Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Beethoven s’en va-t-en Guerre

Each year, I try to find a new way to celebrate Beethoven’s birthday, and this year is the same. I dug deep this time, and found an extremely rare piece, that in the grand scheme of things can be easily written off as a work of little importance in the pantheon of Beethoven’s catalog, but I picked it because I think it shines light on several aspects of Beethoven’s life. From his need for public acceptance to his feelings of Napoleon to his dire financial circumstances even to his sense of humor, the piece indeed gives a Beethoven aficionado lot to think about.

The work is called “Wellingtons Sieg oder die Schlact bei Vittoria”, or “Wellington’s Victory, or, the Battle of Vitoria”. It was written around 1813, on the tail end of the famous “heroic period” of Beethoven’s composition, a period which included the 3rd through 5th symphonies, the 4th and 5th piano concertos, and other works of a grand scale. This piece had its premiere on the same night as the famous 7th Symphony in 1813.

The story goes that Beethoven was commissioned to write a military piece for a new instrument called the “panharmonicon”, which was known to be able to reproduce many instruments at the same time (an early synthesizer, perhaps?). Beethoven frankly needed the money, and wrote this piece as a commemoration of the Duke of Wellington’s victory over Joseph Bonaparte (Napoleon’s brother) at the Battle of Vitoria, earlier that same year.

For the subject matter, why did he choose this specific battle to celebrate? I believe this particular conflict held something special for him, given his own feelings towards Napoleon. When composing the Eroica symphony, Beethoven was in a period of his life where he absolutely revered Napoleon and his will, and wanted to compose a hero’s symphony as a result. Beethoven even titled the work “Bonaparte”, a fact which can be seen on the manuscript today. When he found out that Napoleon had declared himself emperor, Beethoven was so disgusted that he scratched out the word “Bonaparte” from the symphony so vigorously that it created a hole in the document. His feelings towards Bonaparte turned very ill, and I think this carried beyond Napoleon himself and projected onto any Bonaparte he could find. Joseph was the latest victim, and this Battle of Vittoria was just the event he needed. Beethoven chose this as another forum for expressing his deep-seeded hatred towards Napoleon.

So, Beethoven wrote this piece for the panharmonicon, took his money, and that was that. Turns out, the story continued. Audiences began falling in love with the piece, laden with familiar melodies such as “God Save The Queen” (or, for us here in the USA, “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”), “Rule Brittania”, and “Marlbrough s’en va-t-en Guerre” (“Marlbrough has left for war”), a tune now more commonly known as “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow”. After seeing this, Beethoven himself decided to revisit the piece, and orchestrated it for mass performance. The Viennese loved it. Beethoven was said to have disliked this piece – so why continue with it? I believe there was of course a financial precedent here, but I also believe that Beethoven couldn’t resist the audience loving the piece, and, therefore, him. He loved the public acceptance.

Finally, I theorize that this piece shows a softer side of Beethoven. I believe that a German composer picking those familiar melodies and writing a piece that is essentially a “pop tune” showed his sense of humor. Pretty clearly a tongue-in-cheek work for a composer who seemingly couldn’t write anything that lacked substance and grandeur!

You can listen the piece, in two parts, at the links below. On first listen, you should certainly catch a lot of similarities to Tchaikovsky’s famous “1812 Overture” (also hated by its composer, coincidentally). I wonder if Tchaikovsky may have used this Beethoven piece as a blueprint for how to write a military commemoration piece?

Until next year, I’ll leave it at this: you never sounded better than you do at 239, Ludwig. Happy Birthday!