The case Beethoven vs. Napoleon

The painter Jean Ingres portrayed Napoleon as Emperor of France.
The painter Jean Ingres portrayed Napoleon as Emperor of France.

July 14: France celebrates its national holiday by remembering the assault of the Bastille prison, the starting point of the French Revolution. The revolution led to the ascendance of a young officer: Napoleon Bonaparte. I was told that my grand-father was obsessed by Napoleon. His friends once made him a bicorne out of an old hat with a blue-white-red rosette. As a political scientist, I admire Napoleon’s political acumen and his military genius, but I am horrified by his disregard for the very values that the French Revolution was about: Liberté – Egalité – Fraternité. Napoleon was a ruthless dictator, relied heavily upon his secret police to eliminate political enemies and distributed posts and money among his friends to stay in power.

Long live the Emperor

The German composer Ludwig van Beethoven was – at least at the beginning – a strong admirer of Napoleon. Napoleon heavily promoted music after his coup d’état in 1799. He initiated better copyright laws and a better pension scheme for musicians. Generous budgets were granted to the Paris opera, the conservatory and the Académie Française, that counted three composers François-Joseph Gossec, André Grétry and Etienne Nicolas Méhul among its members.

Thus the climate in Paris seemed favourable for an ambitious young musician: Beethoven. Since 1801, he had forged plans to move to Paris. To get a foot into the door of Paris’ music business, he worked out a symphony he wanted to dedicate to Napoleon. This did not endear him to the Vienna nobility who had a deep aversion against anything revolutionary, especially after the Austrian-Hungarian Empire had lost a war against France. But Beethoven was confident that the aristocracy would overcome its hostile feelings. His patron in Vienna, Count Franz Joseph Maximilian von Lobkowitz, wanted to be involved in the new project and offered a lot of money. Thus, Beethoven dedicated his third symphony to Lobkowitz but gave it the title “Bonaparte”.

Down with the Emperor

After a brief period of peace, political tensions between Paris and Vienna increased again in 1804, and when Napoleon declared himself Emperor of France, Beethoven was horrified. “He will trample on human rights and only follow his ambition, [he will] become a tyrant.” Beethoven did not want to link his symphony to this man and dropped its original title in favour of a new one: Eroica. The score edited and printed in 1805, a year after the premiere in Vienna, mentions this title for the first time.

Needless to say that Beethoven did not move to Paris. But he wasn’t done with Bonaparte yet. For many years he remained torn between admiration and disgust. In 1809, he quite directly asked a French envoy to the Vienna court, whether it was imaginable that Bonaparte would honour him or elevate him to the rank of a nobleman. When it became clear that France was losing the war against the coalition of 1812, Beethoven composed an anti-Napoleonic piece: Wellington’s Victory (Op. 91).

Absolute music at its apogee

By now you are probably asking yourself whether this blog is about history or about music. Actually, music has been linked to politics for centuries. Music has been (mis-)used by politics on many occasions for noble and less noble purposes. And Beethoven’s third symphony is so popular, that I do not need to introduce it with many words. From a musical point of view, this work in E flat major speaks for itself. Absolute music at its apogee. Beethoven’s biographer Jan Caeyers calls it an autonomous sound construction, going beyond any symphonic work written up to 1804. It is a master work to be enjoyed over and over again. Happy Bastille Day!

There are dozens of recordings to chose from. Mine has been recorded by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra under Daniel Barenboim along with Beethoven’s other symphonies.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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