Art and the world – the turbulent, disillusioning world – are frequently at odds with each other. Art seeks to convey beauty, or some variant thereof. But the world too often has other plans and instead obscures the beauty with violence, despair, and the fear and hopelessness of terrorized people. Look no further than the current events of today; the heartbreaking photos of desperate migrants and refugee children drowning during passage to safer lands. So what is the inspired artist to do when confronted with horror and chaos? Well, they can imitate life as art often does, something Picasso exemplified masterfully with Guernica. Or they can defiantly push forth with sheer beauty in spite of political and personal turbulence.
It’s hard to imagine what it was like to live in Europe during the Napoleonic Wars. Beethoven was a firsthand witness to much of it, and the great composer found himself and his art roped into the tempestuous atmosphere, unwittingly or otherwise. Like all future tyrants, Napoleon rose to power as a “liberator”; a revolutionary who sought to demolish the aristocracy’s control over the common man and secure rights for all citizens in an egalitarian ideal. An appealing message to be sure. And to the authority-hating Beethoven, who resented class distinctions and roundly rejected the idea that any grown man should bow to another, Napoleon’s message resonated deeply as it did for so many.
Mounted Trumpeters of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard, 1814, Théodore Géricault:
But Beethoven eventually learned a lesson with regard to charismatic political leaders and their promises. After completion of his monumental and miraculous Third Symphony, which he had named the “Bonaparte” in honor of Napoleon, Beethoven was informed that the supposed liberator Napoleon had now declared himself “Emperor” of France. Emperor. Oh dear. Enraged with feelings of betrayal by a figure he had respected and admired, the composer angrily scratched out the dedication on his manuscript’s title page. Beethoven refused to honor with his music a man he now realized “will become a tyrant like all the others” and “think himself superior to all men!”. In a principled, albeit impulsive, gesture Beethoven changed the Bonaparte to “Eroica”. But that was not the end of Beethoven’s irritations with the French megalomaniac.
Napoleon Receiving the Keys of Vienna, by Anne-Louis Girodet:
In the spring of 1809, after Austria had declared war on France, Napoleon’s army laid siege to Vienna. While many had fled before it was too late, Beethoven remained in the city. With his house in the direct line of artillery fire, he relocated to his brother’s house which unfortunately didn’t provide the relief he had hoped, as there was no real escaping the onslaught of Napoleon’s military forces. Holed up in the cellar, the 39 year-old Beethoven was determined to finish composing his Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major. But the circumstances were harrowing. This was a man who was already enduring the traumatic process of going deaf, with relentless buzzing and ringing and diminished auditory capacity. For a composer of all people, this is pure hell. Now he was being assaulted by the ear-splitting sounds of cannon fire day and night. Beethoven pressed pillows against his ears to block out the din, crouched in corners of the room in anguish, terrified that his already delicate and deteriorating ear drums would be blasted into dead silence .. permanently. And yet somehow, remarkably and incredibly, during and after that war-ravaged spring in Vienna, Beethoven did what brilliant and persevering artists do: he created his work. And boy, was it a doozy. His fifth and final piano concerto. Arguably his best. Although it has come to be called the “Emperor Concerto” that moniker was not Beethoven’s doing. It’s actually something of a cruel irony that the piece has been named as such, given Beethoven’s feelings about the matter.
The death mask of Napoleon. It was cast in May of 1821, two days after Napoleon died while in exile on the island of St. Helena. For a man of such an egomaniacal nature it’s unusual that he didn’t like to sit for portraits. Virtually all of the portrait paintings of Napoleon were done from secondhand accounts with some imagination thrown in. The man in this mask with the chiseled features is the most accurate representation of what Napoleon really looked like. Well, in death at least.
And now, on our Music Monday, the beloved and exquisite 2nd movement of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto. I selected a recording with two acclaimed greats of classical music: conductor Bernard Haitink and pianist Claudio Arrau. This is the creation Beethoven fought for tooth and nail during that miserable, besieged time, amid shelling, explosions, and his busted ears hanging on for dear life. In a melodic, spiritual dream of pathos and joy, art’s transcendent beauty emerges from a deafening war zone. Napoleon may have been defeated at Waterloo, but he was truly “conquered” by Beethoven. God bless this man.