Napoleon Bonaparte

As discussed in our introduction, in addition to the biographic approach that arises from the dynamics of the relationship of the Heiligenstadt Testament to this symphony,  the 'virtual cosmos' of the topic of the Third Symphony also offers other aspects for discussion. Let us begin our review of the >>conceptual<< genesis of this work with Ferdinand Ries' report as Solomon relates it: 

"In this symphony Beethoven had Buonaparte in mind, but as he was when he was First Consul.  Beethoven esteemed him greatly at the time and likened him to the greatest Roman consults.  I as well as several of his more intimate friends saw a copy of the score lying upon his table with the word "Buonaparte" at the extreme top of the title page, and at the extreme bottom "Luigi van Beethoven," but not another word.  Whether and with what the space between was to be filled out, I do not know.  I was the first to bring him the intelligence that Buonaparte had proclaimed himself emperor, whereupon he flew into a rage and cried out:  "Is he then, too, nothing more than an ordinary human being?  Now he, too, will trample on all the rights of man and indulge only his ambition.  He will exalt himself above all others, become a tyrant!"  Beethoven went to the table, took hold of the title page by the top, tore it in two, and threw it on the floor.  The first page was rewritten and only then did the symphony receive the title Sinfonia eroica" (Solomon:  132).

While we might later feel inclined to discuss as to whether we can rely on the report of Beethoven's student and, if so, to what extent, here we should try to explore whether Beethoven, himself, left us any indication as to whether  he 'had Buonaparte in mind' when he set out to write the Third Symphony.  Let us look at what Solomon reports on the content of the work's title page:  


N.B. 1.  Cues for the other instruments are to be written into the first violin part

[1]                                                                Sinfonia Grande

[2]                                                             Intitulata Bonaparte

[3]                                                                [1804] im August

[4]                                                                 Del [or de] Sigr.

[5]                                                            Louis van Beethooven

[6]                                                                   Geschrieben

[7]                                                                  auf Bonaparte

[8]                                                         Sinfonia [or Sinfonie] 3 Op. 55


N.B. 2.  The third horn [part] is so written that it can be played by a primario as well as a secondario" (Solomon: 133).

With respect to this reflection of the content of the title page, Solomon reports that lines 1, 2, 4 and 5 of the original title stem from the hands of copyists, that lines 3 and 8 have been written by an unknown hand and that line 2 - Intitulata Bonaparte had been crossed out later and almost been made illegible, while lines 6 and 7 had been inserted by Beethoven with pencil and have never been erased.  

The crossed-out reference, "Intitulata Bonaparte" and Beethoven's own words, "geschrieben auf Bonaparte" ("written on Buonaparte" are our clues as to his own titling of this symphony that allow as to at least go out from the possibility that he had brought Bonaparte into connection with this work.

However, in order to trace the "genesis" of this connection, we should, at the outset, look for the first traces of the soil in which this connection might have had a chance to take root: 

"The new Elector was the youngest of Empress Maria Theresa's sons, and therefore a man of great influence.  Her eldest son, Joseph II, was by that time Emperor of Austria and the Holy Roman Empire, whose seat was in Vienna, and he had set up a programme of liberal reform based on the philosophies of Enlightenment.  Maximilian Franz promoted similar ideas in Bonn, and supported the arts and education, most notably by founding the University of Bonn in 1785.  The university attracted several important writers and philosophers, and rapidly became a hotbed of Enlightenment ideals in the 1780's; indeed some of the professors were soon being regarded as dangerously radical or Protestant in outlook.  Beethoven was just at that very impressionable age when philosophical ideas are most likely to be influential, and it was through this intellectual environment that his political views were shaped--in particular his hatred of all forms of tyranny and oppression.  The seeds of Fidelio, Egmont and the Napoleonic elements of the Eroica were sown here in Bonn" (Cooper: 14).

From "seeds", certain basic tendencies can certainly develop in a young mind.  However, there also have to develop concrete or ideal connections to a proponent of the precepts of such tendencies, on the one hand, but also a >personal< concept that a young mind might have been able to discern from the general thought of his time, in order for such a connection to develop.  With respect to such a >personal< concept, Solomon writes: .

"Utopian currents of the eighteenth century revolved around the idea of a bon prince, a wish-fulfilling hero who would dissolve the tangled problems of the relations between masters and men.  It was such heroes--represented in German drama by Wallenstein, Karl Moor, Egmont--who bore the accumulated weight of Messianic hopes and strivings.  We will meet their counterparts in Beethoven's Fidelio and Egmont, and perhaps in the symphony which he intended to call Bonaparte . . . "  (Solomon: 39).

Whether Beethoven's >connection< to Napoleon in his Third Symphony developed out of a purely ideal connection to a proponent of this ideal of his time, such as Napoleon, or out of an at least indirectly concrete connection, is still not certain, today.  With respect to such a possible indirect  connectIon, Thayer reports: 

"Early in the year 1798, a political event occurred which demands notice here from its connection with one of Beethoven's noblest and most original works--the Sinfonia Eroica.

The extraordinary demands made by the French Directory upon the Austrian government as preliminary to the renewal of diplomatic intercourse, after the peace of Campo Formio--such as a national palace and French theatre for the minister and the right of jurisdiction over all Frenchmen in the Austrian dominions--all of which were rejected by the Imperial government, had aroused to a high pitch the curiosity both as to the man who might be selected for the appointment and as to the course he might adopt.  This curiosity was by no means diminished by the intelligence that the new minister was Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, the young general who had become so important a part in the recent invasion of Istria.  He arrived in Vienna on February 5, 1798.  The state of the Empress' health, who was delivered by the Archduchess Maria Clementine on the 1st of March, delayed the private audience of Bernadotte for the presentation of his credentials to the Emperor until the second of that month, and his public audience until the 8th of April.  During the festivities of the court, which then took place, Bernadotte was always present, and a reporter of that day says both the Emperor and Empress held more conversation with him than with any other of the "cercle".  This familiar intercourse, however, came speedily to an end, for on the 13th Bernadotte had the rashness to display the hated tricolor from his balcony and to threaten to defend it by force.  A riot occurred, and it was thought that in the extreme excitement of popular feeling nothing but the strong detachments of cavalry and infantry detailed for his protection saved his life--saved it to ascend the throne of Sweden on the twentieth anniversary of his arrival in Vienna!

Since etiquette allowed a foreign minister neither to make nor receive visits in his public capacity until after his formal reception at court, the General, during the two months of his stay, except the last five days, "lived very quietly".  Those who saw him praised him as "well behaved, sedate and modest."  In his train was Rodolphe Kreutzer, the great violinist.

Bernadotte had just now entered his 34th year; Kreutzer was in his 32nd; both of them, therefore, in age, as in tastes and acquirements, fitted to appreciate the splendour of Beethoven's genius and to enjoy his society.  Moreover, as the Ambassador was the son of a provincial advocate, there was no difference of rank by birth, which could prevent them from meeting upon equal terms.  Under such circumstances, and remembering that just at that epoch the young General Bonaparte was the topic of universal wonder and admiration, one is fully prepared for the statement of Schindler upon the origin of the "Heroic" Symphony (I: Biographie, 1st ed., p. 55): "The first idea for the symphony is said to have gone out from General Bernadotte, the French Ambassador in Vienna, who esteemed Beethoven very highly.  This I heard from several of Beethoven's friends.  I was also told so by Count Moritz Lichnowsky (brother of Prince Lichnowsky), who was often in the society of Bernaddotte with Beethoven. . . . "

Again Schindler adds (2) that in 1823 "Beethoven had a lively recollection that Bernadotte had really first inspired him with the idea of the 'Eroica' Symphony" (Thayer: 203 - 204).

To this, Solomon (p. 86 and p. 136) comments that Schindler's report on Beethoven's acquaintance with General Bernadotte has not been confirmed by other sources.  He also finds it unlikely (p. 140) that Bernadotte had suggested to Beethoven that he should compose a work in honor of Napoleon Bonaparte. 

After our pursuit of the somewhat "faint" indirect trace we should try to trace the chronology of a possible "ideal" connection of Beethoven to Napoleon.  As we already know from Cooper, the climate of enlightened absolutism of the Bonn of the late 1780's and early 1790's has also contributed to planting seeds in Beethoven that might later develop into his possible "ideal" relationship to Napoleon.  

However, as Solomon (p. 136) reports, ideals of enlightenment and ethical norms "almost disappeared from his correspondence and his music for some years" (during the last decade of the 18th century), and in Beethoven's composition of nationalist battle songs of the years 1796 - 1797, in the dedication of the Septet to Empress Maria Theresia in the year 1800, and even still in the composition of variations to "God Save Emperor Franz", Solomon sees the action of an obedient subject.  

On the other hand, as Solomon (p. 136 - 137) writes, from about 1800 on, a different trend developed in Beethoven, and he lists the following examples for this different trend:  

1.  In his letter to Wegeler from the year 1801, Beethoven expressed that he wanted to see his art performed solely for the benefit of the poor; 

2.  In his letter of the same year to Hoffmeister in Leipzig, Beethoven expressed the wish for a "Magazin der Kunst", meaning an exchange facility for artists, where they would simply deposit their works and take out as much money as they needed;  

3.  His "disinterested dedications" of a series of works at the beginning of the 19th century, such as that of the Piano Sonata in D-Major to the Austrian Freemason and Champion of Enlightenment, Joseph von Sonnenfels, and that of the year 1803, namely of the Sonatas for Piano and Violin, op. 30, to the young Russian Tsar Alexander who had introduced a reform program based on enlightenment ideals in his country; 

4.  Lastly, in Beethoven's planned dedication of the "Eroica" to Napoleon Bonaparte, Solomon sees the culmination of this series of dedications. 

Already from these comments by Solomon we can discern that Beethoven gravitated towards two different concepts: on the one hand, he--as a young, successful composer in a city to which he had emigrated--tried to present himself as a loyal subject, and, on the other hand, his love of freedom could not be permanently suppressed.  Can we conclude from this that his attitude towards Napoleon was of an ambivalent nature?  

The fact that Solomon considers Ferdinand Ries' report--that we featured here at the beginning--basically reliable, could lead us to conclude that Beethoven valued the young Consul Napoleon Bonaparte.  However, Solomon (p. 135) also points out that Beethoven might have been aware of the gradual encrustation of the reform ideals of the French Revolution that seeped in during Napoleon's service as First Consul.  When, in 1801, Napoleon even found himself willing to enter a concordat with the Pope, Beethoven, writes Solomon, in his reply to Hoffmeister & Kühnel, with respect to their suggestion that he should write a Sonata in honor of Napoleon or of the Revolution, appears to have expressed that he considered Napoleon to have betrayed the ideals of the French Revolution:  


Beethoven an Hoffmeister & Kühnel in Leipzig

                                                                                                                             Vien, am 8ten april 1802.

   Reit euch den der Teufel insgesammt meine Herrn? -- mir Vorzuschlagen eine Solche Sonate zu machen [1] -- zur Zeit des Revoluzionsfieber's nun da -- wäre das so was gewesen aber jezt, da sich alles wieder in's alte Gleiß zu schieben sucht, buonaparte mit dem Pabste das Concordat geschlossen [2] -- so eine Sonate? -- wär's noch eine Missa pro sancta maria a tre vocis oder eine Vesper etc -- nun da wollt ich gleich den Pinsel in die hand nehmen -- und mit großen Pfundnoten ein Credo in unum hinschreiben -- aber du lieber Gott eine So[l]che Sonate -- zu diesen neuangehenden christlichen Zeiten -- hoho -- da laßt mich aus -- da wird nichts draus -- . . .

Beethoven to Hoffmeister & Kühnel in Leipzig

                                                                                                                   Vienna, the 8th of April 1802

   Has the devil got hold of all of you, gentlemen? -- to suggest to me that I should write such a Sonata [1] -- at the times of the revolutionary fever, well, then -- that would have been alright, but now  that everything seeks to return into the old mold, that Buonaparte has formed the Concordat with the Pope [2] -- such a Sonata? -- if it were a Missa pro sancta maria a tre vocis or a Vesper etc -- well, then I would immediately take up my pen -- and would write, in great Pound notes, a Credo in unum -- but, for heaven's sake, such a Sonata -- in these newly emerging Christian times -- hoho -- leave me out of it -- nothing will come of it -- . . .

[Source: Ludwig van Beethoven Briefwechsel Gesamtausgabe, Volume 1, Letter No. 84, p. 105 - 106]

[Original:  Bonn, Beethoven-Haus; to (1]:  according to the Gesamtausgabe, this refers to a sonata with an extra-musical programme in which, apparently, ideas or events of the French Revolutions were to be taken up; to [2]: refers to the Concordat with Pope Pius VII, of July 15, 1801; details taken from p. 106].


While, as Solomon (p. 136) writes, with his above-noted disinterested dedications, "Beethoven evidently wished to emerge from a period of apparent ideological quiescence", with respect to Napoleon, Beethoven, most of the time, found himself in a conflict, which Solomon summarizes and discussed in the Chapter  "Bonaparte: The Crisis of Belief" of his Beethoven book,  some arguments of which we are looking at here in a chronological manner.  This conflict, as we have seen, encompassed Beethoven's respect for Naoploen as a young Consul, as reported by Ries and as confirmed by Solomon, but also such critical views as Beethoven expressed in his above letter.

With respect to Beethoven's planned dedication of the Third Symphony to Napoleon Bonaparte, Solomon comments: 

"Why, then, did Beethoven decide to write a Bonaparte symphony shortly after this letter to Hoffmeister?

Beethoven's projected move to Paris provides an apparently simple motive:  the Bonaparte Symphony and the proposed dedication of the Violin Sonata, op. 47, to Adam and Kreutzer may have been intended to smoothe Beethoven's entry into the French capital. (14: **)  And the cancellation of the tour coincided rather closely with the final removal of Bonaparte's name from the Third Symphony.

. . .

This dedication, along with the consideration of a move to Paris, may, therefore, have been a dramatic sign of Beethoven's desire to break with Habsburg Vienna and its political system as well as with its modes of musical patronage.  If this is true, then the rending of the inscription may constitute an equally dramatic turning point--Beethoven's abandonment of his identification with France and his decision henceforth to view himself as a citizen of Vienna.

The idea of a symphonic apotheosis of Napoleon had been worked out during the relatively long period of peace which followed the defeat of Austria in late 1800, as codified by the February 9, 1801, Treaty of Luneville.  That peace was unraveling in 1804, and war was to erupt once again in 1805.  To have kept "Bonaparte"--either as title or as dedication--at a moment when renewed war between France and Austria was imminent would have marked Beethoven as a philo-Jacobin, a supporter of a radical cause and of a hostile power,  It would have led not merely to the loss of a patron--for Lobkowitz was an ardent patriot who later raised a battalion of troops to fight the French--but to the probability of reprisals in anti-Revolutionary Austria as well.

. . .

Beethoven's passport to Viennese citizenship was the rending of the Bonaparte inscription and the consequent merging of his heroic ideal with the national outlook of the Viennese populace" (Solomon: 136 - 137).

Solomon's arguments are valid insofar as they go out from a conceptual alignment of the Third Symphony towards Napoleon Bonaparte, or at least toward his "heroism" in his pursuit and defense of revolutionary ideals. 

However, does the possible conceptual alignment of this symphony only allow an alignment towards Napoleon Bonaparte or his "heroism"?  William Kinderman appears to have found at least one alternative possibility: 


The Caucasian Eagle descends on Prometheus...

"Further indications of Beethoven's psychological realignment around this time come from the immediate backtround of the Eroica Symphony.  Its genesis is bound up with the now obscure ballet music to Die Geschöpfe des Promethus (The Creatuers of Prometheus) op. 43, written by Beethoven in collaboration with the dance master Salvatore Vigano. . . .

Because of the unfamiliarity of the ballet music, the extent of its relationship to the Eroica Symphony has remained obscure, in spite of the obvious reuse of an important theme from the ballet in the symphonic finale. . . .  Only in the 1970's did Constantin Floros succeed in largely reconstructing the choreography and related symbolism of the ballet from Beethoven's surviving musical sketches (4: Beethovens Eroica und Prometheus-Musik; see especially chapters 4 and 6) Since Beethoven made notations about the stage action in these sketches, the association of music and dance can be largely reestablished.

Floro's work has shown that the links between the ballet and the symphony are more substantial than has usually been assumed.  Floros traces various rhetorical and formal parallels between the opening Allegro con brio of the symphony and, in particular, the eighth piece of the Prometheus music, the 'Danza eroica'.  Still more important is the affinity of the two following pieces of the ballet, the 'Tragica scena' (no. 9) and 'Guiocosa scena' (no. 10, in which the dead Prometheus is restored to life), to the progression from the Maria funebre to the scherzo in the symphony.  . . . The symbolism of the 'heroic-allegorical ballet--as it was described in the programme at the premiere--can help here to supply a more convincing basis of analysis of the symphony.

The version of the Prometheus myth that Beethoven and Vigano tackled reinterprets the ancient tale of the defiant champion of humanity in a manner compatible with the spirit of the Enlightenment.  Prometheus ennobled humankind through his gifts of knowledge and art fashioned from the fire that he stole from the gods.  In the original version, Prometheus is chained to a rock, where an eagle descends to devour his liver.  After long years of suffering he is eventually freed by Hercules, a descendant of Io, who had come to Prometheus in the shape of a goat many years earlier.   Though physically in chains, Prometheus is spiritually free.  In the world of myth, there is perhaps no more telling symbol of resistance to the arbitrary exercise of authority.

In the version that Beethoven set to music, Prometheus' suffering on the rock is deleted, but his punishment is rendered more decisive, since he is put to death.  Another important change consists in the role of the two 'creatures', the Urmenschen, or archetypal man and woman.  In the Greek sources the struggle of all humanity as potential beneficiaries of the Promoethear, sacrifice.  Prometheus's long trials and agonies are replaced here by a progression of death and rebirth, since Prometheus is subsequently restored to life.  The ballet concludes with the apotheosis of Prometheus as he is celebrated by his two creatures, who at last begin to display a true understanding of the significance of his heroic deed.

This version of the myth thus shifts the dramatic emphasis from the defiant martyr to the reception by humankind of the Promethean gift of culture.  . . .

The dramatic and symbolic elements incorporated from the Prometheus myth are by no means confined to the finale.  The overall narrative progression of the four movements of the symphony outlines a sequence--struggle, death, rebirth, apotheosis.  The parallel with Beethoven's own despair, thoughts of suicide, and discovery of his new artistic path is scarcely accidental.  But the heroic symbolism of the Eroica is too deeply embodied in the artwork to be adequately interpreted in terms of Beethoven's biography, or in relation to any other historical figure such as Napoleon.  What Beethoven explores in the Eroica are universal aspects of heroism, centering on the idea of a confrontation with adversity leading ultimately to a renewal of creative possibilities . . . " (Kinderman: 87 - 90).

Although, as Kinderman maintains, this symphony can not adequately be interpreted through Beethoven's own biography, in the following chronological creation history of this work, we will find many opportunities to also look at Beethoven's general life circumstances during the time in which he wrote this work.