Beethoven and Napoleon, after 1810

N.b. Beethoven and Napoleon, before 1810 will appear at some future time, and contain chapters "Eroica: The Heroic Disappointment" and "The Case of the Absent Archduke".

See also:
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Beethoven Symphony no.3 'Eroica'
Beethoven Piano Sonata No. 26, Les Adieux
Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821)

Developments: Rain in Spain, Bonaparte gets the Wellington Boot

After Beethoven's abortive dedication of his first truly great symphony to Napoleon, and the incident during the Emperor's siege and occupation of Vienna leading to Beethoven's separation from his friend and patron Archduke Rudolph, the relationship between the two near-exact contemporaries had several more chapters. In 1812 the Sixth Coalition of Great Britain, Russia, Prussia, Sweden, Austria and a number of German States against Napoleon was formed and began to weaken the Napoleonic Empire. The first strike came in Russia, where Napoleon's campaign resulted in the capture and devastation of Moscow (shrewdly vacated and sacked beforehand by its inhabitants), but the subsequent retreat through an early winter with rapidly-exhausted supplies resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of French troops. The catastrophe (or triumph, depending on which side you were on) was commemorated years later in Peter Tchaikovsky's patriotic, bombastic and altogether exorbitantly entertaining 1812 Overture.

In Spain the Peninsular War, a bloody and brutal conflict involving a disorganised but persistent Spanish rebellion against Napoleon's appointed king and a more purposeful assault against the French by Portuguese and British forces, was going ever worse for the Bonapartes. Initially, due to lack of cooperation, the anti-Napoleonic forces had made little headway outside Portugal. In 1809 at what might be seen as the turning-point of the war, the British commander Sir John Moore died during a hurried retreat and evacuation of troops at La Coruña in Galicia. His funeral under these extraordinary circumstances was described in a famous poem by Charles Wolfe. (The Spanish artist Francisco Goya also commemorated the Peninsular War in a shocking series of drawings, The Disasters of War.)

On Moore's death Arthur Wellesley (1769 to 1852 - Napoleon's exact contemporary) was given command. Having been trained in India, Wellesley had been an unknown quantity, but won a major victory in 1808 at Vimiero in Portugal. However, his career was put in doubt by the treaty signed following the battle (the Convention of Cintra), which allowed the French army to return home with their weaponry and spoils intact. He was only allowed back after an official investigation which threw the two senior officers who negotiated it out of the army: Wellesley had signed the Convention, but only under protest.

During the next few years the British and Portuguese armies gradually wore down the French, the death-blow coming at the Battle of Vitoria (1813) where the appointed King Joseph Bonaparte was deposed and British-allied forces captured a luggage train containing millions of francs gathered by the French.

Vitoria was celebrated through all of Europe (except France). The victorious Wellesley was created Duke of Wellington and, at the request of his friend Johann Nepomuk Maelzel (the inventor of the metronome) Beethoven wrote the "Battle Symphony" Wellington's Victory (opusOp.91). Maelzel wanted the piece to demonstrate his Panharmonicon, a mechanical instrument that was supposed to reproduce the sounds of the full orchestra. It was an instant popular success and -- wisely realizing that the supply of Panharmonicons was severely limited -- Beethoven arranged it for real live full orchestra.

Ignorance forbids me from saying whether or not it is -- like his other compositions associated with Napoleon, the "Eroica" symphony and the piano sonata "Les Adieux" -- in the key of E-flat. It is more in the nature of a medley than an original composition, making heavy use of English patriotic tunes such as Rule Britannia and God Save The King, and containing such elements of program music as fanfares and drum tattoos. (Beethoven also wrote some rather cheeky variations for piano on these melodies.)

During most of his creative life Beethoven was the last person one would accuse of pandering to public or critical taste. He followed his own creative impulse with an almost aggressive originality. But in this case it seems he traded on his reputation and produced a piece of at best mediocre quality for a quick sale. While it scored highly in that respect, it is now one of his least-known and lowest regarded pieces. Perhaps Ludwig still felt the blows that the dictator had dealt him in the past and leapt at the chance of writing anti-Napoleonic music (as Schoenberg was to do much later) without caring too much about whether it would be a sublime masterpiece. You can sample the Battle Symphony at and judge for yourself whether financial or political motivation affected Beethoven's musical judgement. Beethoven's subsequent "serious" compositions certainly showed no decrease in inspiration.

In return for the Symphony, Maelzel constructed an ear trumpet to help Beethoven with his deafness. The amplification greatly helped at first, and more devices were to follow, but his progressive hearing loss made them less and less useful. Maelzel would subsequently fall out with Beethoven over who owned the score of the symphony, and leave Vienna to seek his fortune in the New World. He, and the Panharmonicon, met their end in 1838 in the Gulf of Mexico.

Back in 1813, after Vitoria the French army was forced to retreat to Toulouse, where a bloody battle was fought (1814), the commanding generals (Wellesley and Marshal Soult) being ignorant that Napoleon had abdicated a few days previously on April 6th. Napoleon, after his abdication, went into exile with a force of 600 men on the island of Elba off the coast of Tuscany.

Coda: Hair of the Dog

In 1815 Napoleon escaped from Elba with his miniature army and received the enthusiastic and undimmed support of the French, who turned against their Bourbon king Louis XVIII. With a force of hundreds of thousands he was restored to the Imperial throne in Paris and moved north-east to encounter the British-allied and Prussian forces, under the commands of Field-Marshals Arthur Wellesley and Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher respectively, in Belgium. The three armies met in mid-June and there ensued the battles of Quatre Bras, a stalemate, and Ligny, a French victory, after which Wellesley was forced to retreat to a nearby town. The next day, after heavy overnight rains which would hinder the French artillery and cavalry severely, battle was again joined in the neighbouring fields. Napoleon was defeated for the last time and exiled to Saint Helena, where he died in 1821.

The diaries of his valet concerning his last years, and a lock of hair taken after his death (and analyzed only in 2001) are consistent with the hypothesis that he died of arsenic poisoning. However, hair samples taken during his life several years before his exile in Saint Helena show similar concentrations of arsenic, so the hypothesis of deliberate poisoning appears unfounded. Napoleon's system may simply have succumbed to the cumulative effect of chronic exposure to arsenic, which was used in wallpapers as a green pigment, in some patent medicines, or even in hair tonic (which a recent study claimed was the most likely source).

Arsenic was also used in (misguided) attempts to treat syphilis, the sexually transmitted disease traditionally said to be rife among musicians and artists and which afflicted Schubert and Schumann, among others; both great admirers of Beethoven. In the cases of Schumann and Bedrich Smetana, syphilis manifested itself in the form of deafness and auditory hallucinations or tinnitus: hearing persistent imaginary noises and musical tones.

Beethoven's deafness and final illness(es) have also attracted a good deal of speculation. Due to the rudimentary state of medical science at the time, it's rather difficult to diagnose his state accurately. However, in 2000 a lock of Beethoven's hair, culled by the young conductor Ferdinand Hiller who visited him in 1827 shortly before his death, was analyzed at Argonne National Laboratory. The method involved shining X-rays on the hair and comparing the resulting radiation to other hairs and standard thin films of known trace metal content.

The results were startling. The substances used to treat syphilis, mercury and arsenic, were either undetectable or present at very low levels, and (in another independent analysis) no trace of opiate painkillers was found, whereas lead was present at a level about 100 times the average. Symptoms of lead poisoning include chronic abdominal pain, irritability, and depression -- a good match for Ludwig. The research gave the lie to theories that Beethoven's health had been ruined by his doctor's overzealous medication (which Ludwig mainly refused to take) or by syphilis treatments. The source of his chronic lead poisoning is unknown, but may have been fish from the Danube (one of Ludwig's favourites), mineral water from spas, lead-glazed dishes or lead-lined wine flasks.