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Battling Beethoven

as published in The Virginian-Pilot November 15, 2018
by Daniel W. Boothe

What's the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Beethoven? For many, it might be his symphonies. Others might think of his piano sonatas or string quartets. Few would think of his theater music.

Wait … Beethoven's theater music?

Yes, his "Battle Symphony" (also known as "Wellington's Victory") dramatically portrays the success of the allied armies over the French in the Battle of Vitoria, Spain on June 21, 1813.

It is complete with musician-actors, artillery effects, staged and off-staged elements, and a patch quilt of famous tunes that even today's audiences will recognize.

There were several possible motivations for writing such a piece.

First, he needed the money. He had concerns for his future, including worries about family health. His brother was ailing, and Beethoven wanted to be prepared if his nephew, Karl, were to become his responsibility.

Second, he needed the money! The fact is, Beethoven's wild success had not translated into a wealth of financial security.

Symphonies and other "art music" were essential for his legacy, but there was more money to be made in a Hollywood-styled spectacle with mass appeal.

With that in mind, it begins from the left with a drum cadence that signifies the approaching British army. A bugle call signals for troop readiness, followed by a patriotic "Rule Britannia" march.

In response, the French approach from the other side with their own drum cadence, bugle call, and a patriotic "Marlborough" march (familiar to us as "For He's A Jolly Good Fellow").

This "jolly" soon turns deadly as bugle calls from both sides signal a charge into battle.

Fighting ensues with musical sounds of crackling gunfire and booming canons, each meticulously annotated in the score to occur from different positions. A fury of notes scream through the strings, brass fanfares blast overhead and gestures of desperation cry out from woodwinds.

This cacophony eventually fades into a dreadfully slow march for the French in triple-time, the same meter of its proud "Marlborough." Soft booms of distant canons dialogue with long pauses in a mournful melody until finally, the last defeated breath is heard.

Now the "victory" portion begins with the full orchestra entering suddenly in a triumph of sound. The remainder of the work weaves spirited themes into a tapestry of English exaltation.

A few moments of repose interrupt the celebrations. Strains of "God Save the King" (known by Americans as "My Country 'Tis of Thee") sing reverently from the winds.

It ends as one might expect – with big, bold, and glorious chords of final victory.

Beethoven was harshly criticized by some for this piece, as it lacked the compositional artistry so common to his other works.

To this he famously responded, edited for print: "The (expletive) I think up is better than anything you have ever thought!"

With that he went straight to the bank. It is understood that Beethoven made more money from this work than any other of his lifetime. Some might say this epitomizes the consequences of war and culture. Others might say … it's just music.