Wellington’s Victory: how Beethoven celebrated Napoleon's defeat in his music

Although the great composer once idolised Napoleon Bonaparte, his affections turned and in 1813 he celebrated Wellington's Victory in music

Wellington’s Victory: how Beethoven celebrated Napoleon's defeat in music
Published: December 29, 2021 at 7:30 am
Want to try our magazine? Save over 40% when you subscribe to BBC Music Magazine today!

How did Beethoven feel about Napoleon?

Once upon a time, Beethoven idolised Napoleon Bonaparte, viewing the French military leader as the embodiment of democratic freedom for the common people. But when Napoleon crowned himself Emperor of France in 1804, Beethoven furiously accused ‘le petit caporal’ of turning tyrant himself, and violently scratched the word ‘Bonaparte’ (the original title) from the cover of his Third Symphony.

Advertisement

Nine years later, Beethoven was ready to tilt at Napoleon again. The occasion this time was the defeat in June 1813 of Napoleon’s forces at the Battle of Vitoria in Spain, where a mainly British army was commanded by the Marquess of Wellington. The idea – to celebrate the victory in music – was simple and was suggested to Beethoven by a friend, the inventor Johann Nepomuk Maelzel.

Enter Beethoven's Wellington Victory

There was just once catch: the entrepreneurial Maelzel wanted Beethoven’s new work to be played on the panharmonicon, a contraption he had recently been developing. This was essentially a giant music-box, capable of imitating orchestral instruments and with sound effects including gunfire and cannon shots. Beethoven initially seemed happy to comply, but as the piece developed, both he and Maelzel realised it needed a broader canvas than the all-squeaking, all-blaring panharmonicon could offer.

And so the 15-minute work for orchestra we know nowadays as Wellington’s Victory was born. Its first section depicts the battle itself, complete with quotations from ‘Rule Britannia’ and the French tune ‘Marlbrough s’en va-t-en guerre’ (familiar as ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow’). Banks of percussion ranged antiphonally fire volleys of ‘shots’ at one another, with a part for cannons marked precisely in the score. Part two is a ‘Victory Symphony’, where Beethoven wheels out ‘God Save the King’ to herald the British triumph.

How was Beethoven's Wellington’s Victory received?

Wellington’s Victory has not been judged kindly by history. Beethoven biographer Jan Swafford calls it ‘a colossal piece of opportunistic, gimmicky, fortissimo hokum’, and his view is typical. But the first night audience heard Wellington’s Victory differently. It was premiered in a special concert mounted at Vienna University on 8 December 1813 to benefit Austrian and Bavarian soldiers wounded by Napoleonic forces at the Battle of Hanau.

One reviewer called the performance of Wellington’s Victory ‘completely extraordinary’ and thought that ‘nothing in the domain of musical painting can equal it’. Another recorded the ‘indescribable’ enthusiasm of the audience and the excellent playing Beethoven drew as conductor from the ‘bounteous’ orchestra, which included fellow composers Spohr (violin), Salieri (drums) and Hummel (more drums).

Wellington’s Victory was not the only work on the programme that December evening, and not the only one to excite appreciation. The concert started with ‘an entirely new symphony’ – Beethoven’s Seventh, completed a year earlier in 1812. Its premiere received what one newspaper called an ‘extraordinarily good reception’, and the famous slow movement was immediately encored. Between the two big works, a pair of marches by Dussek and Pleyel were included, the solo part played by a ‘mechanical trumpeter’, another Maelzel contraption.

Beethoven and Maelzel subsequently quarrelled over who should benefit financially from future performances of Wellington’s Victory, and the composer briefly threatened legal action. But he later mellowed enough to use a new Maelzel invention, a metronome, to set tempos for his compositions.

And while Beethoven surely knew his Seventh Symphony was far superior artistically to Wellington’s Victory, he remained curiously defensive about the latter piece. Stung in later years by one writer’s negative comments on the work, Beethoven scrawled in the margin of the offending article, ‘Ah you pitiful scoundrel, my sh*t is better than anything you have ever thought’.

Read reviews of the latest Beethoven recordings here

Find out more about Beethoven and his works

Advertisement

Top image credit: Getty Images

Sponsored content