Beethoven, "Wellington's Victory"

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Tom Hart

Puritan Board Senior

(You’ll have to forgive the unfortunate typo in the title of the video.)

One of Beethoven’s lesser-known works, “Wellington’s Victory” (Wellingtons Sieg), also called the “Battle Symphony” (Op. 91) celebrates the victory of the British Army under Wellington over Joseph Bonaparte’s French army at the Battle of Vittoria in 1813, part of the Peninsular War (1808-1814). It is quite a dramatic piece, complete with the crackle of muskets and the thunder of cannon.

Throughout the work, Beethoven quotes some very familiar tunes. Right near the beginning, the listener will recognize “Rule, Britannia” (originally composed by Thomas Arne in 1740).

Later, “God Save the King” becomes prominent.

It is said that nine years earlier, Beethoven was set to dedicate his third symphony to Napoléon Buonaparte, the dashing young Corsican-born First Consul of France who by already boasted a string of impressive military victories (on top of his growing list of political ones). Beethoven, always a romantic, saw in Buonaparte the embodiment of the ideals of the French Revolution: liberty, equality, fraternity, democracy and anti-monarchism.

Then, in 1804, Buonaparte took the crown from the hands of the pope, proclaiming himself Napoléon I, l’Empereur des Français. According to Beethoven’s then-student, Ferdinand Ries, the composer nearly destroyed the manuscript of the Third Symphony. Beethoven later dedicated that work, called Eroica, to a patron, Prinz Lobkowicz.

By 1813, then, Beethoven’s political views had evidently undergone something of a transformation.

Also near the beginning is a tune that most today will recognize as “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow”. In fact, it is a tune that originated in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714). “Marlborough s’en va t’en guerre” appeared in 1709 upon a false report of the death of John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough. The connection to Marlborough can hardly be coincidental; Marlborough remains one of the most famed commanders in English history, and his campaigns against the French made for a close parallel to Wellington, even as far as each receiving a dukedom for his successes.

No longer brimming with praise for Buonaparte, Beethoven, it would seem, had come to appreciate the strength and stability of the British monarchy.

(Romantic notions never left the composer, however, as the Chorale of the Ninth Symphony makes apparent.)

“Wellington’s Victory” is not often performed today, although it was hugely popular when it first appeared. I enjoy it for its historical significance and the glimpse it offers into the thinking of Ludwig van Beethoven. And it’s a fun piece of music.
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