Beethoven, Byron, and Bonaparte – part 1

Author(s) : CLUBBE John
Share it
When he chooses, he strikes like thunder
Beethoven on Handel  (1)
Always he, he everywhere, as one says of Napoleon
Rossini on Beethoven  (2)


The epigraphs are worth pausing over. Beethoven, hearing “For unto us a child is born” in The Messiah, thought Handel struck like thunder. The words apply equally to Beethoven himself, or (as Rossini implies) to Napoleon Bonaparte. They also apply, I propose, to Byron. Beethoven, Byron, Bonaparte: each a unique entity, each possessed of an awesome, almost mythical name, one that implies the ultimate limits of human achievement. What might these three figures have in common with each other?
Rossini in Vienna, hearing Beethoven's name frequently, overwhelmed by his music, later recalled that it was “always he, he everywhere.” These words from Victor Hugo's poem “Lui” of 1829 not only testify to Napoleon's huge impact on the young Hugo but imply his omnipresence in the European imagination. After the defeat at Waterloo in 1815, the fallen Emperor was taken to the island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic, ten thousand miles from the European mainland. Promethean in his defiance, eloquent in his defense, Napoleon in exile assumed renewed significance for liberals Europeans desirous of change. Upon his death a new Napoleonic legend came into being. Like Faust, Don Juan, and Prometheus himself, Napoleon reverberated in Romantic art, music, and literature. He became a force in contemporary French politics, and the ideas he professed threatened a Metternich-dominated Europe. For the generation of Hugo and Rossini, it was indeed “always he, he everywhere.
Although both Beethoven and Byron counted among the most talked-about figures of the era, few contemporaries linked them together. They shared at least one trait: a passionate obsession with the continental colossus who was Napoleon. Beethoven was born in 1770, one year after Napoleon; he is thus eighteen years older than Byron. Like many of his generation, Beethoven believed the French revolution with its ideals – liberté, égalité, fraternité – heralded a new dawn, that mankind could be reborn and remade, that a new society was imminent, and that the great good man would lead the way to this new society on the horizon of European aspiration. Though Beethoven and Byron recognized Napoleon's military genius, they admired even more the leader who had risen from the people on his own achievements. He represented a level of ability they hardly deemed possible. They considered him a great man, the greatest of contemporaries, already a major figure of history. Most of all, Beethoven and Byron valued Napoleon because they thought he embodied genius.
Napoleon, for Beethoven and Byron, was both stimulus and rival. Neither met the man, or even saw him, but they thought about him all the time. Sometimes they imagined themselves Napoleon, sometimes as Napoleon's rival or successor. Beethoven and Byron in their responses to Napoleon spanned the spectrum of human emotion: illusions of grandeur, elation, resentment, despair. The irregular, even zigzag nature of their reaction depended upon their moods, the course of their own lives, and, to a far lesser degree than we might suppose, the state of Napoleon's fortunes on the European scene.
For Beethoven, enthusiasm for Napoleon peaks with the Eroica symphony of 1803-1804, then wanes; for Byron, it reaches its nadir in his Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte of 1814, then fades. This is the usual view, but it distorts the larger picture: namely, that the obsession of Beethoven and Byron with Napoleon lasted their lives. The history of this obsession is, for both figures, complex and imperfectly-known. But two points we can make with confidence: that Napoleon shaped the ways Beethoven and Byron chose to live, and that he inspired or strongly influenced several of their greatest works, among them, the Eroica symphony and Don Juan. Overall, their wrestling with Napoleon forced Beethoven and Byron to strive for higher levels of creativity.
In this paper I focus on Beethoven's Eroica since neither that work nor its partially cancelled dedication to “Bonaparte” is even now well understood. I take up Byron in relation to Beethoven and Byron's response to napoleon thought the time of the Eroica.

Part 1

With the Eroica Beethoven inaugurates what has come to be known as his Heroic style. (3) Most commentators have this style beginning with this symphony and lasting a decade. The spirit of the age was revolution, and the music of Beethoven's Heroic period embodied it. Beethoven's Heroic period ends with Wellington's Victory of 1813, a last, dismal attempt to celebrate military heroism in music. Besides the Eroica, works written in the first three years of the heroic period include his opera Fidelio, the Waldstein and Appassionata piano sonatas, and the three string quartets, opus 59, for Count Razumovsky. Noble in style and grand in theme, these works are contemporaneous with the great historic moments in the Napoleonic epic: the sacre, or coronation, of 1804, the stunning triumph over the Austrians and Russians at Austerlitz a year to the day later, and the victories at Jena and Auerstadt over the Prussians in 1806. Among Beethoven's many achievements, the Eroica stands out as “an authentic watershed work,” not only in Beethoven's career but in the history of classical music. (4)
Similarly, we may regard Byron's major poems, particularly Childe Harold and Don Juan. They too opened up, in Europe no less than in Britain and America, news ways of looking at the world. Byron's epic vision stimulated other writers, whether that vision emerged in a novel (Eliot's Middlemarch), a poem (Browning's The Ring and The Book and Tennyson's The Idylls of the King), or a history (Carlyle's French Revolution and the great histories of England by Macaulay and Froude). (5) Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, the national poem of Russia, is inconceivable without Don Juan behind it. Several decades back a study argued that Joyce's Ulysses did for the twentieth century what Don Juan had done for the nineteenth. (6) Beethoven's Eroica, an endeavor as pioneering in its way as Don Juan, possesses an epic venturesomeness no less awesome than the poem. As Don Juan stimulated writers to come, so the Eroica and its successor symphonies fired the creative powers of later composers: Berlioz first of all, then Liszt and Wagner, Brahms and Bruckner, Hans Rott and Mahler.
Beethoven's Heroic period spans roughly the years of Napoleon's empire.We can even interpret his music as a sustained response to Napoleon during the time he controlled most of Europe. After Wellington's Victory, which commemorates the triumph over a Napoleonic army in Spain, Beethoven abandoned the heroic style. Napoleon's fall and subsequent exile to Elba in 1814 marked for Beethoven, as for Byron and many others, the end of an epoch. Beethoven composed little for several years. Likewise, Byron after Napoleon's fall entered upon a relatively fallow period.

Part 2

When did the French Revolution end? The question has long intrigued historians. Many recent writers, but by no means alls, close their accounts of the Revolution with Napoleon's de facto assumption of power on (I cite the Revolutionary calendar) Dix-Huit Brumaire, l'an VIII, otherwise November 9, 1799. But earlier historians did not usually terminate the Revolution in 1799. Carlyle concluded his 1837 history of The French Revolution in November 1795 with Napoleon putting down a monarchist counter-coup before St. Roch Church in Paris. Mignet ended his history in 1815 with Napoleon's downfall at Waterloo Thiers, however, stopped his history on December, 2, 1804, with Napoleon's crowning himself Emperor. Beethoven would have agreed with Thiers. The composer was one of the many who thought that Napoleon, at least until declared Emperor in 1804, was institutionalizing the Revolution's gains. (7) Although Napoleon's regime had become autocratic, Beethoven believed, at least until 1804, that the Revolution continued and that Napoleon embodied it. This was also Byron's view.
Beethoven saw in Napoleon the man who guided the Revolution and France in new, positive directions. He also thought of Napoleon as the symbolic inheritor of the Roman Republic, in effect, the resuscitation of the spirit of the ancient world. “First Consul,” Napoleon's official title until 1804, echoed the Roman Republic to Beethoven; heroes in Beethoven's beloved Plutarch had served as consuls, and Bonaparte the Consul symbolized for him the Great Man. (8) Beethoven's first great man had been the reformist and tolerant Hapsburg Emperor Joseph II. Joseph's death in 1790 had brought forth his early masterpiece, the heartfelt and stirring Cantata on the Death of Joseph II of 1790. That work establishes an imposing foundation for the heroic phase of Beethoven's genius that peaked with the Eroica and Fidelio. Later, with the Ninth Symphony and the Missa Solemnis, Beethoven achieved a heroism at once more personal and more ethereal. I say nothing here of the last Quartets, searing, unnerving, ineffable. Where Beethoven, one of Hegel's world historical individuals, ended up is a nonverbal equivalent of the philosopher's “absolute knowledge of the Absolute in its Absoluteness.” (9)
When Beethoven completed the Eroica early in 1804, Napoleon was still First Consul, or rather, since 1802, First Consul for life. Clearly the idea of Napoleon as a true representative of the times – filled his mind as he wrote down the score of his great symphony.
At the top of the first page of the completed work Beethoven wrote the name of the First Consul, “Sinfonia Grande / Intitulata Bonaparte.” Beethoven later crossed out these words. Near the middle of the page, he wrote his own name, Louis van Beethoven. Below it, he wrote in pencil “Geschrieben / auf Bonaparte,” “written for Bonaparte.” These words he never erased. There is space to write more, but Beethoven wrote nothing more. (10) The words in Italian, French and German, the crossings-out and erasures, indicate uncertainty, perhaps even agony on Beethoven's part.
On May 18, 1804, the French council of State declared Napoleon Emperor of the French. Upon hearing the news, an angry Beethoven crossed off the Eroica's first inscription to Bonaparte. (11) “So he too is nothing more than an ordinary man,” he cried out. (12) Now no longer head of a republic, was Napoleon no longer great? By declaring himself Emperor, Napoleon had betrayed Beethoven on a personal no less than on a political level. The composer was intensely upset.
But the story continues. When published in 1806, the title page of the symphony bore the words “Sinfonia Eroica,” or “Heroic Symphony.” Its subtitle (Which I give in English) was “composed to celebrate the memory of a great man.” Though the hero's greatness in now but a “memory,” that memory remains strong. That Beethoven wrote this mighty work with “Bonaparte” in mind is of extreme importance in understanding it, for Beethoven's attitude toward “Bonaparte” lies at the heart of the Eroica's meaning.
It is “Bonaparte” here, not “Napoleon,” because for Beethoven, as for Byron, there was a difference. “Bonaparte” meant for Byron and Beethoven the young conqueror of Italy, the dazzling leader who scuttled monarchies and symbolized liberal hopes for a new order. Sometimes Byron even used “Buonaparte,” the name's original Italian or Corsican form as in his Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte. Napoleon after his successful 1796-1797 campaign in Italy had altered his name to make in more French-sounding. Byron with “Buonaparte” wishes to recall Napoleon to the high calling that he had professed during the Italian campaign; he may pun as well on “buona-parte,” or “good part.” English Tories called Napoleon both “Bonaparte” and “Buonaparte” for quite different reasons: to emphasize the French leader's Corsican background or Italian origins, to deny Napoleon the legitimacy of his imperial title, to suggest that the self-styled “Emperor of the French” was not even French. (13) Recognizing the Bourbons as France's monarchs, the Tories refused to accept the legitimacy of his coronation as Napoleon I. Though later Byron accustomed himself to “Napoleon,” “Napoleon” could still smack for him of the Imperial purple. Often Byron, in his extensive writings about Napoleon, deliberately does not name him at all, but that is another story. Likewise Beethoven chose “Bonaparte” because by it he meant the republican leader.

Part 3

The Eroica, if it did not shatter, radically enlarged and extended the classical vocabulary Beethoven had inherited from Haydn and Mozart. To render Napoleon's forceful persona in music required new means, and thus the originality and power of the symphony inevitably emerged from its intended meaning. (14) Those two whiplashes of sound introducing the Eroica hit us like cosmic blasts: what great achievements do they herald, what new worlds do they portend?
All non-Napoleonic interpretations of the Eroica, and there are many, avoid the fact that in composing it Beethoven himself professed he had in mind Napoleon. In a real sense, Beethoven's later cancelling of the dedication matters little, except as evidence of a change of heart. Beethoven did not cancel the music, or even alter a note. His symphony hymns both Napoleon and the values of freedom and justice, values Beethoven believed in and believed Napoleon shared with him.
Like Byron, it was the man whom Beethoven admired, from afar. Napoleon's political and military success had obsessed Beethoven, we might expect him to comment on Napoleon's campaigns or battles. But how often does Beethoven – or for that matter, Byron – even mention a Napoleonic battle? Beethoven rarely, Byron – except for Lodi and Waterloo – almost never. It's not that Beethoven and Byron weren't aware of Napoleon's victories: all Europe talked of them. It's rather that neither viewed them or Napoleon himself exclusively, or even largely, within the context of battles, nation-state rivalries, or the external politics of Britain or Austria. The rising tide of nationalism had not yet engulfed European politics. The news of Waterloo, an English victory, left Byron, an English poet, shattered and depressed; Beethoven, an Austrian patriot, doesn't mention the battle. Goethe, the most famous German man of letters, regretted Napoleon's defeat; Beethoven came also to regret it. Although cognizant of Napoleon's military skills, Beethoven responded far more to the intangible sense of greatness that Napoleon projected.
Beethoven, Byron, and Goethe felt they could admire an individual's genius – and not support his policies. They might even actively oppose them. Beethoven's imagination, like Byron's, vaulted over actual political and military circumstances. Think of Beethoven, then, without essential contradiction, as both an Austrian patriot and passionately involved with Napoleon. This ambivalence of response is worth keeping in mind.
Both Beethoven and Byron knew at first-hand the horrors of war: Beethoven suffered though two French invasions of Vienna, Byron traversed battle zones in Portugal and Spain and rode over the plains of Waterloo less than a year after the battle. Neither Beethoven nor Byron defended wars of conquest; but wars of national liberation – by the Carbonari in Italy, the patriots in Greece – each came to regard as necessary and inevitable. In personal terms, Beethoven devoted his deepest energies to his music. He strove to conquer through it. Likewise Byron sought, particularly through the writing of Don Juan, to conquer through poetry, to become the Napoleon of words. Both admired virtually without reservation a quality of Napoleon that no other individual of the time possessed to a like degree: the willingness to challenge the impossible, to resolve the insoluble.
Men could become, Napoleon's career seemed to say, whatever they aspired to become. “There was a general climate of euphoria,” said Stendhal, that was inescapable. “Gloire,” for Stendhal, was “the era's key word.” That gloire was felt in Milan and London as well as in Paris, in fact all over Europe. Even in Hapsburg Vienna the startling originality of Napoleon's career left many amazed. With the Eroica Beethoven's music begins to breathe in a different world than that of Haydn and Mozart. It becomes, in the words of Romain Rolland, “the greatest – perhaps the only voice of liberty in German art.” (15) Beethoven experienced much misery over his lifetime, but his music often expresses a radiant joy. A utopian quality undergirds it, and especially this symphony. “The master of the Eroica,” writes Basil Lam, “was criticizing the old world in the most unanswerable way possible – by creating a new and more glorious world in a renewal of the whole art of music.” (16)

Beethoven thought himself, in the gifts given him, equal to any music-maker who had ever lived. He was no mere court musician but a Tonkünstler, literally an artist of sounds. He felt he could compose music as well as Napoleon could plan battles or build empires. If Beethoven dedicated the Eroica to Napoleon, it was less in deference to a superior than in homage to an equal. At a moment when he did not regard Napoleon as an equal he crossed-out “Bonaparte” on the Eroica's title-page. It was a flash of anger in an esteem that, however widely it fluctuated, lasted in essence Beethoven's lifetime. Likewise, Byron wrote Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte in a fit of revulsion upon learning of Napoleon's first abdication in 1814. Like Beethoven, he was deeply upset; like Beethoven, he continued to ponder Napoleon.

Beethoven dedicated the Eroica to Napoleon not because he admired Napoleon's political or military astuteness, but because he believed in freedom, in liberal ideas, in the Promethean hopes that the Revolution inspired among its supporters. He wrote his new symphony because he viewed Napoleon as a genius, a hero for his times, an embodiment of greatness, an inspiration. He intended the Eroica to embody all these qualities.
No more than Byron could Beethoven expel Napoleon from his imaginations. At first glance it might appear that the composer admired the Republican Napoleon, the inheritor of the French Revolution, and despised the imperial Napoleon, emperor and despot. But in fact Beethoven, like Byron, held deeply ambivalent feelings about Napoleon. His enthrallment with Napoleon continued, with tremendous soarings and crashing downturns, until his death in 1827, six years after Napoleon's and three after Byron's.
Beethoven, again like Byron, saw himself in competition with Napoleon. Hearing the news that Napoleon had crushed the vaunted Prussian army at Jena and Auerstädt, two battles fought on the same day, October 14, 1806, Beethoven commented to a friend, “It is a pity I do not understand the art of war as well as I do the art of music. I would conquer him!” (17) Beethoven would prove a worthier antagonist for Napoleon than the Prussian army in 1806. Years later, hearing of allied victories against Napoleon in the Campaign of France in 1814, Beethoven tells another friend, “no doubt you are delighted about all the victories – and about mine also” (18) Beethoven is telling us, in effect, that his musical compositions are his victories, and that they rival in importance victories against Napoleon.
In 1815, the British exiled Napoleon to St. Helena. Three years later, discussing the recently-completed Hammerklavier sonata, the Eroica of the sonatas, Beethoven jokingly referred to himself as “G[eneralissim]o”. (19) And why not? Now that the British had put away Napoleon, wasn't he Europe's most important general? Who could compete with him? Napoleon continued to rule Byron's imagination no less than Beethoven's. 1818, let us remember, was also the year Byron began both Don Juan and his Memoirs: his major efforts to rival the exiled emperor.
A number of creative spirits sought to assume Napoleon's place in the European imagination. In France, Chateaubriand, was the first major contender. He had early projected himself into a lifelong competition with Napoleon, and after the Emperor's exile he sought to rival him in a political career. Failing in that quest for fame, Chateaubriand turned to writing a gigantic autobiography, the Mémoires d'outretombe. Published, as the title indicated after his death in 1848, the Mémoires, set Chateaubriand in competition with Napoleon throughout. “Bonaparte et moi” is a recurrent refrain. In Germany, Beethoven viewed himself as Napoleon's chief successor. What Napoleon had conquered through military might, Beethoven, “Generalissimo” of the post-Napoleonic world, would conquer through music. In Britain, or rather in the contested literary scene that we know today as English Romantic literature, Byron felt that his moment had come. Long in conscious rivalry with the Emperor, he now sought to assume Napoleon's position in the European imagination. And the work in which he attempted to rival, or replace, Napoleon would be his own epic endeavour, his own culminating triumph, Don Juan. (20)
So France has its Revolution, so Germany has its Beethoven symphonies: thus Robert Schumann in 1839. For Schumann, Beethoven stands to German culture as Napoleon stands to French. “With Beethoven” writes Schumann, the German “imagines that he has reversed the fortunes of the battles that he lost to Napoleon”. (21) If at the close of the eighteenth century, Napoleon was waiting in the wings ready to play the role of Ruler of the World, facing him on the other side, just as ready to act out his own destiny as Liberator of Music, was Beethoven. (22)


(1) Beethoven has in mind Handel's chorus from The Messiah, «For unto us a child is born.» Asked who was his favorite composer, « 'Handel' was his immediate reply, ' before him I go on my knees'” (cited in Beethoven: Letters, journals and Conversations, ed. Michael Hamburger [London: Thames and Hudson, 1951], p. 218).
An earlier version of this essay, with more of a focus on Napoleon, was presented on March 16, 2002, at the inauguration of the Napoleonic Collection at DePaul University. I wish to thank here my hosts in Chicago and Kyoto for their generous hospitality.
(2) Edmond Michotte, Richard Wagner's visit to Rossini … (1906; Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1968), p. 54. Telling Wagner in 1860 of his single meeting with Beethovenin 1822, he alludes to the opening words of Hugo's poem « Lui, » published in Les Orientales (1829) : « Toujours lui !  Lui partout ! »
(3) The breaking up of Beethoven's creativity into periods, begun by Anton Schindler and much discussed subsequently, continues to this day. Different commentators assign different lengths of time and different works to Beethoven's Heroic period (sometimes called the Middle period), but the concept of periods (and even the works assigned to them) has changed little since Schindler.
(4) Joseph Kerman and Alan Tyson, The New Grove Beethoven (New York and London : Norton, 1983), p. 105.
(5) Clubb, «Carlyle as Epic Historian,» in Victorian Literature and Society. Essays Presented to Richard D. Altick, ed. James R. Kincaid and Albert J. Kuhn (Columbus : Ohio State UP), p.123.
(6) Hermione de Almeida, Byron and Joyce though Homer. Don Juan and Ulysses (New York : Columbia UP,  1981).
(7) E. J. Hobsbawm, Echoes of the Marseillaise (New Brunswick, N. J. : Rutgers UP, 1990), pp. 3-4.
(8) Plutarch, Beloved by many, exerted major influence on the age. Charlotte Corday, fortified with thoughts of the high deeds recounted by Plutarch, set out for Paris to assassinate Marat.
(9) «What is born in the music is something other and great than the creating mind»: so Wilfred Mellers, « What is Musical Genius ? » in Genius. The History of an Idea, edited by Penelope Murray (Oxford : Basil Blackwell, 1989), p. 170.
(10) The dedication page is reproduced in Maynard Solomon, Beethoven, second, rev. ed. (New York :Schirmer Books, 1998), p. 172.
(11) Solomon, Beethoven, pp. 173-175. « Emperor of the French, » instead of « Emperor of France, » implies that Napoleon became emperor by the will of the people, a distinction ignored or denied by a disillusioned Beethoven.
(12) Ferdinand Ries, in Beethoven Remembered. The Biographical Notes of Franz. Wegeler and Ferdinand Ries (Arlington, Virginia : Great Ocean Publishers, 1987), p.68. The English text varies with the translation. Thayer has it, « Is he then, too, nothing more than an ordinary human being ? » (Thayer's life of Beethoven, ed. Elliot Forbes, 2 vols., rev. Ed. [Princeton : Princeton UP, 1967] 1 : 349). Beethoven's dismay upon hearing the news that Napoleon that been declared Emperor was not unusual. Liberals everywhere considered that Napoleon had subordinated principle to personal ambition. Byron, at least in retrospect, termed Napoleon's assumption of the purple in The Age of Bronze (1823) his « single step into the wrong » (line 235 : Completed Poetical Works of Lord Byron, edited by Jerome J. McGann, 7 vols. (Oxford : Clarendon, 1980-1993) 7 :8).
(13) On St. Helena the British in charge of Napoleon were under orders to refer to him as « General Bonaparte. »
(14) Jonathan Kramer, Listen to the Music, (New York: Schirmer Books, 1988), p. 85
(15) Cited in Basil Lam, "The Classical Symphony: Haydn-Mozart-Beethoven," in Of German Music: A Symposium, ed. Hans-Hubert Schönzeler (London: Oswald Wolff, 1976), p. 116
(16) Ibid.
(17) Thayer's life of Beethoven, 1: 403
(18) The Letters of Beethoven, ed. Emily Anderson, 3 vols. (New York: St Martin's Press, 1961) 1: 445. But the tide turned, momentarily at least. The next week, Byron in London rejoiced in Napoleon's victories - which he regarded as his own (Byron's Letters and Journals, ed. Leslie A. Marchand, 12 vols. [London: John Murray, 1973-1982] 3: 243, 246; Feb. 18, 27, 1814). Herafter BLJ.
(19) Letters of Beethoven, ed. Anderson, 2: 654 and elsewhere. Beethoven invented a complicated military joke that runs through several letters in which he signed his letters G[-]o and gave his friends military titles - Haslinger was the adjutant, Steiner the General Lieutenant. Ducats, a form of currency, were "men in strong armour". Beethoven, "general of all generals", was in clear command.
(20) See my "Napoleon's Last Campaign and the Origins of Don Juan", in Byron Journal, 25 (1997), 12-22, reprinted with slight modifications in Byronic Negotiations, ed. Katrina Bachinger (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2002), pp. 90-105.
(21) Robert Schumann, On Music and Musicians, ed. Konrad Wolff, trans. Paul Rosenfeld (1946: New York: LMcGraw-Hill, 1964), p. 64.
(22) I draw this image from Antony Hopkins, The Nine Symphonies of Beethoven (London: Heinemann, 1981), p. 9. Thanks to Beethoven's music, the German nation could turn the tables on the superficially "enlightened" French and accomplish on the cultural plane a more sweeping, more effective conquest than ever dreamed of by Napoleon.
Share it