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Beethoven and the Politics of Music

Composers have produced some of their most powerful music in response to the political climate in which they lived. This is especially true of Ludwig van Beethoven, who was born in Germany but adopted Austria as his homeland during a time of great tumult and change.

An advocate for democracy and the underprivileged, Beethoven watched the French general Napoleon Bonaparte rise to power after the French Revolution (178999). At first, he greatly admired Napoleon, idealizing him in his only opera, Fidelio. The composer's Third Symphony (Eroica) was to have celebrated Napoleon as well (he originally called it Bonaparte), but when the ruler declared himself emperor in 1804, Beethoven tore up the title page bearing the dedication. "So he too is nothing more than an ordinary man," Beethoven wrote. "Now he also will trample on all human rights and indulge only his own ambition. He will place himself above everyone and become a tyrant." After the French forces invaded his beloved Vienna, Beethoven's dislike of the French intensified.

The composer had great affection for the peace-loving Austrians: "I believe that so long as an Austrian can get his brown ale and his little sausages, he is not likely to revolt." Beethoven also claimed a kinship with the British people, for whom he had "a certain very particular regard and affection" and whose democratic parliamentary system he much admired. These heartfelt nationalistic sentiments found expression in his Battle Symphony (1813), also known as Wellington's Victory, a patriotic work celebrating the British victory at the Battle of Vittoria (1813), when the Allied Forces, led by the British duke of Wellington, demolished the Napoleonic army's advance in Spain. First written for a strange mechanical organ known as the panharmonicon, Wellington's Victory was premiered in 1813 at a benefit concert for Austrian troops wounded in the war. Beethoven soon scored the work for orchestra, which included a large battery of percussion replete with muskets and cannons. Not strictly a symphony, Wellington's Victory is programmatic in its vivid retelling of the battle through fanfares and patriotic tunes associated with both the French (Marlborough s'enva-t-en guerre, or Marlborough, he's gone to war) and the British (Rule, Britannia and God Save the King). (Program music is instrumental music with literary or pictorial associations.) Today, this work is heard most frequently at Fourth of July celebrations in the United States to accompany fireworks and ceremonial pageantry.

One of Beethoven's most famous work is the last movement of his Symphony No. 9, which includes Ode to Joy, a poem by Friedrich von Schiller. The text is an expression of universal brotherhood inspired by the powerful social forces behind the French Revolution. Beethoven's sympathies were in line with Schiller's and with the French people's call for "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity." This great symphony, written between 1822 and 1824, has become a rallying cry for widely divergent philosophies ever since. The German dictator Adolf Hitler demanded that Beethoven's work be played for his birthday in 1941; it was then the most performed symphony in Germany. The hymn is now played on official occasions of both the Council of Europe and the European Union; and in 1989, it was selected to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall. The ideology behind this work is valued outside of Western culture as well: in 1971, it was named the national anthem of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in Africa; in 1989, student protestors at China's Tiananmen Square revolt chose the Ode to Joy as their freedom statement; and each year, the work is performed in Japan with a colossal choir to ring in the New Year.

Today, Beethoven's music continues to be a force that brings distant people together. Perhaps through his great masterworks, we can better understand the composer as a person who held strong yet progressive and influential political views.

Terms to Note

program music

Suggested Listening

CD iMusic America (God Save the King) (see p. 31)
CD iMusic Ode to Joy, from Symphony No. 9, Op. 91
Symphony No. 3, Op. 55 (Eroica)
Wellington's Victory (or Battle Symphony)

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