This is not a movie for those not well-versed in Napoleonic history already or those who do not understand French!

Waterloo (1970). As the name suggests, this movie is about Napoleon’s final days as emperor and last three battles. On June 16, French forces engaged with the Prussians and English at Ligny and Quatre Bras, defeating them both. Two days later, the forces meet at a small Belgian town called Waterloo.

 Eroica (2003). This is a movie that focuses solely on Beethoven’s first private performance of the Napoleonica at the Lobkowicz manor about an hour and a half from Vienna.

 Immortal Beloved (1994). An excellent movie about the life of Ludwig van Beethoven, though some of the history is disputed.

Podcast – The Napoleon Bonaparte Podcast. A 59-episode, 60-hour podcast with J. David Markham, an amateur historian and president of the International Napoleon Society, and Cameron Reilly, founder of The Podcast Network and a Napoleon Bonaparte enthusiast.

Books – Napoleon Bonaparte. An essential reading list for those further interested in the Emperor and his times.

This post first appeared on Swarajya on June 18, 2015.


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