This particular "victory" was not actually a military exercise, nor was it led by General the Marquess of Wellington, though it was inspired by his actions. This "Wellington’s Victory," also known as "The Battle Symphony," was written by Ludwig von Beethoven, to commemorate the allied victory at the Battle of Vitoria in June of 1813. This rousing composition was first performed in Vienna, two hundred years ago this Sunday.
A recital of the curious twists and turns in the creation of Beethoven’s Opus 91 …
On 21 June 1813, the victory of the allied armies over the French at the Battle of Vitoria removed Napoleon’s brother, Joseph Bonaparte, from the throne of Spain and wrested control of most of Spain from French domination. Though it would be nearly a year before the French army was driven completely out of Spain and back into France, Napoleon’s dominion over the Spanish government was broken and his army was on the defensive. There were many celebrations in England and across the Continent when the news of the victory arrived.
By 1792, Ludwig van Beethoven was living in Vienna. During 1803 and early 1804, he wrote his third symphony, which he had dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte, because he held the Republican values of the French Revolution in esteem and considered Bonaparte to be the personification of those values. Then, in May of 1804, Napoleon declared himself Emperor of France. Beethoven was so infuriated by Bonaparte’s seizure of power that he tore up the title page of the third symphony score, predicting that Napoleon would become a tyrant, trampling on the rights of man. Beethoven had had an image of a heroic man in his mind while he was writing his symphony, so he renamed his new composition the Sinfonia eroica (Eroica (Heroic) Symphony).
From the time Beethoven completed his Sinfonia eroica, he became increasingly disillusioned with the actions and character of Napoleon Bonaparte. As he had predicted, the French Emperor conquered country after country, constantly expanding his tyrannical and inflexible grip on the Continent. Beethoven was pleased when he learned of Wellington’s great victory over the French at Vitoria, when the news reached Vienna in the summer of 1813. But he did not think to compose any music to commemorate the great allied victory. At that time he was deeply immersed in his own suffering. It was in the early months of 1813 that Beethoven finally had to accept the fact that he was going deaf. Probably even more painful for him, he was still grieving the loss of his Immortal Beloved. He was also feeling a sharp financial pinch as Napoleon’s depredations on the Continent were causing widespread economic instability. Beethoven had been forced to significantly reduce the fees he charged for both his performances and his published music, leaving him very short of funds.
Beethoven had noticed problems with his hearing in 1812, but assumed it would pass. By early 1813, he began to fear the hearing loss might be permanent. There also lived in Vienna the son of an organ builder who had come to the city the same year as Beethoven, though they would not meet for well over a decades. Johann Nepomuk Maelzel was a talented musician who also taught music to support himself when he first arrived in Vienna. But Maelzel’s real interest was in mechanical devices, including large machines which could play the many instruments of a full orchestra. In 1804, he constructed his first panharmonicon. This early panharmonicon was a very large automaton which could play the sounds of the musical instruments which were typically part of a military band. It was powered by a set of weights, like those of a large clock, which acted on a series of cylinders that had been set with pins to play the notes. Maelzel sold this first panharmonicon a few years later. He also built the Trumpeter, a full-size automaton of an Austrian dragoon, in full regimentals. During exhibitions, Maelzel would lead the dragoon out of a tent, and when he pressed the automaton’s left epaulette, it would raise the trumpet to its lips and "play" a series of Austrian cavalry calls.
Maelzel and his remarkable machines had come to the attention of the Austrian Emperor. In 1808, he was appointed Court Mechanician of the Hapsburg court. In that same year, in partnership with his younger brother, Leonhard, Maelzel began manufacturing ear trumpets. Late in 1812 or early 1813, Beethoven acquired one of these ear trumpets to aid his failing hearing. It is not known if the two were acquainted before that time, but it is certain that they became friends when Beethoven began using Maelzel’s ear trumpet. Aware of Beethoven’s strained finances, Maelzel also made the composer a much-needed loan of 50 gold ducats. In the summer of 1813, the two began discussing a trip to London where they intended to mount a series of concerts which they believed would enable them to raise a lot of money. Their concerts would include the Trumpeter as well as a new, much larger panharmonicon which Maelzel was in the process of building. The plan was that Beethoven would compose some new music specifically for these devices. And then came the news from Spain, of Wellington’s defeat of the French at Vitoria.
Ever the showman and entrepreneur, Maelzel convinced Beethoven to compose a grand piece to celebrate Wellington’s victory over Napoleon’s army, thinking it would play well to a London audience. In fact, Maelzel actually sketched out the composition musically, as well as writing the drum marches and the trumpet flourishes to best showcase his panharmonicon and the Trumpeter. Maelzel wanted to anything he could to make this piece as appealing to English audiences as possible. He was also able to prevail upon Beethoven to weave in the tunes God Save the King, Rule Britannia and Marlbrough s’en va-t-en guerre (Marlborough Has Left for the War), the tune of which sounds like For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow. Beethoven began working on this new composition in August of 1813 and continued working on it on and off though September. He finally finished it in early October of 1813. Unfortunately for Maelzel, Beethoven’s composition had expanded to the point that it required so many instruments that Maelzel could not build a panharmonicon large enough to play all the parts.
Regardless, Maelzel was still pleased with Beethoven’s composition, recognizing that it had all the components which would appeal to audiences, including thunder and canon fire. He and Beethoven were able to find a solution by which a portion of the piece could be played on the panharmonicon. The composition was in two parts, the main "Battle Symphony" and "Wellington’s Victory" finale. The most intense and complex part was the Battle Symphony, but the Wellington’s Victory finale could be slightly simplified so that it could be played on the new panharmonicon. However, despite his desire to promote his panharmonicon, Maelzel saw the potential in this new composition for performance by a full orchestra, and he urged Beethoven to score it for orchestra. To introduce it to the world, it was to be played by a full orchestra as part of a concert to benefit wounded Austrian and Bavarian soldiers.
The concert was held on Wednesday, 8 December 1813, in which were premiered two new Beethoven compositions, Wellington’s Victory, followed Beethoven’s new 7th Symphony. Some of the finest musicians of the time were in the orchestra that night. For the Wellington’s Victory performance, Antonio Salieri supervised the cannon, Johann Nepomuk Hummel the percussion and Giacomo Meyerbeer manned the thunder machine. Wellington’s Victory was very well received and the concert was repeated on 12 December 1813, the combined profit on the two concerts was in excess of 4000 florins. The work was extremely popular in Austria, and soon was popular all across the Continent.
Sadly, the Wellington’s Victory symphony would soon lead to a rift between Beethoven and Maelzel. Their plans for a London trip fell through, primarily because Beethoven did not really want to leave Vienna, and with the new prestige and income from Wellington’s Victory, there was no reason for him to do so. But Maelzel was a driven showman, and he quickly made plans for a tour of major European cities for his new panharmonicon and his Trumpeter. Word soon got back to Beethoven that Maelzel was not only playing Wellington’s Victory on the panharmonicon, but he was billing the piece as his own composition. Beethoven took great offence and broke off his relationship with him. Beethoven also gave a third concert which included Wellington’s Victory on 2 January 1814, but refused to allow Maelzel to participate. Beethoven kept all the profits of that concert for himself. Beethoven also filed an action against Maelzel in the Vienna courts. Beethoven had dedicated Wellington’s Victory to the Prince Regent, and when he learned Maelzel was travelling to London in 1814, he sent the Regent a copy of the score in the hope of establishing his sole right to the symphony. However, he never received a response from the Regent. Beethoven also sent an appeal to the musicians of London not to participate in any of Maelzel’s concerts, but it had little effect. Maelzel did give several concerts of the symphony with the Wellington’s Victory portion played on his panharmonicon. A few years later, Beethoven and Maelzel did eventually reconcile. In 1815, Maelzel patented the Metronome, and in 1816, he had set up a factory in Paris to manufacture it. He returned to Vienna in 1817, at which time Beethoven abandoned his lawsuit and the two of them split the court costs.
Despite its great popularity with the public at the time, Beethoven frankly admitted that his Wellington’s Victory was not in keeping with his usual, more classical style since there were so many special sound effects in the work. Wellington’s Victory was very theatrical, so much so that in the concert performances there were opposing percussion teams on each side of the stage who played the battle sounds of the opposition forces, not to mention the many musket and cannon shots as well as occasional thunder. Beethoven was slightly embarrassed by this piece, but when he was criticized for it to his face, he is said to have replied "What I sh*t (scheisse) is better than anything you could ever write!" Though Wellington’s Victory may have been something of an embarrassment to Beethoven, it also restored his finances and brought him to the attention of many in Vienna who were interested in his work. In particular, it led to a new version of his opera, Fidelio.
Though Wellington’s Victory was hugely popular with the public all across Europe during the Regency, it was falling out of favor by the time Queen Victoria succeeded to the throne of England. Today, it is very seldom performed, so Beethoven’s Opus 91 is an almost completely forgotten work. But two hundred years ago this Sunday, it made its debut in Vienna to great acclaim.