“He’s just a common man!”

Although not many people are usually aware of it, Napoleon and Beethoven were contemporaries. Two of the most important characters in the history of humanity lived through the same convulsive years of the French Revolution and, even, each one in his field starred in them. What fewer people still remember is that around the famous
Third Symphony
, which the Austrian began to compose in 1802, produced one of the most tense and curious episodes of those years that gave way to the Contemporary Age.

Until reaching him, the lives of both were parallel. They were born just one year apart: the soldier in 1769 and the musician in 1770. Both had a

difficult adolescence that left them deep wounds to overcome. Beethoven had composed his first work at the age of 11. “If you continue like this, you will become a second Mozart,” warned her teacher, the famous German conductor Christian Gottlob Neefe, when listening to her. On his journey to success, however, he lost his mother and saw his father fall into deep depression and alcoholism, forcing him to take care of his younger siblings from a very young age.

Napoleon was invaded by nostalgia in those same years because his land, Corsica, had been conquered by the French and it had ceased to be what it was. When he was ten years old, his father sent him to mainland France to study at the Brienne-le-Château military school, where he was teased by his peers for his strong Italian accent. Added to this was his feeling of loneliness in a land that was alien to him… and which he would end up owning.

overcoming obstacles

He began earning the respect of all his colleagues and commanders for his great skills in mathematics and geography. «They only talked about me at school. I was admired and envied, and I was beginning to be aware of my strength and superiority,” he wrote down in his memoirs. With the outbreak of the French Revolution, Bonaparte, who was 20 years old, began to overcome obstacles at breakneck speed. First, by taking the side of the people instead of the court.

At that time, Napoleon obtained the rank of second commander of the National Volunteer Guard of his native Corsica, where he had already shown his support for the Jacobins in defense of popular sovereignty and universal suffrage, as well as his criticism of the old order. settled down. Only seven years later, in March 1796, the Corsican was appointed general and the Directory entrusted him with command of the army throughout Italy. In that post he achieved a large number of victories and his popularity became a threat to the newly arrived Jacobins, who were running out of popular support and surviving on conspiracies.

Beethoven, for his part, was 19 years old in 1789 and had just arrived in Vienna to receive classes from Joseph Haydn. His trip was paid for by his patron, Count Ferdinand von Waldstein, who had to convince him of his chances of success in the midst of that world that was collapsing to make way for a new one. And also in 1796, the young composer outlined the last notes of his
‘First Symphony’
, joining the legion of unconditional admirers of Napoleon, whose impetus had captivated half of France.

The first big premiere

The Austrian’s play did not open until 1800 in Vienna, just a few months before he first confessed to his friends that he was going deaf. Now that he was beginning to be known, he could not bear that possibility and came to consider suicide. The only thing that gave him the strength to continue living was his strong conviction that he had a lot of music left to discover and little time to explore it. The genius then plunged into a creative spiral and launched for his
and ‘Third Symphony’.

Beethoven was so moved by this revolutionary turn that Bonaparte became his idol. Something surprising if we consider that he was close to becoming the best musician in the world and one of the greatest in history. However, what Napoleon had achieved was unprecedented: he wiped out the aristocracy and stripped privileges from 400,000 nobles. In that period, moreover, he had returned from his conquests, filling the Louvre Museum with treasures stolen by half of Europe and given the coup d’état on Brumaire 18 with which he began to direct the designs of France as first consul for life.

The composer did not hesitate for a moment to baptize the ‘Third Symphony’ with the nickname ‘Bonaparte’, a heartfelt tribute with which he wanted to reflect in that work of enormous influence his commitment to the republican values ​​of “liberty, equality and fraternity” . Today, in fact, it is considered the first great symphonic work of the 19th century, which Beethoven defined in a personal letter with other musicians as his “new path”.

friends and enemies

Ferdinand Ries, his faithful friend and disciple, would remember years later having seen the score of the work, with the name ‘Bonaparte’, among the master’s papers: «It was the year 1802 when Beethoven composed his third symphony in Heiligenstadt […] with Napoleon as the protagonist at the time when he was still first consul. Until then, I followed him and saw in him someone identical to the great Roman consuls».

However, just as the composer finished composing the symphony in the spring of 1804, Joseph Fouché, the sinister Minister of Police, persuaded the general to transform his consulate for life into a hereditary empire. Napoleon’s self-proclamation as emperor took place on May 28 under the name of Napoleon I. He named his brothers José and Luis princes. The official coronation, recorded on David’s canvas in the Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral, did not take place until December 2, but Beethoven had already received the news much earlier as a stab to the heart.

The musician knew that this decision would have irreparable consequences for Europe. As Ries recounted later: “It was I who informed him, and hearing it, he became enraged and shouted: ‘He is nothing but a common man! Now he will trample all the rights of men and will only obey his ambition. He will want to rise above the rest and become a tyrant!’ He went to his desk, picked up the title page, tore it up, and threw it on the floor. The first page was written again, and then the symphony received its name for the first time: ‘Heroic Symphony’».

The ‘Heroic’ Symphony

Betthoven’s illusion of linking the egalitarian ideology of the Revolution to the most important symphony he wrote in his career was shattered into a thousand pieces. Without waiting a second, he got up and ran to cross out the dedication with such anger that he tore the paper and renamed it with the name with which it would go down in history: ‘heroic‘. Symbolically speaking, however, Beethoven was unable to eliminate Bonaparte’s presence from the work. To do so, he would have had to write it all over again. He chose to replace only the first page of a symphony that locked up, forever, the fallen idol, one of the heroes of his youth along with Mozart and Prometheus”, underlines Marta Vela in
‘Beethoven’s Nine Symphonies’
(Forcola, 2020).

Like the first Napoleon, the composer wanted universal suffrage and that all citizens collaborate in the government through their vote. Only in this way, in his opinion, could the foundations of the universal happiness of human beings be laid for the future. For Anton Felix Schindler, Beethoven’s first biographer, whom he met personally, Beethoven’s admiration for Bonaparte was due to his numerous victories at the command of large armies and his ability to restore order a few years after the revolutionary chaos. “However, what increased his sympathies the most was that this new order rested on republican principles, since he was in favor of unlimited freedom and national independence,” he explained.

The renowned work was first performed at the Viennese house of Prince Lobkowitz, Beethoven’s next patron, in August 1804. In December it was performed at the house of the banker Von Würth. The first public performance took place on Sunday April 7, 1805 at the Theater an der Wien, conducted by Franz Clément, who had to deal with the uproar that was generated during the performance by the two most outstanding features of the ‘Third Symphony’ : its long length, more than 45 minutes, and the repeated presence of dissonances, an innovation that widened the boundaries established by Haydn and Mozart. «The work is exhausting, it is endless and disjointed […]. It would gain in quality if Beethoven decided to make some cuts”, commented the newspaper ‘General musical newspaper’.

“Damn trunk!”

The dissonant passages must have sounded so strident and Martian to an audience hungry for the usual classical symmetry and proportion that even Beethoven’s friends judged some of the passages to be executional failures: ‘The first repetition was terrible. It is true that the horn player made a good entrance, but I, who was close to Beethoven, thought he had made a mistake and said to him: ‘Damn horn, can’t you count? It sounds horribly dissonant!’ At that moment I was about to receive a slap and I think Beethovenn took a long time to forgive me, “recalled Ries.

The composer, wounded in his pride, did not deign to politely thank the audience as a sign of respect, whose applause was surprisingly cold. He just walked up on stage, looked at the stalls for a second and left without saying a word. “The public was not happy, Beetboven was not happy either,” said the aforementioned newspapers. However, ABC reported in 2016 that the BBC classical music magazine had conducted a survey among the 150 most prestigious conductors in the world to choose the ten best symphonies in history and the ‘Eroica’ came in first place.

In the monumental 1,500-page monograph published by Acantilado in 2017,
Jan Swafford
he argues that, despite his initial sympathies for Bonaparte and his love of republican ideals, Beethoven was not really a musical revolutionary. His ‘Third Symphony’ remains within the formal frontiers opened by Haydn and Mozart, but he expanded them to unthinkable limits and subjected them to unprecedented tensions at that time. No one had gone so far in terms of power and drama, which decisively influenced the following generations.


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