It has been raining last night. The ground was wet, the air damp when I got up today at 6 o’clock. I looked out at the kitchen window and smiled: Beethoven. Mist rolled over the vineyards, a few minutes until sunrise, soon it would be gone and the hills would bath in bright sunlight. Another glorious morning to start the day with. I had to think of that Romantic wanderer who sets out early in the morning for his long voyage across the mountains. He is enthusiastic to discover different countries and people, he is looking forward to adventures and to meet the love of his life. While he climbs the winding mountain path, he looks back to the place he has just left. A heartbreaking moment. He knows he must go, he feels this inner urge, there is no turning back. And still, leaving home to meet the unknown…
While I was listening to the first two movements of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92, theses images gradually took shape. At the beginning the picture was flurry, but I kept adding details: the steep slope the wanderer is climbing, the rising sun reflecting on his glowing face, the man looking back at the valley he has just left, partly covered by the mist, trying to discern his home village – what a moving scenery. What a moving music.
Beethoven wrote the symphony between 1811 and 1812, after he had passed the summer of 1811 at the Bohemian spa Teplitz (now Teplice). The years mark the apogee of Napoleon Bonaparte’s rule over Europe and the beginning of its decline. In 1812 Napoleon took that fateful decision to fight Russia. The campaign took longer than anticipated and of the 450.000 soldiers that invaded the Russian Empire only 10.000 returned. Beethoven’s symphony saw its premiere on December 8, 1813 in Vienna with the composer himself conducting. The concert was a charity event for the soldiers wounded in the battle of Hanau, that opposed an Austro-Bavarian corps to Napoleon’s retreating army.
In Beethoven’s address to the participants, the motives are openly named: “We are moved by nothing but pure patriotism and the joyful sacrifice of our powers for those who have sacrificed so much for us.” Young men setting out to war – how often have they been lured away from their home village with the promise of living an adventurous life? How often have they simply been pressed into military service without understanding for what or whom they were supposed to fight?
Poet or soldier?
If I had to choose I would always opt for the wandering poet instead of the marching soldier. The poet is master of his own life, the soldier isn’t. The poet has a free will, the soldier is supposed to obey orders. I am not good at obeying orders. As much as I understand Beethoven’s relief that Napoleon’s murderous political adventures were brought to an end by a coalition of European armies, I am glad that the glorification of war and the soldier’s life has come to an end too, at least in Europe.
The Romantic wanderer leaves for a personal quest, he wants to conquer the world – without arms. He is looking for wisdom and cultural exchange. While listening to the third movement of Symphony No. 7, I see precisely our wanderer in a foreign place entering a village where folks are celebrating a wedding, jolly dance music is being played. The wanderer takes a rest and enjoys the peace and the festive atmosphere. The last movement, an outburst of energy and optimism, hope and glory, concludes a piece that I deeply love and that I will forever associate with Romantic wanderlust rather than conquering armies. It has been recorded by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra under Daniel Barenboim.
© Charles Thibo