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date: 26 November 2020

Beethoven, Napoleon, and Political Romanticism

Abstract and Keywords

This article discusses the influence of Napoleon on the works of Beethoven. It begins by describing how the conflict between Napoleon and the Austrians interrupted Beethoven's career as a composer. It then examines the role Napoleon had in Beethoven's political and philosophical outlook. This is followed by a study of the Landsberg 5, one of the compositions Beethoven was working on during Napoleon's invasion. The article introduces the concept of political romanticism and shows that Napoleon's meteoric rise served as an inspiration and a threat to Beethoven's musical career.

Keywords: Beethoven, Napoleon, political outlook, philosophical outlook, Landsberg 5, political romanticism, inspiration

On March 4, 1809, Beethoven wrote to his principal publisher at the time, Breitkopf and Härtel of Leipzig, to settle some final details about the publication of the sixth and seventh symphonies and the Piano-cello Sonata, op. 69. He also mentioned the possibility of a visit to Leipzig in the near future, provided, he said, that the “present threatening storm clouds do not gather.”1

The storm clouds worrying Beethoven contained the threat of renewed war with France. The French Empire under Napoleon was approaching its broadest reach, encompassing most of the Italian and Spanish peninsulas, the Low Countries, and the German states between the Rhine and the Elbe.2 Napoleon's relatives now ruled great stretches of these lands: He had given the newly created kingdom of Westphalia to his youngest brother, Jérôme; the kingdom of Spain went to his eldest brother, Joseph, and the kingdom of Naples to a brother-in-law, Joachim Murat. But now, in the spring of 1809, as Napoleon's attention was distracted by a revolt in Spain, it seemed to the Austrians, under their rather hapless Habsburg emperor Franz I, a propitious moment to attack their old enemy, the one who had inflicted defeat and humiliation on Austria in 1797, 1800, and 1805.3 On April 9 Beethoven's storm clouds became a reality: Austria declared war on France, and, under the somewhat reluctant Generalissimus Archduke Carl its army marched against French troops and their German allies to the west in Bavaria.4

After losing a terrible battle at Ebelsberg, some ninety miles west of Vienna, the Austrians contented themselves with a more or less orderly retreat, which was to lead inevitably to the gates of the Imperial city. On May 4, the day after the defeat at (p. 485) Ebelsberg, with the French forces still about eighty miles distant, the imperial family at Vienna saw the handwriting on the wall, packed their bags (just as they had done upon the French invasion of 1805), and repaired to safer places to the east. Their entourage was heavy laden with valuables such as jewelry and art collections, and—bitter memories of 1805 still fresh in their minds—they carried with them the plates used for printing Viennese currency.

Among these highly placed refugees was the twenty-year-old Archduke Rudolph, brother of the emperor and Beethoven's most valued patron, recently become his student. At this time, it is clear, Beethoven had done extensive work on the first movement of the Lebewohl Piano Sonata op. 81a in E-flat. Now, on the very day of the archduke's departure, as something of an afterthought, it seems, he sketched the beginning of the Adagio introduction and added a dated dedication and farewell to the archduke, thus uniting the sonata with its famous program.5

Just one month and a day after the Austrian declaration of war, Napoleon slept in the Austrian imperial palace at Schönbrunn, just outside the city walls of Vienna. He demanded surrender of the city on May 11 and spent that day positioning his artillery, concentrating the principal breeching batteries on the southwestern point near the Kärntner Tor, a position once occupied by the Turks in the great siege of 1683. Having received no reply from inside the city, at 9 o'clock in the evening Napoleon ordered the bombardment to begin. (Residents complained that the attack occurred just as the coffeehouses had closed for the evening, so that many people were caught defenseless in the streets.) According to an official report, twenty civilians were killed, thirty-one buildings destroyed by fire, and sixty-six damaged.6

Beethoven had recently moved into an apartment in the Walfischgasse, literally a stone's throw from the principal French gun emplacements. According to the well-known account of his student Ferdinand Ries, Beethoven fled to the apartment of his brother Caspar Carl (with whom he was often—and currently—on the outs). Caspar Carl lived in the Rauhensteingasse, just south of Saint Stephen's and considerably farther from the French guns; here Beethoven sought shelter in the cellar, using pillows to shield his sensitive ears from the explosions.

The principal Austrian forces had retreated to the north and east, hoping to meet the French on open ground more favorable to the Austrians’ tactical specialties. This left the defense of the city in the hands of a small garrison of local troops augmented by armed civilian volunteers, the Studentencorps (among them the young Franz Grillparzer) and the Künstlercorps (who, it was said, carried weapons taken from the property rooms of the theaters). The day after the bombardment saw these ill-assorted defenders in full retreat across the Danube to the north. Napoleon's soldiers accordingly entered Vienna and, accustomed to living off the land, engaged in widespread looting. A drummer in the French army recalled that their strongholds in the city resembled a “street fair,” where the soldiers displayed their pillaged merchandise.7 Still, though there was no formal capitulation, the habits of eighteenth-century warfare prevailed, and a semblance of normality was quickly restored. By the evening of May 13, two days after the bombardment, there (p. 486) were performances in some theaters—with French soldiers joining the Viennese audiences—and the coffeehouses were again crowded with customers.

Meanwhile, Napoleon's forces occupied the Danube island of Lobau, from which they launched an offensive against Austrian troops on the far side of the river. A series of horrific encounters culminated in the battle at Wagram, which sent the Austrians in full retreat northward to Bohemia. There, on July 11, an armistice was signed in the village of Znaim. So, just as in all their previous encounters with Napoleon—in 1797, 1800, and 1805—the Austrians suffered total defeat. The battle at Wagram is reckoned by military historians to have been the biggest and costliest in human life since the invention of gunpowder. The two sides suffered about sixty thousand dead, and for many months the hospitals in Vienna were filled to overflowing with the wounded.8 Military ceremonies and parades put on by the French, intended to reconcile the Viennese to their new situation, got a chilly reception; citizens, it was said, did not bother to look out their windows to view the fireworks displays the French provided for their benefit.

What were Beethoven's reactions to these momentous events? How did they impinge upon his career as a composer? And what role did the overwhelming presence of Napoleon and his conquests play in the composer's political and philosophical outlook? Like most residents of Vienna, Beethoven was of course much distressed by the events of 1809. (Among the others were Joseph Haydn, who died there in the midst of the tumult on May 31; Muzio Clementi, who had come to Vienna on business, only to be trapped there by the war; and the twelve-year-old Franz Schubert, newly enrolled at the Kaiserlich-Königliches Stadtkonvict when a French shell came through the roof of the school). On July 26, two weeks after the signing of the armistice, Beethoven wrote the following to Breitkopf and Härtel:

During this time we have been suffering concentrated misery. Let me tell you that since May 4th I have produced very little coherent work …The basis for my livelihood, recently established, rests on shaky foundations. Even in this short time the promises made to me have not been entirely fulfilled. From Prince Kinsky, one of my patrons, I have not received a penny—and this at a time when one needs it most …What a destructive, desolate life I see around me, nothing but drums and cannons and human suffering of every sort.9

The “basis for his livelihood,” to which Beethoven refers, was a contract made the previous February with three of his patrons, the Princes Lobkowitz and Kinsky and the Archduke Rudolph, whereby Beethoven was granted an annual annuity of four thousand florins simply to continue living and working in Vienna. This singular arrangement was itself a by-product of those tumultuous Napoleonic times: The youngest Bonaparte brother, Jérôme, now ruler of the hastily assembled kingdom of Westphalia, centered in Kassel, had offered Beethoven the position of Kapellmeister, and in January 1809 Beethoven (with what degree of sincerity is not clear) announced his decision to accept.10 His hand was stayed, apparently, only at the last moment by this extraordinary offer. Thus Beethoven had a very particular reason to regret the departure of the archduke on May 4, memorialized in the Lebewohl Sonata, for with (p. 487) him went the composer's best hope of collecting his annuity. Kinsky had already left for Prague in February without, as Beethoven complained, leaving him a penny; Kinsky fell off his horse to his death the following year, still without having paid. Lobkowitz, after making one payment, had departed in March; soon thereafter his gambling addiction plunged him into bankruptcy.

During this troubling spring Beethoven was working in Landsberg 5, one of a large number of sketchbooks now located at the Staatsbibliothek Preußischer Kulturbesitz in Berlin. Beethoven used this book for approximately the first eight months of 1809. Its first large section (i.e., of the volume in its original form) is devoted almost exclusively to sketches for the second and third movements of the Fifth Piano Concerto and the first movement of the Lebewohl Sonata. All this work seems in every way systematic and purposeful; the music takes shape approximately in the order it will finally assume, and work on individual sections usually continues until they have attained something like final form.11 The sketches for the first movement of op. 81a proceed apace on pages 42–45, with the opening Adagio and verbal drafts for the dedication to the archduke coming last—suggesting, as has been mentioned, that this sonata was well under way before it came to memorialize Rudolph's journey.12

But then comes a remarkable change. For the next two dozen pages or so, the entries become miscellaneous and scrappy. There are apparent beginnings for piano sonatas; there are keyboard exercises and fleeting sketches of pieces whose genre must remain in doubt. And there are passages copied from Fux, Mizler, Kirnberger, and Albrechtsberger, perhaps with an eye to resumed lessons for the archduke. But there are virtually no sketches for pieces that Beethoven ever finished. One exception is the beginning of an overture in E-flat that eventually became (now in C major) the Namensfeier overture of 1815.) These pages offer a vivid corroboration of Beethoven's complaint that after May 4—that is, the day of the archduke's departure and the writing of the dedication of op. 81a—he was unable to do sustained work. It was only in late summer that Beethoven seems to have recovered his bearings: After two false starts with ideas for piano concertos in A minor and D minor, he got to work on the String Quartet, op. 74, the third big piece in E-flat of that year, finishing it in the fall.

Landsberg 5 shows signs of an intersection of things political with Beethoven's work as a composer preceding the invasion. Early in March of 1809, before the declaration of war, when he was hard at work on the third movement of the Fifth Piano Concerto, Beethoven paused to make rather extensive sketches for a vocal composition closely bound up with the political climate of the city. (The draft of an angry letter on page 19 of the manuscript to the Countess Erdödy, with whom he was having a quarrel about a servant, allows us to be reasonably sure of the date.13)

That early spring in Vienna was a time of near-hysterical patriotic fervor as the government of Franz I took measures to whip up enthusiasm for renewed war against Napoleon. Franz I and Empress Maria Ludovica led parades on horseback to the wild plaudits of huge crowds. The poet Karoline Pichler mentions in her memoirs an event in the Redoutensaal of the Hofburg on Easter Sunday, at which a chorus of thousands sang military songs with texts by Heinrich von Collin and music by Joseph Weigl.14

(p. 488) Beethoven moved to make his own contribution to the festivities. The vocal composition for which he interrupted his work on the Fifth Piano Concerto in early March was a setting of one of those Wehrmannslieder of Heinrich von Collin (the author of the heroic drama Coriolan, for which Beethoven had composed an overture two years previously). The poem in question is a set of dismal patriotic verses titled “Österreich über alles.”15 The first stanza, the only one for which Beethoven supplied music, goes like this:

Wenn es nur will,

If only it has the will,

Ist immer Österreich über alles!

Austria is always above all else!

Wehrmänner ruft nun frohen Schalles:

Soldiers now raise the joyful shout:

Es will, es will!

It has the will, it has!

Hoch Österreich!

Here's to Austria!

 Beethoven, Napoleon, and Political Romanticism

Example 19.1. From GdM

In Landsberg 5 the first nine staves of page 19 are filled with sketches for this composition. Moreover, a new source has recently come to light, a separate leaf formerly unavailable in private hands, acquired by the library of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, Vienna, in 1993. This leaf is entirely filled with further sketches for “Österreich über alles”; example 1 is my transcription of the first five staves.

(p. 489) Both sources show the beginnings of a composition for several voices, with much singing in a high register. The voices were to be accompanied by instruments; cues for violins and flutes suggest that an orchestra was to be involved. Both sources show mainly a beginning: All the words Beethoven scribbled down come from the poem's first stanza, and both sources seem to indicate a stanza in D major followed by an instrumental interlude moving in the flat direction, perhaps to B-flat or, particularly in the Landsberg sketches, to C minor. While we have no way of knowing just what was to follow, some pattern of strophic variation that Beethoven came to favor in later years seems a likely candidate.

But it came to naught. We cannot be sure why Beethoven abandoned this project (and we might differ about how much we regret the loss). Perhaps the composition became superfluous when the Austrian defeats in Bavaria turned patriotic fervor to despair, or perhaps other factors, such as withdrawal of a commission, may have discouraged performance of this distinctly occasional music. But a larger question is this: Why did he set about to compose this poem—this breathless paean to the glory of Austria and its hoped-for defeat of Napoleon—in the first place? Only two months earlier Beethoven had said he was about to enter the service of a Bonaparte at Kassel. Five years previously he had proposed to dedicate the Eroica Symphony to Napoleon (or simply to name it for him). Upon hearing that Napoleon had himself declared emperor, according to Ries's famous report, he removed that name from the score with an iconic exclamation of disillusionment about the liberator-turned-dictator (“Now he will trample all human rights under foot and only pander to his own ambitions; he will place himself above everyone else and become a tyrant!”16). A copy of the score from a couple of months later shows the erased name of Bonaparte but also the name reinstated in Beethoven's hand; in a letter from the same time Beethoven wrote to Breitkopf and Härtel that “the name of the symphony is really Bonaparte.”17 Moreover, as late as 1810 he apparently considered dedicating his C-major Mass to the French emperor.18

On the other hand, Beethoven had set Austrian patriotic military poems as early as 1796 and 1797 during campaigns against Napoleon on the Italian peninsula; in 1802, angry at Bonaparte's recently concluded concordat with the pope, he scoffed at the publisher Hoffmeister's invitation to celebrate the French revolution and Napoleon with a sonata.19 Then, in 1813 he joined in the general jubilation over Napoleon's defeat at Victoria with his noisy Battle Symphony, Wellingtons Sieg. How are we to explain this mass of contradictions in Beethoven's view of the most momentous events of his adult life?

Beethoven was hardly alone among Europeans in being unable to make up his mind about Napoleon, his conquests, and what this had to do with the principles underlying the French Revolution. People of a generally liberal persuasion throughout the continent had contradictory feelings about the matter. Was Napoleon a liberator bearing gifts of equality and freedom born of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, or was he an imperialist pure and simple, bent only upon brute conquest and dynastic power? In The Prelude Wordsworth remembered his first impressions of the revolution in these famous lines: (p. 490)

  • Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
  • But to be young was very heaven!

Under Napoleon, he lamented,

  • But now, become oppressors in their turn,
  • Frenchmen had changed a war of self-defence
  • For one of conquest, losing sight of all
  • Which they had struggled for …20

Franz Grillparzer recalled that, even as an eighteen-year-old taking part in the futile defense of Vienna's walls in 1809, he was of two minds about Napoleon: “I felt no less enmity toward the French than my father. But nonetheless, Napoleon attracted me with a magical force …I still see him, hands folded behind his back, standing there like iron, overseeing his passing troops with the impassive gaze of the master …He enchanted me as a snake does a bird.21

Napoleon offered all of Europe an inviting symbol for heroism, for the larger-than-life, self-made person at the center of world events who, in the initial view of many, set about to sweep away age-old injustices—a vision that seemed especially alluring to the young, the young Beethoven not excepted. But of course, there was also no denying the destruction and misery that Napoleonic imperialism eventually visited upon the continent, a misery Beethoven experienced repeatedly in person. The composer's shifting reactions to the phenomenon of Napoleon seem to resemble Grillparzer's more than Wordsworth's: He shows not enthusiasm followed by disillusion but a perplexing mixture of the two.

Many writers on Beethoven have struggled with the hero-despot polarity in the composer's reaction to Napoleon and its relation to the larger pattern of his social and political views. Certain patterns—something approaching a majority opinion—emerge in what they have concluded. Adolph Bernhard Marx declared in 1875, “For Beethoven, Napoleon was the hero, who, like any other of these world-shaking heroes—whether named Alexander, Dionysus, or Napoleon—embraces the world with his Idea and his will.”22 Similarly Paul Bekker saw Napoleon as a generalized symbol of the heroic for the younger Beethoven: “Had Beethoven been born a few decades earlier, he would perhaps have seized upon a historical model, like Goethe in Götz [von Berchlingen], or an imagined social construct such as Schiller's Räuber.”23 According to Arnold Schmitz, Beethoven saw the General and Consul Napoleon as an ideal embodiment of heroism quite separate from the real-life political figure. Carl Dahlhaus has called attention to a persistent conflict of loyalties for Beethoven, never resolved, between his persistent republicanism—which early on he associated with France and Napoleon, and later with the freedoms of the English—and his patriotism for Austria: “The decisive factor in the former was idealistic, and in the latter it was pragmatic.”24

After a meticulous recounting of Beethoven's recorded references to Napoleon and their puzzling contradictions, Maynard Solomon offers an assessment with a Freudian coloration: (p. 491)

Striving to free himself from his lifelong pattern of submission to authority figures, Beethoven was drawn to the conqueror who had confounded the venerable leaders of Europe and set himself in their place. If homage is on the surface, the underlying themes are patricide and fratricide, mingled with the survivor's sense of triumph.25

More recently, Louis Lockwood writes that “Beethoven's lifelong attitude toward Napoleon oscillated between admiration and dislike, between approval and revulsion.” Furthermore, the proposed dedication of the Eroica to Napoleon, as he suggests, may be seen in the light of Beethoven's long-standing (and probably unrealistic) hope for an appointment in Paris, “reflecting his characteristic way of blending personal idealism with practical calculation.”26

Thus, many of those who have given thought to the matter have concluded that Napoleon existed in two different spheres or on two different levels—variously construed—in the composer's thought. He was a hero in the abstract, a role that other historical figures could have filled equally well, as opposed to that real-life, increasingly despotic conqueror. The hero, existing only in an ideal realm, was tied to Beethoven's liberal, republican—or, in Schmitz's formulation, Josephine—political instincts; the real-life conqueror of Austria who made Beethoven's life miserable was quite a different matter. Yet another factor, quite straightforward and removed from political ideals of any kind, surely played a role in Beethoven's ambivalence. In Vienna of 1809, simple prudence would urge disapproval of the wrecker of the city's peace and prosperity. Still, as Lockwood points out, even at that time the composer could also imagine certain pragmatic advantages in aligning himself with the French. Partly by instinct and partly by calculation, Beethoven remained ambivalent.

Stephen Rumph's Beethoven after Napoleon: Political Romanticism in the Late Works (2004) urges a very different view of this matter, one with far-reaching implications not only for Beethoven's social or political views, but also for the very nature of his later music. Because Rumph's position differs vividly from the usual ones and comes decked out in an imposing panoply of historical and philosophical references, it may be useful to consider it in some detail. His basic argument goes something like this: In his earlier years Beethoven had subscribed enthusiastically to enlightenment-like, Josephine views of politics and culture, views dominated by the new critical philosophy of Kant, which he had learned about as a young man in intellectual circles in Bonn. To those of such a persuasion, the Napoleonic reordering of Europe seemed, at least potentially, to offer the promise of a better future. At this time, according to Rumph, Beethoven became a “cosmopolitan composer writing heroic works with a distinctly French flavor.”27

The composer's later career saw him at the opposite extreme, Rumph says, as a supporter of the reactionary politics of the Restoration and the Metternich system, in sympathy with the conservative, German nationalist, mystical/religious outlook of “political romanticism” as espoused by Adam Müller, Zacarias Werner, and the Schlegel brothers, and supported, according to Rumph, by a very large further cast of characters, including Fichte, Kleist, and even E. T. A. Hoffmann.28 These people, (p. 492) he says, not only deplored the French Revolution and Napoleon's upending of Europe but also opposed every stripe of enlightened liberalism or contractual theories of government—particularly anything associated with either modernity or with the French. Beethoven's sympathies turned in this direction, and he became “a patriotic German writing propaganda pieces against Napoleon.”29

Rumph's central argument shuttles smoothly between two hypotheses: First, Beethoven had become something of a political and religious conservative, and, second, this new ideological perspective provides a key to our understanding of the later works. To support his first hypothesis Rumph gives us rather a full exposition of “political romanticism” but cites almost nothing from Beethoven's own words—a commodity we have in great abundance in the years after 1809—to align the composer with this movement. Instead, he supports his thesis almost exclusively with appeals to (and interpretations of) the texts Beethoven set to music and—in something of an inversion of his second hypothesis—to characteristics of the music itself. Moving in a near-perfect circle, the ideas explain the music, and the music reveals the ideas.

During the year 1809, says Rumph, “Beethoven pioneered virtually every important element that would go into creating his late style.”30 These elements of style—each of them, he says, consonant with Beethoven's emerging conservative ideology—are historicism, counterpoint, lyricism, and written-out cadenzas. In respect to the first two, historicism and counterpoint, yes, it is true that Beethoven at this time began to show a heightened interest in historical models: He asked Breitkopf and Härtel to send him earlier music ranging from J. S. Bach to Haydn for informal performance and study, and, as we have seen, he copied passages from earlier contrapuntal treatises into Landsberg 5.31 In the coming years, contrapuntal and fugal writing were to become a prominent feature of the late music.

But does this have anything to do with political or religious conservatism? In the early 1780s Mozart, too, became fascinated with the music of Bach and Handel: A new obsession with fugue in these years seems to have exerted a lasting influence upon his style. Muzio Clementi did much the same at about the same time. And the finales of Haydn's String Quartets op. 20 from a decade earlier seem to reflect a similar impulse. All three of these composers turned to older music for stylistic enrichment at particular points in their careers, and few of us would argue that they were moved by a burst of political or religious conservatism. Rumph gives us no reason to think Beethoven's case is any different.32

Rumph speaks of a pervasive lyricism in much of Beethoven's music after 1809, giving us along the way some sensitive commentary on the Harp Quartet, op. 74. This lyricism, he says, “offered Beethoven a way beyond the monumental style of French neoclassicism”—as if that is all the preceding years had to offer. How is this lyricism different in substance and significance from the lyrical music he composed during the so-called heroic period: in the first movements, say, of the Piano Sonata op. 28, the Fourth Piano Concerto, and the Violin Concerto? Moreover, what does this, in any case, have to do with conservative politics or religion? The only reasonably explicit connection Rumph offers points to the program for the Lebewohl Sonata: “[T]he homecoming of the archduke, forced into exile by Napoleon, can be (p. 493) understood as the restoration of legitimate power to Austria.”33 Yet the finale of the sonata, marked vivacissamente, is surely anything but lyrical. Furthermore, there were more compelling reasons than political ones for Beethoven to welcome the archduke—his meal ticket—back to the city.

In 1809 Beethoven wrote out cadenzas for his Fifth Piano Concerto and provided cadenzas for all his earlier concertos as well. This, Rumph says, shows the composer's interest in “control” and—in a dizzying conceptual leap—suggests that Beethoven also favored governmental and societal control. It would be more plausible, surely, to explain the written-out cadenzas of the Emperor Concerto in 1809 by observing that this was the year in which Beethoven stopped playing his concertos in public, thus depriving himself of his usual way of showing audiences how the cadenzas should go. It is very likely that he wrote out the other cadenzas for the use of his student, the archduke, feeling perhaps that it was he (rather than the entire citizenry of Austria) who needed controlling.

It is probably for good reason that Beethoven's own words play so small a role in Rumph's argument about Beethoven's politics: In the extant sources—the letters, the Tagebuch of 1812–1818, and the conversation books (beginning in 1818)—Beethoven scarcely ventures a single clear political opinion. Telling evidence of a certain political indifference, surely, is this: In the two-thousand-odd extant Beethoven letters dated after 1809 there is not a single reference to Prince Metternich, the principal architect and guide of the restoration state—an omission hardly attributable to the silence of discretion if the composer in fact approved of Metternich's political order. The letters contain, here and there, vague political insinuations, always in an ironic mode. An example is the mildly manic letter of April 1815 to Johann Nepomuk Kanka in Prague. It was written during “the hundred days,” in which Napoleon escaped from his exile on the island of Elba, landed on the French Mediterranean coast, gathered a following within the French army, and retook Paris without resistance as Louis XVIII (on the throne for less than a year) fled to Belgium. Beethoven asked Kanka, “So how could I serve you with my art? Tell me, would you have the soliloquy of a fled king sung for you, or perhaps the perjured oath of a usurper?”34

Since Beethoven normally spoke his side of the exchanges recorded in the conversation books, they offer little direct evidence of his political sympathies. Still, it is fair to note, Beethoven's interlocutors in the conversation books have much to say about things political. His intimate friend, the librettist and editor Karl Joseph Bernard, for example, wrote the following in January of 1820:

If Napoleon should return now, he could expect a much better reception in Europe. He understood the Zeitgeist and knew how to take charge. Our descendents will value him more than we did. As a German I was his biggest enemy, but these times have reconciled me …The children of the Revolution demanded such an iron personality. Everywhere he overthrew the feudal system and defended justice and law.

In April of the same year he added, “All of Europe has gone to the dogs. We should hire Napoleon for ten years. Germany has to support 38 courts and about a million (p. 494) princes and princesses.”35 We may perhaps detect Bernard's influence in Beethoven's own cryptic remark from some four years later, as reported by Czerny: “In 1824 I went on one occasion with Beethoven to a coffeehouse in Baden. There were several newspapers on the table. In one of them I read an announcement of Walter Scott's biography of Napoleon. ‘Napoleon,’ he said. ‘I could not tolerate him before. Now I think quite differently.’ ”36 Now that Europe's redesigner was safely isolated on the far-away island of Saint Helena, Beethoven seemingly found it easier to focus on the abstract Napoleon, the common man again become hero of common humankind.

The other central feature of “political romanticism” was its religious component: a renewed fealty to traditional Catholicism, especially its more mystical side, colored with a nostalgia for the solidity and centrality of the church in the Middle Ages. Arnold Schmitz gives us a useful account of the religious climate Beethoven found in early nineteenth-century Vienna. A loose “Catholic enlightenment” prevailed that in varying ways mingled elements of traditional Christianity with prevailing currents of rationalism—a rapprochement in vogue since the time of Joseph II. Even churchmen saw religion more as a set of moral principles than established dogma; guides to human thought and behavior could include Plato, Socrates, and Hippocrates, as well as the Holy Scriptures; human reason was generally to be trusted as a guide to understanding the world about us. This was a time when the secular religion of Freemasonry, though prohibited by the government of Emperor Franz II for its liberal politics, continued to flourish underground.37

In 1808 one Clemens M. Hofbauer arrived in Vienna and organized a campaign through his order, the Redemptorists, also known as Liguorians, to rescue traditional religious belief and practice from the pollution of fashionable secular rationalism. Though not himself of a literary turn of mind, he quickly attracted a circle of like-minded younger Viennese writers. Most prominent of these was the poet Zacharias Werner from Königsberg, a former Freemason who converted to Catholicism in 1810, entered the priesthood, and, beginning about 1814, attracted large crowds with his preaching. Werner was joined by another recent convert, Friedrich Schlegel, who at the turn of the century in Jena had been a leader in formulating the distinctly secular German variety of early romantic literary doctrine. After converting to Catholicism in 1808, he settled in Vienna and dedicated himself to a mystical and medievalist strain of religious belief.

At the same time Schlegel embraced a conservative political activism that included service in the Vienna chancellery in 1809. From a distance in Dresden, Adam Müller, who served in the Austrian diplomatic service, articulated the political component of “political romanticism” in a series of lectures in 1808 and 1809, published as Die Elemente der Staatskunst.38 Here he argued for an “organic unity” of society and state that would take precedence over any individual interests and rejected Adam Smith's materialist notion of national wealth in favor of a somewhat diffuse idea of “spiritual capital.”

What, then, did Beethoven and his circle think of this politico-religious movement? In 1813 and 1814 Beethoven seems to have composed a patriotic Kriegslied text (p. 495) by Werner, for which the music is lost.39 Furthermore, among the dozens of opera librettos he considered over the years was apparently a “romantic, Indian” text of Friedrich Schlegel's.40 But the many references to the “political romantics” scattered through the conversation books are uniformly ironic and derisive. In late December 1819, Bernard remarked that “Schlegel does nothing but eat, drink, and read the Bible.” Three months later, Joseph Blöchinger, head of the school to which Beethoven entrusted his nephew Carl, reported, “Father Hofbauer is dead. The leader of this new papal sect, the so-called Liguorians, he was a miserable fanatic dogmatist who referred to Adam Müller as the greatest of theologians.” And with high-spirited sarcasm Beethoven himself wrote to Tobias Haslinger in a letter of 1821, “Sing the Epistles of St. Paul every day, and on Sundays go to Father Werner, who will show you a little book that will send you straight to heaven.”41

If Beethoven disdained Werner's brand of mystical Catholicism, in times of stress he was often given to expressions of religious sentiment—to fragmentary and strikingly diverse thoughts about God and the human condition that veered from classical stoicism to various Eastern mysticisms, with hints of modern varieties of Deism and pantheism. In his essay “The Quest for Faith” Maynard Solomon provides an able summary of the tortuous course of Beethoven's religious musings. During the onset of his deafness, around the turn of the century, and especially during the unsettled and musically unproductive years of the Tagebuch (1812–1818), Beethoven sometimes appealed to (or cursed) a personal deity, urged upon himself stoic resignation learned from Plutarch, and yearned after the ascetic withdrawal of Vedic Hinduism; nevertheless, he entered into his diary the occasional encomium to reason, such as “The frailties of nature are given by nature herself and sovereign Reason shall seek to guide and diminish them through her strength.”42

During this period he read and thickly annotated his copy of the inspirational essays of the Lutheran pastor Christian Sturm, one for every day of the year, collected under the title Betrachtungen über die Werke Gottes im Reiche der Natur.43 Sturm (who saw no frailties whatever in nature) marveled at the intricacy and order of the natural world, “the starry sky, the earth enameled with flowers, the melodious songs of the birds, the various landscapes and prospects, every one delightful.” While we may detect a certain pantheistic tinge in some of Sturm's exultations, in the end he urges an orthodox theist response to natural wonders: We should “study the book of nature continually; to learn in it the truths which may remind us of the immense greatness of the Creator.”44 In a similar vein Beethoven wrote on a sketch leaf in 1815, “Almighty in the forest. I am happy, blissful in the forest: every tree speaks through you O God! What splendor: In such a woodland scene, on the heights there is calm, calm in which to serve Him.”45

Beethoven's own words, in short, reveal no consistent set of political or religious beliefs. Like many Europeans he vacillated in his estimate of Napoleon and said almost nothing specific, so far as we know, on any other political subject. And in post-Enlightenment Europe he was hardly alone in his restless search for and periodic interest in alternatives to institutional Christian faith—to which, at times, he was also apparently drawn. The texts Beethoven chose to set—particularly when (p. 496) there was no commission involved—often seem to reflect his current enthusiasms, and there is no reason to doubt his sincere interest in a particular text at any given moment. His patriotic songs of 1796–1797 and Österreich über alles of 1809 probably record a surge of genuine enthusiasm for Austrian resistance to the real-life Napoleon (as opposed to that other, idealized Napoleon to whom he had proposed to dedicate the Eroica). The two monumental works into which Beethoven nearly simultaneously poured his immense creative energies in the early 1820s, the Missa solemnis and the Ninth Symphony, embraced the central liturgical act of institutional Christianity—as well as that peculiar mix of secular Josephine Enlightenment, Deism, and egalitarianism (with Masonic overtones) he had absorbed during his youth in Bonn and now revisited in the young Schiller's rather giddy poem. Beethoven apparently saw no contradiction; religious thought for him was a malleable thing, none of whose particular forms excluded the others.

Nonetheless, one principle Beethoven held to consistently: In his responses to the stirring events in the world around him and in the (very closely related) conduct of his professional life, he could be counted upon to act with a good bit of straightforward rational self-interest. That early enthusiasm for Napoleon, as has been suggested, was surely related to Beethoven's persistent thoughts during that period about making his career in France. A preoccupation with things French began shortly after 1800. In a curious remark to Franz Anton Hoffmeister in January 1801, Beethoven made a (for him) surprising suggestion: There ought to be a Magazin der Kunst to which “the artist need only bring his artworks to take what he needed.” As Solomon has suggested, this apparently shows Beethoven's sudden attraction to current French utopian and socialist views.46 When Cherubini, a major figure in Parisian musical circles, presented his postrevolutionary operas in Vienna in 1802–1803, Beethoven, little given to praising other composers’ work, joined in the city's enthusiastic response (he later told Cherubini that he “valued his operas above all others”).47 In 1804 he abandoned work on Schikaneder's libretto Vestas Feuer in favor of the very French “rescue opera” Leonora; in the midst of work on that opera the following year, he took time to compose the Triple Concerto, op. 56, a work whose generic affiliations with the popular French symphonie concertante seem rather clear.48

In that letter of 1800 to the publisher Hoffmeister, Beethoven makes a veiled reference—veiled because of the delicate political situation in Vienna—to a projected trip (or move) to Paris: While sending him his Piano Concerto, op. 19, he is holding back his better concertos, he says, until “I myself have made a trip.” In autumn 1803 two letters from Beethoven's student Ferdinand Ries to Nikolaus Simrock in Bonn are much more explicit: “Beethoven will remain here at the most 1½ years. Then he will go to Paris, which makes me extremely sorry,” and “Beethoven is to receive the libretto for his opera soon. After that he plans to leave.”49

A couple of months later Ries reported that Beethoven wished to postpone publication of the Eroica, with its (at that time) clear Napoleonic connections, to “reserve it for his trip.” Early the following year, in a letter to Joseph Sonnleithner, at the time busy translating Leonore for him, Beethoven wrote, “I have received another (p. 497) letter about my journey, and this one has made my decision to travel irrevocable.”50 The dedication, at this time, of the Sonata for Piano and Violin, op. 47, to the Parisian violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer (whom Beethoven had met only once, years earlier) surely reflects an interest in cultivating contacts in the French capital. Beethoven's thoughts about France and things French, including France's first consul (later emperor), seem to have been inextricably intertwined with his own prospects for a life and career in Paris.

For that other proposed move, the one to Kassel in 1809, the lines between ideology and practicality are even more sharply drawn. Napoleon had projected the Kingdom of Westphalia, with his brother Jérôme at the helm, as the very model of the new world order: “[E]very trace of serfdom, or of a feudal hierarchy between the sovereign and the lowest class of his subjects, shall be done away with.”51 In the letter to Breitkopf and Härtel wherein Beethoven announced his intention of accepting Jérôme's appointment, he says nothing about any ideological virtues of the new regime in Kassel; he speaks only of a prospective freedom to do his work and—of perhaps equal importance—the honor to be accorded him as an artist.52 We cannot be sure whether Beethoven ever really intended to make this risky move, but the threat was sufficient to move his Viennese patrons to action; the annuity agreement of March 1809 ensured that Beethoven would remain in the city with a comfortable yearly income.

The wording of the agreement included a hope that Beethoven's benefactors might one day be relieved of their obligation: The annuity was to be paid “until he receives an appointment that pays him the equivalent of the above-mentioned sum.”53 Beethoven assumed, rightly, no doubt, that this obscure talk had to do with an appointment at the Vienna imperial court. In a letter to his friend Ignaz von Gleichenstein he offered a clarification: “As to the Imperial Services, well, I think the point must be dealt with tactfully—and certainly not so as to suggest that I am asking for the title of Imperial Kapellmeister …I think that this point might be best expressed by saying that it is my most ardent desire to enter the service of the Emperor.”54 Beethoven, of course, referred to that other emperor, the unfortunate Franz I of Austria. So in the early months of 1809 Beethoven proposed first to attach himself to the emerging Napoleonic new order and then to the tottering remains of the old. The overriding issue here was the promotion of his career and his own material welfare.

Beethoven was a master of survival in a world of dizzying change. He was able to negotiate the contradictions of an artist's life played out in the new musical market economy together with remnants of the old patronage system. To succeed as a freelance composer in Vienna at this time was still a near impossibility. Beethoven did so brilliantly through astute dealings with his publishers while also extracting maximum benefit from his aristocratic admirers. Napoleon's meteoric rise was for him an inspiration, a possible opportunity, but also, most immediately, a threat. The inspiration remained something abstract. Both the opportunity and the threat had to do with his musical career, and for Beethoven this, rather than any ideal or ideology, was what mattered most.


(1.) “Wenn sich nicht Die jezigen Drohenden Gewitter-Wolken zusammen ziehen.” Ludwig van Beethoven, Briefwechsel Gesamtausgabe, ed. Sieghard Brandenburg (Munich: Henle, 1996), vol. 2, 45.

(2.) In July 1807 the terms of the peace treaty of Tilsit ceded to French control vast tracts of Prussia's territory west of the Elbe.

(3.) The literature on the Napoleonic wars is, of course, immense. A microscopic examination of the events of 1809 (only the first volume has appeared) is John H. Gill, 1809: Thunder of the Danube: Napoleon's Defeat of the Habsburgs (London: Frontline, 2008). A more relaxed treatment of the subject is James R. Arnold, Napoleon Conquers Austria: The 1809 Campaign for Vienna (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1996).

(4.) Member states of the Confederation of the Rhine, a federation of German puppet states formed by Napoleon in 1805, contributed substantial numbers of troops—all under French command—to Napoleon's forces. The Habsburg army similarly included soldiers of several nationalities who spoke, variously, German, Czech, Flemish, Serbo-Croat, and Italian.

(5.) See the facsimile and transcription of the sketchbook he was using at the time: Ludwig van Beethoven, Ein Skizzenbuch aus dem Jahre 1809 (Landsberg 5), Übertragung und Kommentar von Clemmens Brenneis (Bonn: Beethovenhaus, 1993), 44–45. The dedication reads as follows: Der Abschied am 4ten May, gewidmet und aus dem Herzen geschrieben S.[einer] K.[eiserlichen] H.[oheit].

(6.) See Alfred Plischnack, “Vive l'empereur, weil's sein muß”: Geschichte in Quellen und Zeitzeugenberichten (Munich: Amalthea, 1999), 79.

(7.) Arnold, Napoleon Conquers Austria, 20.

(8.) Arnold, Napoleon Conquers Austria, 172.

(9.) Emily Anderson, ed., The Letters of Beethoven (London: Macmillan, 1961), vol. 1, 233–34; Beethoven, Briefwechsel, vol. 2, 71.

(10.) See the letter to Breitkopf and Härtel of Jan. 7, 1809, in Beethoven, Briefwechsel, vol. 2, 37, and Anderson, Letters of Beethoven, vol. 1, 211–12.

(11.) “Final form,” that is, as was usual in the sketching process. Many elaborations were customarily left for the autograph stage.

(12.) Given this course of events, it seems remarkable that the introduction and the main part of the movement (Allegro) of this sonata are so closely unified. A descending stepwise melodic gesture dominates the thematic matter of the Allegro. In the introduction this becomes the familiar “horn thirds” pattern, to which Beethoven adds the text “Lebewohl.” Yet that version of the pattern also appears in the coda of the Allegro, plainly sketched on p. 42 of Landsberg 5, apparently before the identification of this figure with “Lebewohl” on the following page. It seems likely that Beethoven had decided on this thematic material before the Archduke left on May 4 and simply adapted it to the programmatic need at hand. Nonetheless, the Allegro is something of a programmatic anomaly: A generally robust and cheerful movement intervenes between the “farewell” and the sorrowful “absence.”

Horn thirds seem to have implied various things in the nineteenth century. An obvious connection with “departing” is the playing of the posthorn upon the arrival and departure of the mail coach. The posthorn is the logo of the Deutsche Post to the present day.

(13.) See Beethoven, Briefwechsel, vol. 2, 47–48.

(14.) See Plischnack, “Vive l'empereur,” 66.

(15.) This poem anticipates Hoffmann von Fallersleben's “Deutschland über alles” by about thirty years.

(16.) Beethoven Remembered: The Biographical Notes of Franz Wegeler and Ferdinand Ries, trans. Frederick Noonan (Arlington, Va.: Great Ocean, 1987), 68.

(17.) Letter of Aug. 26, 1804, in Beethoven, Briefwechsel, vol. 1, 219; and Anderson, Letters of Beethoven, vol. 1, 117. Napoleon was proclaimed emperor on May 28, 1804 (though not crowned at Notre Dame Cathedral until Dec. 2). Ries's visit to Beethoven must have occurred in early June of that year (though Ries, writing two decades later, mistakenly mentions the year as 1802). See Beethoven Remembered, 67. Maynard Solomon gives a good account of the title page and erasures in the surviving copy of the score, dated August 1804, now at the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, Vienna, in Beethoven, 2d, rev. ed. (New York: Schirmer, 1998), 174–75.

(18.) See Solomon, Beethoven, 182.

(19.) The songs are “Abschiedsgesang an Wiens Bürger,” WoO 121, and “Kriegslied der Österreicher,” WoO 122. For the letter to Hoffmeister see Beethoven, Briefwechsel, vol. 1, 105; Anderson, Letters of Beethoven, vol. 1, 73.

(20.) Wordsworth, The Prelude, Book Eleventh, ll. 107–108 and 206–209.

(21.) Translated from Franz Grillparzer, Selbstbiographie, ed. Arno Dusini, 53–54 (Vienna: Residenz, 1994).

(22.) A. B. Marx, Musical Form in the Age of Beethoven, ed. and trans. Scott Burnham (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 158.

(23.) Translated from Paul Bekker, Beethoven (Berlin: Schuster and Loeffler, 1911), 165.

(24.) Translated from Arnold Schmitz, Das romantische Beethovenbild (Berlin: Dümmlers, 1927), 60; Carl Dahlhaus, Ludwig van Beethoven, trans. Mary Whittal (Oxford: Clarendon, 1991), 20.

(25.) Solomon, Beethoven, 183.

(26.) Lewis Lockwood, Beethoven: The Music and the Life (New York: Norton, 2003), 183–84.

(27.) Stephen Rumph, Beethoven after Napoleon: Political Romanticism in the Late Works (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004), 96.

(28.) The term political romanticism derives from the book Politische Romantik (1925) by the conservative political theorist (later a judicial official under the Nazi regime) Carl Schmitt. There is no room here to discuss Rumph's vastly inclusive category of “political romanticism,” but here is a single example of the tortuous argument needed to implicate E. T. A. Hoffmann, usually thought to be mainly apolitical (see, e.g., Rüdiger Safranski, E. T. A. Hoffmann: Das Leben eines skeptischen Phantasten [Munich: Hanser, 1984], 174ff). In his famous review of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony Hoffmann was intent upon showing that this work shows a large-scale formal plan; thus, he repeatedly speaks of das Ganze (i.e., the whole of a movement or of the entire composition). Rumph pounces upon this word, wrenches it into an utterly foreign context, and writes: “No word better sums up romantic political theory, whose central axiom was the spiritual totality of the state …Hoffmann's celebrated thematic analysis suggests the clearest musical correlate to this totalizing Romantic doctrine” (Beethoven after Napoleon, 28).

(29.) Rumph, Beethoven after Napoleon, 96.

(30.) Rumph, Beethoven after Napoleon, 96.

(31.) See Beethoven, Briefwechsel, vol. 2, 72; Anderson, Letters of Beethoven, vol. 1, 235.

(32.) Rumph's broad general implication that conservatism in musical style betrays political conservatism surely requires demonstration (Beethoven after Napoleon, 99–100).

(33.) Rumph, Beethoven after Napoleon, 101.

(34.) Beethoven, Briefwechsel, vol. 3, 134; Anderson, Letters of Beethoven, vol. 2, 508. The “perjured oath” probably refers to Napoleon's breach of his renunciation of the emperor's throne, sworn the previous year.

(35.) Ludwig van Beethovens Konversationshefte, ed. Karl-Heinz Köhler and Dagmar Beck (Leipzig: VEB Deutscher Verlag für Musik, 1976), vol. 1, 209–10; vol. 2, 68–69.

(36.) Carl Czerny, On the Proper Performance of All Beethoven's Works for the Piano, ed. Paul Badura-Skoda (Vienna: Universal, 1970), 8. The conversation books show that Beethoven often discussed his difficulties with his nephew Karl with Bernard,, and relied on him extensively to advise him as to Karl's education.

(37.) Schmitz, Das romantische Beethovenbild, 82ff.

(38.) Berlin: Sander, 1809.

(39.) Cf. Beethoven, Briefwechsel, vol. 3, 26.

(40.) See Konversationshefte, vol. 2, 348.

(41.) Konversationshefte, vol. 1, 169, 352; Beethoven, Briefwechsel, vol. 4, 448; Anderson, Letters of Beethoven, vol. 2, 923–24. The editors of the Briefwechsel suggest that the “little book” in question is Werner's Geistliche Übungen für drei Tage [Italic] (1818).

(42.) Maynard Solomon, “The Quest for Faith,” in Beethoven Essays (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988), 216–29; “Beethoven's Tagebuch” in the same volume, 287.

(43.) Beethoven's copy of this often-republished book, dated 1811, survives in the Staatsbibliothek Preußischer Kulturbesitz in Berlin. See Solomon, “Quest for Faith,” 349.

(44.) Beauties of Sturm, in Lessons on the Works of God, and of his Providence, trans. Eliza Andrews (London: printed for James Scatchard et al., 1798)), 50–51.

(45.) Solomon, “Quest for Faith,” 219.

(46.) See Solomon, “Beethoven's Magazin der Kunst,” in Beethoven Essays, especially 196–204; also Beethoven, Briefwechsel, vol. 1, 64; and Anderson, Letters of Beethoven, vol. 1, 48.

(47.) See Thayer's Life of Beethoven, ed. Elliot Forbes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1964), vol. 2, 326–27, and Beethoven, Briefwechsel, vol. 5, 90; Anderson, Letters of Beethoven, vol. 3, 1016. There is an extensive literature claiming French influence upon Beethoven's music from shortly after this time. See, for example, Boris Schwarz, “Beethoven and the French Violin School,” Musical Quarterly 47(1958): 431–47; and Michael Broyles, Beethoven: The Emergence and Evolution of Beethoven's Heroic Style (New York: Excelsior, 1987), 117ff.

(48.) See Leon Plantinga, Beethoven's Concertos: History, Style, Performance (New York: Norton, 1999), 182ff.

(49.) These letters are quoted in Erich H. Müller, “Beethoven und Simrock,” in N. Simrock Jahrbuch 2 (1929): 23–24 and 27.

(50.) See Müller, “Beethoven und Simrock,” 28, and Beethoven, Briefwechsel, vol. 1, 207; Anderson, Letters of Beethoven, vol. 1, 106–107.

(51.) Letter from Napoleon to his brother Jérôme, November 1807, quoted in George Rudé, Revolutionary Europe, 1783–1815 (London, 1964), 257.

(52.) Beethoven, Briefwechsel, vol. 2, 37–38; Anderson, Letters of Beethoven, vol. 1, 211.

(53.) Alexander Wheelock Thayer, Ludwig van Beethovens Leben, ed. Hermann Dieters and Hugo Riemann, vol. 3, 125–26 (Leipzig: Breitkopf and Härtel, 1917).

(54.) Beethoven, Briefwechsel, vol. 2, 40; Anderson, Letters of Beethoven, vol. 1, 215.