How Beethoven went from Napoleon’s biggest fan to his worst critic

Beethoven planned to dedicate his Third Symphony to Napoleon—before the French revolutionary crowned himself emperor.

Two giants who shook the foundations of 18th- and 19th-century Europe, Ludwig van Beethoven and Napoleon Bonaparte were born just one year apart—Beethoven in Bonn, near Cologne (now Germany) in 1770 and Bonaparte in Ajaccio, Corsica, in 1769. These two men radically transformed their respective fields, leaving behind legacies that all of their followers were forced to acknowledge while attempting to transcend.

Napoleon’s military prowess after the French Revolution led to a quick rise to power. Victory after victory burnished the young man’s reputation, bringing him acclaim all over Europe as a triumph over the old ways.

Beethoven’s innovative compositions took music to new heights. His symphonies told entire stories without words, unfurling emotions and painting pictures that immersed listeners like nothing before it. Beethoven dominated the musical world the same way Napoleon reigned over the military and political spheres. These two men never met, but a shared critical moment in the early 19th century revealed a stark contrast between these two icons.

Bonn beginnings

Ludwig van Beethoven was born to a middleclass family. As a young man, he was forced to support his mother and siblings due to his father Johann’s alcoholism. Although he was never regarded as a prodigy as the young Mozart before him, or Mendelssohn after him (who wrote five operas while still a child), Beethoven’s talent was impressive. At the age of 14, he was employed as second organist at the court of the regional ruler, the Archbishop-Elector of Cologne, assisting Christian Gottlob Neefe, the principal court organist and Beethoven’s music teacher. In his piano and composition lessons, Neefe awoke in his student a deep love for the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and a voracious appetite for reading. (See also: A composer's passion, ignited by conflict.)

Three years later, the Archbishop-Elector of Cologne, Maximilian Franz, decided to promote the young musician. Bonn-Cologne was, at this time, a state within the Holy Roman Empire, ruled by Maximilian’s brother, Joseph II. The elector decided the 17 year old would go to Vienna, imperial capital and European center of classical music. There in 1787, Beethoven was received by none other than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. There is a story, (regarded by some historians as apocryphal) that, on hearing him play, Mozart said to his wife, “Watch out for that boy. One day he will give the world something to talk about.” Beethoven had hoped to study with Mozart, but his trip was cut short when Beethoven’s mother fell seriously ill, and he had to return home.

At this time, Mozart and fellow Austrian Joseph Haydn were the twin suns of the musical firmament. Their music was the standard to aspire to, yet it would also come to represent what had to be transcended. The influential English music historian Charles Burney spoke for many in the late 1700s when he wrote of music as the “art of pleasing,” and its highest aim to transmit sweetness and refinement. Beethoven’s work would later help overturn this aesthetic standard.

Because his family relied on him for financial support, the teenaged Beethoven worked as a music teacher. His pupils were often the children of the nobility, including the cultured von Breuning family. Expanding Beethoven’s social networks, the von Breunings introduced him to a family friend, the Count of Waldstein, a Viennese aristocrat and music lover. Impressed by Beethoven’s talent, the count later commissioned several works from the composer.

The relationship with the count epitomizes the compromise musicians had to make between their ideals and their pocketbooks. In practical terms, composers needed the support of aristocratic patrons to fund the creation of their music, even if they espoused democratic values.

In 1790 Beethoven met Joseph Haydn, who was so impressed with the young musician that he offered to take him on as a pupil in Vienna. Two years later, Beethoven moved there, but he only studied a short time with Haydn. In Vienna excellent social connections with wealthy families enabled him to earn a good living. One of the most important of these was the music lover Prince Joseph Franz Maximilian von Lobkowitz.

Dawn of revolution

Beethoven was 18 in the summer of 1789 when astonishing news reached Bonn: The storming of the Bastille prison in Paris on July 14 had ushered in a new order based on revolutionary principles of individual liberty and rights.

The impact of the French Revolution on the German people was deep and inspirational. German nationalist historian Ernst Moritz Arndt, later a savage critic of the revolution, acknowledged its impact: “It has planted into heads and hearts essential ideas for the foundation of the future, which only 20 or 30 years ago most people would have been afraid to conceive.”

At first, enthusiasm extended even to the imperial rulers. Early in the revolution, both Joseph II and Maximilian Franz saw events in France as confirming the ideals of the Enlightenment. At Bonn’s recently founded university (where Beethoven briefly enrolled), Eulogius Schneider, a fiery lecturer, and former monk, praised the storming of the Bastille in a poem. The work was published in a Jacobin journal which counted Beethoven as one of its subscribers. Even if he never became a full-blown radical, Beethoven was exposed to the general sympathy and excitement stoked by events in France.

It was a time of phenomenal political upheaval that intrigued Beethoven generally, and touched him personally. During his first full year in Vienna in 1793, news broke of the executions of French king Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, aunt to the Holy Roman emperor Francis II. A year later, the French occupied Beethoven’s home town, Bonn.

Beethoven began to note the campaigns of the young, anti-monarchist general, Napoleon Bonaparte—first in Italy (1796-97), then in Egypt and Palestine (1798-99). Despite his uneven military record in Egypt, Napoleon returned to France a hero, and was proclaimed first consul of the French Republic. In 1800 his defeat of the Austrian army at Marengo forced Austria into making major concessions to France. Napoleon was at the center of a new age being born in Europe, and Beethoven was impressed by this bright new light.

A hopeless affliction

In his early years in Vienna Beethoven was known as a brilliant piano virtuoso, whose compositions attracted a great deal of attention. In 1798, however, he was dealt a bitter blow when he began to lose his hearing, No single cause has been attributed to his deafness, but the loss caused Beethoven great anguish.

In 1802 his physician sent the composer to spend the summer in the nearby village of Heiligenstädt. He attempted to come to terms with his condition and wrote a letter to his two brothers about the malady that had left him “hopelessly afflicted.” Known as the Heiligenstädt Testament, it was never sent, and found only after his death.

The testament coincides with the beginning of what is sometimes termed his heroic phase. His music became more emotionally raw, traits that would erupt triumphantly in his Third Symphony. This great work, opus 55, is noted not only for its length (it was much longer than any other symphony of the time) but also its range. It expresses ideas across a wide canvas, embracing Beethoven’s personal misfortune, experimentation in musical ideas, and his experience of the tumult of war.

Rejecting a tyrant

Fired with zeal by the ideas of liberty and equality that he considered embodied in Napoleon, Beethoven decided to dedicate his Third Symphony to the French commander. Beethoven was sketching out preliminary plans for the symphony and carefully weighing his opinions of Napoleon.

Then, in spring 1804, as he was finishing the symphony, news came to Vienna that Napoleon had declared himself emperor of France. Beethoven’s response, according to his protégé Ferdinand Ries, was a furious diatribe against his former hero: “Now he, too, will tread underfoot all the rights of man [to] indulge only his ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men [and] become a tyrant!” A page in the preserved score shows where the word Bonaparte has been heavily struck through with a pen.

The composer’s decision to remove Napoleon’s name remained a private one. He did not speak out publicly against the French emperor, but instead made a practical decision to dedicate the Third Symphony to Prince Lobkowitz, one of his first patrons in Vienna.

On the score’s publication in 1806, a year after its premiere, the Third Symphony was entitled Sinfonia Eroica (Heroic Symphony), with the subtitle: “Composed to celebrate the memory of a great man.” For all that Napoleon’s name had been erased, the masterwork is nevertheless haunted by him. The passionate strains of the symphony encapsulate the turmoil of the Napoleonic age that had inspired Beethoven’s music, and shaped his life.

A hero’s reception

The Third Symphony premiered in April 1805, in Vienna’s Theater an der Wien, under the baton of Beethoven himself. Loyal critics proclaimed it a triumph—from its opening stately melody on the cellos, the searing funeral march, the frenetic, disorienting scherzo, through to the final reiteration of the heroic theme on the brass.

The wider response was muted: It left the audience, and many critics, bewildered. Far from creating a pleasing sound, the composer had created disturbing dissonances, which contribute to the sense of a titanic struggle in which hope overcomes despair. Although its first audience had never heard anything quite like it, today it is an essential part of the repertoire of the world’s great orchestras. Most musicologists agree it marks a major turning point. According to the British music writer Tom Service, it “doesn’t just stand for Napoleon, or Beethoven, but for the possibilities of the symphony itself, which is revealed as a carrier of new weight and meaning as never before in its history.”

Ode to freedom

Even though Beethoven had been disgusted by Napoleon in 1804, he did not completely reject him until several years later. As the Napoleonic Wars raged across Europe, the French consul had become a conqueror, hungry for more lands. Napoleon once again attacked Austria in 1809 and even shelled Vienna, an event which Beethoven experienced firsthand.

By the time of the French ruler’s defeat in Spain in 1813, Beethoven’s enthusiasm had waned so much that he wrote a piece in honor of Napoleon’s nemesis, the future Duke of Wellington, who defeated the French at the Battle of Vitoria in 1813 and ended Napoleon’s career at Waterloo two years later. In the past musical historians linked Napoleon’s defeat and an end of Beethoven’s heroic style. French essayist Romain Rolland wrote in the early 1900s: “When the man of Waterloo has fallen, Beethoven, emperor, also abdicates.”

Modern researchers, however, tend to see the composer in a less reductive light. His late style certainly evolved into something different from that of the Third Symphony, but his music and writings still contain democratic ideas, culminating in the celebration of freedom and fraternal love in the setting of the “Ode to Joy” in his Ninth Symphony. His legacy as a lover of freedom is undimmed: His music has often been played in struggles against authoritarianism, such as during the Tiananmen Square protests in China in 1989 and, later that year, in the celebration following the fall of the Berlin Wall.

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