Sunday, November 13, 2011

Ludwig van Beethoven - Wellington's Victory, Opus 91

Many people have heard Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, with its opposing national themes and artillery accompaniment.  But Tchaikovsky wasn't the first to do this - Beethoven was.

In 1813, Napoleon was on the ropes.  La Grande Armeé had been essentially wiped out to the man in the disastrous 1812 invasion of Russia - perhaps a half million men simply never returned.  In 1813, Napoleon's many enemies began sharpening their knives.  England's Duke of Wellington continued his series of victories in Spain, ultimately leading to his command of His Majesty's forces at Waterloo two years later.

But Beethoven was enthralled by Napoleon's fall.  Originally a big fan of the First Consul, Beethoven flew into a rage when he heard that Napoleon had had himself crowned Emperor, ripping out the dedication page to his Third Symphony ("Eroica", the Heroic) which he had dedicated to Napoleon.  Now, seeing the moving finger write, and anticipating that having writ it will move on, he turned himself to praising Napoleon's foe.

Wellington's Victory is very interesting indeed.  In it, you will hear two themes, representing the British and the French sides in the battle of Vitoria.  The theme representing the English Army is well known to you: Rule Britannia (and also God Save the King).  The one representing the French Army will likely be a surprise.  It's from a wildly popular French folk song, Marlbrough s'en va-t-en guerre ("Marlborough Has Left for the War"), whichyou will probably recognize as "For he's a jolly good fellow" (or possibly "The Bear went over the Mountain").  In 1813, this was still an exclusively French folk song.

The premier in a newly-liberated Vienna was to great acclimation, and great commercial success for Beethoven.  Not only was the score explicitly patriotic, it was scored for accompaniment by field artillery (as was Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture some time later).

An obscure find, perhaps, but fun.

1 comment:

Ken said...

I've got a CD with the 1812 Overture, Wellington's Victory, and Tchaikovsky's Marche Slave, performed by the Vienna Philharmonic under Lorin Maazel. This particular arrangement uses muskets as well as cannon; interestingly, the tempo is slower than the performance linked (I say it's interesting because the 1812 is played a bit faster than I've heard it elsewhere).