‘Beethoven’s music was more exciting when he was for Napoleon, rather than against him’


Portrait of Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820

From History Today:

Beethoven was regarded as enough of a friend to the imperial family that, in 1808, Napoleon’s brother, Jerome Bonaparte, then king of Westphalia, even offered him a position as Kappelmeister at his court in Kassel.

It was only after Napoleon crushed Austria in the War of the Fifth Coalition (1809) that Beethoven’s enthusiasm began to cool noticeably. Shaken by the French bombardment of Vienna and fearful of being professionally compromised by his association with the Bonapartes, he felt obliged to repudiate Napoleon for the first time. There was no looking back. As the emperor ranged across Europe, it became difficult for Beethoven to regard him with anything but contempt. No friend to liberty or to order, he was now little more than a conqueror. Though Austria was forced to ally with France for a time, opinion in Vienna remained firmly against him.

Napoleon’s defeat in the Peninsular War set the seal on the composer’s change of heart. Shortly before the emperor sailed away into exile on Elba, Beethoven – who now identified liberty with Germanic patriotism – professed himself to be on the side of the allies and even penned a short orchestral work in celebration of Wellington’s victory at the Battle of Vitoria. The breach was complete.

It was perhaps inevitable; but it is still tinged with sadness. When the soaring melodies of the Sinfonia Eroica are compared with the eccentric blasts of Wellingtons Sieg oder die Schlact bei Vittoria, it is hard to escape the feeling that Beethoven’s music was more exciting when he was for Napoleon, rather than against him.

“Beethoven and Napoleon”, Alexander Lee, History Today (via AlDaily)