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Beethoven and Bonaparte

Inside the Music : Beethoven and Bonaparte

Editor of BBC Music Magazine Oliver Condy sheds some light on the circumstances surrounding the great works that feature in the Bristol International Classical Season 2015-16 at Colston Hall. These bite-sized programme notes and accompanying videos cut to the heart of the music, allowing you to get that little bit more from your classical experience.

Beethoven Symphony No 3. Eroica

In the Summer of 1803, Beethoven rented a small house up in the village of Oberdöbling near Heiligenstadt just to the north of Vienna; he knew Heiligenstadt well – it was a favourite spot of his. Only eight months before, the 31-year-old German composer had sketched out his devastating Heiligenstadt Testament there, a desperate letter to his brothers that described his horror in the face of his increasing deafness, and his determination to carry on composing. The very act of documenting his personal crisis seemed to jolt him from the inside, and the following few months were to be something of a creative turning point for the young man, his music exploding with new ideas, bursting with humanity and on a scale that no one, perhaps not even Beethoven himself, had envisaged. Oberdöbling became the place where the Third, or ‘Eroica’, Symphony was born.

The symphony’s subject matter would prove perfect as the catalyst for this new-found spark; and that subject matter was none other than the French general Napoleon Bonaparte who was, at that time, cutting a swathe across Europe. In Beethoven’s eyes, Napoleon was a liberator, a man who could bring an end to century-old European tyrannies and usher in republican governments. Beethoven already knew his Third Symphony would be more ambitious than his previous two, and now he knew how. His ‘Bonaparte’ Symphony, as he initially called it, would paint a picture of his hero’s life and death in epic fashion. It was to be his love letter to France, too (he harboured a desire to move there) and a way to beckon the revolutionary spirit eastwards towards Germany.

Right from the start, Beethoven’s symphony grasps at adventure. The first movement’s opening, jolting, almost primal chords, its dissonances, rhythmic confusion, unalloyed energy and bombast describe Napoleon’s great struggles on the fields of battle; the second movement, an unimaginably beautiful funeral march, sees the composer weeping as he looks to the future and imagines the death of his hero, gazing on the coffin as it is processed slowly through the streets; the third movement, a triumphant Scherzo dances in defiance of death; and the finale features a set of variations on a theme he had previously used for his ballet The Creatures of Prometheus. For Beethoven, Prometheus represented Napoleon; after all, he was a man who incurred the gods’ wrath, took risks and suffered to rescue his fellow comrades. It was Beethoven’s ultimate compliment.

Except that in 1804, as Beethoven was completing his great work, Napoleon declared himself emperor, manoeuvring himself into the ranks of those he had vowed to destroy. Beethoven was appalled. ‘Is he too, then, nothing more than an ordinary human being?’, he spluttered. ‘Now he, too, will trample on the rights of man, and indulge only his ambition!’ Beethoven took the score of his symphony and scrubbed out his dedication to Napoleon so hard, he left a hole in the paper. The ‘Bonaparte’ Symphony had, in one stroke, been transformed into the ‘Eroica’ – a work to the memory of a great man, it’s true, but just not of the great man Beethoven had once admired…

Elgar Cello Concerto

If Beethoven had written one of his very greatest masterpieces in his early thirties, Edward Elgar was 62 when he composed, as he later said, ‘the best thing I ever wrote.’ Elgar’s Cello Concerto was written in 1919 (the opening movement was sketched in March 1918), and was the British composer’s last great work, despite his going on to live for another 25 years. The concerto has a whiff of tragic nobility that chimes with Elgar’s state of mind at that time – his wife was dying, Europe had been ripped apart by war and he was crippled by the depression that had plagued him for most of his life. The music critic Ernest Newman had met Elgar in 1901: ‘he gave me the impression even then’, he later wrote, ‘of an exceptionally nervous, self-divided and secretly unhappy man.’

The Cello Concerto was written at Brinkwells, the Elgars’ rural retreat in west Sussex. It was Elgar’s wife Alice’s idea to move there from north London, her last-ditch attempt to help her husband compose again after the First World War had shocked him into almost creative silence. Her plan worked, and at Brinkwells Elgar composed some of his most charming chamber works, including the Violin Sonata and the String Quartet. But it he reserved his greatest enthusiasm his new Cello Concerto, often getting up as early as 4am to sketch new ideas. And into the concerto he injected his new-found love of writing for small ensembles in the form of some of his thinnest, most delicate orchestral scoring, allowing the cello to sing out all by itself.

It’s a work with loneliness at its heart: the yearning main theme of the first movement, the strange, eerie scurrying of the Scherzo and the Adagio’s heartbreaking song are Elgar’s farewell to his beloved Edwardian world. But if he never came to terms with the tragedies of war and the effect it had had on the England he adored, he became intensely fond of his final masterpiece. On his deathbed, Elgar gently hummed the first movement’s main tune to a friend and said, ‘If ever after I’m dead you hear someone whistling this tune on the Malvern Hills, don’t be alarmed. It’s only me.’

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