Soon French soldiers would be marching through the streets. It was the middle of the Napoleonic Wars
, which roiled Europe for 15 years. Like all the citizens of Vienna, Beethoven would witness the whole wretched spectacle of war: cannons, sieges, occupying troops, funeral marches and thousands of wounded all over the city.
It's worth reflecting on that time this year as we celebrate the 250th anniversary of the birth
of Beethoven, on the 16th or 17th of December, 1770.
Five years earlier, the composer had finished his Third Symphony
, which we know as the "Eroica" (which means "heroic"), but was originally titled "Bonaparte." Its tumultuous first movement conjures images of a battle or a military campaign. It is a piece about Napoleon as hero, conqueror and liberator. In those years Napoleon painted himself in those terms. Like many political progressives at the time, Beethoven saw him as a leader who could bring better laws, better societies and eventually peace across Europe.
In writing a symphony evoking the man who embodied the revolutionary spirit of the age, who proposed to complete the work of the French Revolution, Beethoven was attaching his art to the most powerful figure in the world, which is to say attaching himself to history, and declaring that as an artist he was not simply an entertainer but a part of history as well. The idea that a composer's work could become part of an enduring repertoire was quite new.
Beethoven was one of the first composers to think of himself in the context of history, to use the word "immortal" concerning his ambitions for his work. That, in itself, did not make him a great composer, but it helped make him a new kind of composer, concerned with the place of his music in the future. And in the course of his career, from his full maturity onward, a series of his works share a train of thought about heroes and society.
I don't believe that the main importance of an artist's work is his or her relevance to the present moment. In art there are other significant matters, such as how compelling and moving and eloquent the work is. But the train of thought in Beethoven that I'm talking about has considerable relevance to the contrapuntal predicaments we have found ourselves in during the past year: in the US, with an incompetent and anti-democratic administration on which is superimposed a global plague.
Given the "Eroica" symphony's focus on Napoleon, the symphony begins with an evocation of a battle or campaign. The second movement recalls what inevitably follows a battle: it is a mournful funeral march. The finale begins with an everyday little dance tune that is gradually transformed into a heroic affirmation. Which is to say that the finale is an image of the ideal society that the hero has bestowed, in which the common becomes exalted. The symphony ends in jubilation.
Beethoven shared with many progressive Germans of his time the belief that human progress was going to come from leaders who would shape enlightened societies from the top down. This image of strong, wise princes is embodied in the term "