Beethoven and Bonaparte


A lot of attention in recent weeks has been focused on Napoleon. Andrew Roberts has appeared both on the radio and on the television presenting an alternative perspective of the Corsican. Regardless of your opinion, Napoleon did dominate the political landscape of his time, even if he was only five foot six (only one inch shorter than the current French President François Hollande). His influence, however, did not just stretch to the military, it also found its way into the world of music.

At the turn of the nineteenth century, the thirty-year-old Beethoven was finally starting to establish himself as a serious composer. Tragically, it was also around this time that he realised his hearing was starting to fail. His career so far had seen some success. Two symphonies had been well received, as had a set of string quartets, but many of his compositions had strong elements of classical conformity. This was all about to change.

It was in the form of Napoleon that Beethoven found inspiration for his third symphony. Beethoven started to compose the work in late 1803, four years after Napoleon had led a coup d’état and declared himself First Consul of France. This move brought to an end a decade of political turmoil and won many admires for the Corsican across Europe, including Beethoven himself. He compared him to the Great Consuls of Ancient Rome. The composer was a strong advocate of the values of the French Revolution, and he believed that Bonaparte embodied those ideals.


Ferdinand Reis, a friend of the composer, described seeing a copy of the score in 1804 with ‘Bonaparte’ at the top of the front cover and ‘Beethoven’ at the bottom. It was Reis who also had the great misfortune in May 1804 of breaking the news to Beethoven that Napoleon had crowned himself Emperor of the French. He apparently reacted with rage. He tore the front page of the manuscript in half and threw it upon the floor, exclaiming:

‘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 was not far wrong.

When the symphony was published in 1806, it did not bear a title of Bonaparte, as Beethoven has originally intended. Instead it was published under the Italian title ‘Sinfonia Eroica … composta per festeggiare il sovvenire di un grande Uomo,’ which can be translated as ‘heroic symphony, composed to celebrate the memory of a great man.’ Till this day we still call Beethoven’s third symphony the ‘Eroica.’


Why does this matter? Well, quite simply, the Eroica symphony was revolutionary. It broke the rules and laid the groundwork of the symphonic tradition for many years to come. The first movement, with its dance-like rhythm is longer than some of Haydn’s entire symphonies. Some critics even argued that it portrayed the dramatic rise of Napoleon. A ponderous funeral march, a brisk scherzo and an almost childish finale follow. Beethoven takes the audience on a colorful journey.

The Eroica has had an impact on many. Ian Botham, Barbara Castle, Michael Grade and Joanna Lumley are just a few who have chosen it as one of their Desert Island Discs. More importantly, it influenced generation after generation of composers such as Brahms, Mahler and Shostakovich. They would go on to produce equally influential symphonic works.

Within eight months of the Eroica’s public premier in April 1805, Napoleon achieved his greatest victory at the Battle of Austerlitz. It is highly likely, if not certain, that Napoleon never heard the piece of music that once bore his name. At a time when we are paying more attention to Corsican, it is important to remember that his influence was not just constrained to the world of politics. He may have brought a revolutionary period to an end in France, but Napoleon, in part, influenced a different kind of revolution in the world of music.

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