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The Eroica: Beethoven's Falling Out with an Autocrat

It’s exciting when a revolutionary comes along and promotes all the right ideas.  It feels like there’s a real change coming in the world when this person comes along, speaks what feel like simple and self-evident truths, rushing in like a fresh wind.  The French Revolution was a revolution of ideas, coming in on the heels of the American Revolution, which had brought into the world a nation founded on the principles of self-government and fair representation for all.  One such nation was founded, and now another one—The Republic of France—was on the rise.

It was a big deal to the French, of course, among those who supported and opposed the Revolution.  But the Revolution was welcomed by many people in other countries, as well.  One admirer of the French Revolution was the German composer Ludwig von Beethoven, whose career was starting to take off at the time.  Beethoven himself had recently gotten over some major humps in his personal life, as well.  He was just starting to lose his hearing, which was a crushing blow to someone whose life was all about music.  Beethoven had contemplated suicide, even, but decided instead to throw himself into his work.  He decided he would write a third symphony.

Beethoven decided to dedicate his third symphony, written between 1803 and 1804, to the current leader of the French Revolution: Napoleon Bonaparte (or Buonaparte, as the name is in the original Italian, and on the original title page of the music).  He soon thought better of this, however.  Composer’s fees had to be paid by someone, and the fees for the third symphony were being fronted by Prince Joseph Franz Maximilian Lobkowitz of Bohemia.  A monarchist patron might feel differently about paying for a piece dedicated to a republican revolutionary and anti-monarchist like Bonaparte.  Cautiously, Beethoven changed the dedication to Prince Joseph, but kept the title Buonaparte.  Its first public performance was on April 7, 1805, in Vienna, under the title Eroica.

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Beethoven (left) and Bonaparte (right)

Why the new title?  Well, in May 1804, the composer had a change of heart again.  The change was wrought by Napoleon himself, who declared himself Napoleon I, Emperor of the French.  Beethoven saw this as a betrayal of the ideals of the Revolution and of republican government itself.  In a fit of pique, goes the legend, Beethoven tore the cover page off of the score of the symphony, ripped it in half, and threw it on the floor.  He would have to create a new cover page.

This is myth.  The truth is that Beethoven really was upset with Napoleon and changed the title of the symphony.  He didn’t tear the cover off, but he did go at it with an eraser, rubbing out all references to Napoleon.  He wrote on the cover page, in Italian, “Sinfonia Eroica ... composta per festeggiare il sovvenire di un grande Uomo,” meaning, “Heroic Symphony, composed to celebrate the memory of a great Man.”  In time, the symphony would be referred to simply as “The Eroica”.

Cover page of the Eroica, with the composer’s edits visible, if you squint hard enough.

Napoleon Bonaparte would spend the next decade marching armies all over Europe, trying to conquer as much of it as he could.  Bonaparte was famous as an artillery tactician, using cannons on the battlefield with skill that few, if any, military men had displayed before.  Beethoven would spend the rest of his life gradually losing his hearing, until he was almost completely deaf when he died at age 56.  Perhaps it was some residual bitter feeling when Beethoven claimed, later in life, that it was hearing Napoleon’s cannons that had made him deaf.  Napoleon was finally defeated in 1815, and the new monarchy he established was replaced by the old monarchy.  Napoleon died in 1821 and Beethoven died in 1827, never living to see monarchy toppled in France again.  France would revolt against its monarchy two more times before it was finally done with it.  We can only wonder what music Beethoven would have written about that.

The Eroica on BBC Proms, 2012


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