Tuesday, 30 December 2008

36 Steps to Vienna: 10 Pontecorvo, Abercrombie, Nelson & Co (2)

I've helped myself generously to time, and have spread it thickly with my and others' patience, over the history and meaning of the Eroica, because it seems to me that this symphony is the key to understanding Beethoven's subsequent spiritual journey. Without some insights into the Eroica, this journey has no starting point, and maybe we find ourselves in the same position as early audiences, who found it such a complex work that they needed explanatory hooks to hang it on, if any sense were to be made of it. Very naturally, such aids to understanding by-passed the composer's personal needs, circumstances and preoccupations, and in time they have assumed a patina of legend.

Beethoven himself was ambivalent about Napoleon's influence on the composition of this symphony. His retraction of the name Bonaparte from the title page of his manuscript, probably in the spring of 1804 when Napoleon announced his intention of making himself emperor, has already been told, although the first written accounts of this appear to have surfaced more than 30 years later. Before 1804 Beethoven had supposedly found much to admire in Napoleon, identifying himself particularly with his energy and vitality. For how long Beethoven had entertained these feelings is uncertain.

It was while Napoleon was fighting in Egypt in 1798 that an opportunity apparently arose for Beethoven to express his admiration directly: the ruling Directory in Paris sent Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte as ambassador to Vienna, the first French ambassador since the Austrian Marie Antoinette lost her head under the guillotine some five years before. This Bernadotte was an unusual character, a huge-nosed soldier son of a lawyer from Pau in south-west France, who was created Prince of Pontecorvo by Napoleon and who eventually became king of Sweden. A self-serving and devious man, he rose through the ranks to generalship only a pace or two behind Napoleon, whom he disliked intensely but whom he recognised as the source of power and influence. He showed some talent for cosying up to Napoleon while retaining his own freedom of action, chiefly by marrying (he married one Desirée Clary, whom Napoleon had ditched in favour of the non-nocturnal Joséphine de Beauharnais) into the Bonaparte clan and exercising privileges of kinship.

Bernadotte's ambassadorship was disastrous. It ended with his premature recall following an ill-judged attempt to blackmail the Austrian Foreign Secretary and provocation of a Viennese mob into attempting to storm the French embassy. Several months before he returned to Paris, however, he made the acquaintance of Beethoven. Whatever conversation they had is supposed to have resulted in Bernadotte's invitation to Beethoven to write a great work in honour of Napoleon. This, at the least, is unlikely.

What exactly can Beethoven have admired in Napoleon? Before 1798, when Bernadotte took up his post in Vienna, Napoleon can only have been known as a lightning military commander and political adventurer who had thoroughly outmanoeuvred Austrian troops in northern Italy and had forced a peace settlement which deprived Austria of several territorial possessions including Beethoven's original Low Country and Rhineland homelands. In 1798 Napoleon led a military - and cultural - expedition to Egypt, where his return ticket was denied him by Nelson, who effectively marooned his expedition by destroying the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile. (Apparently, Viennese newspapers carried reports that Nelson had been killed in this action.) Napoleon subsequently abandoned his troops - and his savants - in the Near East and slipped back to France. At this stage, for Beethoven to have planned a major composition expressing his homage to Napoleon would have been as improbable as Benjamin Britten producing a 'Rommel' Symphony in 1942.

However, the period of great reforms followed Napoleon's return from Egypt and his assumption of power as First Consul. Napoleon threw his vast energies into reorganising the entire social, political and cultural structure of France, the true fruit of the French Revolution. Beethoven could surely find much to admire here, a truly Promethean spirit of service to mankind, a spirit of heroic, beneficent energy which he could express in music.

Maybe this elevated gossip does nothing more than place a question-mark over Bernadotte's role in the conception of the Eroica. Other commentators, in attempting to explain the symphony, had their two-pennyworth of puzzlement: assuming that Beethoven had painted a detailed, exact portrait of Bonaparte, it was inconvenient that the second movement of the Eroica was a funeral march when the subject was very much alive and would, before anyone was very much older, be training his artillery on the Austrian capital. Remembering that full title of the Eroica was 'Heroic symphony to celebrate the memory of a great man', perhaps other subjects, other great men, were involved? Nelson, perhaps, whose death had been erroneously reported from Aboukir Bay, even though the Battle of the Nile predated composition of the Eroica by some years? Beethoven did not demur. Or the British general Sir Ralph Abercrombie, killed while neutralizing the castaway French army in Egypt in 1801? Beethoven did not deny the possibility. Clearly the biographical path is a tortuous one.

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