It’s a big deal, this 250th birthday of yours. You’ve remained at the absolute top of Western music since your early days in Vienna. And here we are, a couple of centuries later, marveling at your nine symphonies, five piano concertos, 16 string quartets and 32 piano sonatas. And by the way, your Missa solemnis, Fidelio and Violin Concerto aren’t bad, either.
Yes, sir, you had the right skill set at the right time — you know, with the Classical era ending and Romanticism just beginning. You were the guy who summed up one era and took the first steps into another — at least that’s what my music history instructor told me back at the Chicago Conservatory.
The world without your music is inconceivable — even for people who never listen to classical music. Imagine the films “The King’s Speech” or “X-Men: Apocalypse” without your Seventh Symphony on the soundtrack. Or try to visualize the original “Die Hard” minus your Ninth Symphony. Can’t be done.
“There are three epochs in the history of art. First, the Greek; second, the period that produced Shakespeare; third, the period that gave to the world Beethoven!” Those are the words of Chicago Symphony founder Theodore Thomas — no slouch when it came to understanding important stuff like high art. He didn’t cite the period that gave the world Andrew Lloyd Webber or Kanye West — no, it was you!
This being the 250th anniversary of your birth, you can bet there’ll be plenty of your works presented by musical organizations great and small. Major and minor orchestras will be playing your symphonies and concertos. String quartets the world over will program your early, middle and late quartets. Pianists are sure to include one of your sonatas on every program, and as far as beginning piano students go, it’s gonna be Für Elise till infinity.
But there is one work that might not see a single performance. It’s the one clinker in your highly regarded oeuvre: Wellington’s Victory, Op. 91. Dear Ludwig, what were you thinking?
We know how it all started. Your buddy Johannes Maelzel had invented something called a Panharmonicon, a mechanized orchestra. Basically it was a collection of organ pipes and pneumatic-powered percussion instruments, a steampunk stereo system.
Maelzel requested you write a piece for his Panharmonicon, and you came up with 15 minutes of musical humbuggery, supposedly to celebrate the British victory over the French at the Battle of Vitoria in Spain. As one of your biographers, Jan Swafford puts it:
“All in all, Wellington’s Victory is a colossal piece of opportunistic, gimmicky, fortissimo hokum, which is to say that it is exactly what Beethoven intended it to be. He wrote most of the notes, but the inspiration and the spirit came from Maelzel the huckster. Beethoven remained the consummate professional; he knew how to produce twaddle on demand. The Viennese went berserk over it.”
Well, of course they did. These are the same people that gave us Schoenberg — a little fortissimo hokum would be welcome relief.
Soon after the Panharmonicon’s debut of the work, you applied yourself to a version for orchestra. The new orchestral Wellington’s Victory was grander and more sonically thrilling than its predecessor. Simply put, it was a better grade of twaddle.
It included a new section depicting the actual battle with lots of blaring brass, military drumming, patriotic tunes, and the sounds of warfare coming from gunfire volleys and off-stage cannon blasts. Sounds horrible, like maybe Hector Berlioz had a hand in it. But none of that matters now. The public loved it, and you made a bundle.
So happy 250th, dear Ludwig! Hope you enjoy the many performances of your music this year. And I’m hoping someone somewhere programs your Wellington’s Victory. (Note to impresarios: at one time there existed a version of this work for two pianos and offstage cannons — just saying.)
Give my best to Haydn and Mozart,
This essay first appeared in the Chicago Federation of Musicians’ Intermezzo magazine and is reprinted here with its permission.
TOP: An engraving of the Battle of Vitoria: Britain’s triumph over the French supposedly inspired Beethoven to compose Wellington’s Victory.