Beethoven and Napoleon

By: Bobby McHavens

Beethoven and Napoleon never met. However they played their individual roles in the new "Romantic Age" apparent in Europe at the beginning of the 19th Century.

Beethoven, the independent composer of his time, rather liked many of the ideas that Napoleon had. He had managed to build a strong new power with the will of the people, rather than that of the aristocracy whose lack of government as we would know it today was somewhat archaic, and certainly did not involve one’s average citizen.

Napoleon changed the laws of the land (very frequently); he restructured the Civil Service so that it was functional as well as being efficient; he had scientists from all areas working for him to bring France to a stage where it was technically the best in the world. He achieved much. His metric system is used in nearly all countries today. Most Europeans under 20 today would not recognise a gallon or a yard. Litres and metres, with 10 or 100 increments are actually much easier for your average chap (which the French population was at the time) rather than having to multiply by obscure fractions at which the French uneducated population would be inept.

A lot of people say that the reason for this hunger for scientific information was purely philanthropic. Possibly Beethoven thought so before 1804. Others, perhaps more perspicacious, showed that much of this work was put to almost purely military use. The man was a genius at warfare. Baring in mind the turbulent political climate after the French Revolution, the guillotine executions and the enormous strength of the Secret Police at the time, nobody dared say a thing. Napoleon just got on with it, on pain of death if it was not done.

Beethoven, meanwhile, had been looking at the good things coming out of France, particularly during the ‘truce’ of the early 1800’s. He could see the things that Napoleon was doing for the country and its infrastructure as well as its artistic side. Beethoven wrote other pieces during this period, but his Great Work’ at this time was the fabulously innovative ‘Eroica’ symphony.

This was dedicated to Napoleon and, no doubt, much of the musical content was composed as a result of the successes of this extraordinary leader.

However Napoleon, having re-armed his troops and ships during the ‘truce’ took his ambitions even further. He made himself an Emperor and his family his successors in perpetuity. The Napoleonic Wars resumed and Beethoven was not pleased with this ‘would be’ hero.

Beethoven apparently tore out the dedication page of his manuscript for the Third symphony, and simply dedicated it to celebrate a “great man”, whilst renaming the symphony as we know it today as the ‘Eroica’, rather than ‘The Napoleon’. In 1809 Napoleonic forces bombarded Vienna, and Beethoven hid in a cellar with mufflers round his ears frightened that the dreadful noise would remove the last of his remaining ability to hear.

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Author Bobby McHavens
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