Beethoven’s Beef with Napoleon

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“A rascal like all the others.”

-Beethoven on Napoleon

Aptly subtitled, the “Eroica” marks one of the first pieces in Beethoven’s heroic period, and the longest, grandest symphony to be heard up to that point. The E-flat major work is revolutionary in every way, profiling the world of the French Revolution while offering autobiographical insight into the composer’s innermost self.

Initially, Beethoven dedicated it to Napoleon Bonaparte as the bearer of their supposedly shared Enlightenment ideals. Later, the conqueror dubbed himself “emperor” and Beethoven heard “despot”, scratching out his name from the title-page as vociferously as he could. Listening now, it’s clear that the 3rd is about a lot more than a little dictator with delusions of grandeur.

As with the reactions to his later op. 111 sonata and the Grosse Fuge, conservative critics, raised on Haydn and Mozart, were exasperated by Beethoven’s complexly structured orchestration and epic Romanticism.

Columbia put out this album in 1949, bearing a crown, a nondescript (not Napoleon!) soldier on horseback, and period headgear of some kind. Bruno Walter, conducting the P-SONY is, as usual, the opposite of bombastic with his interpretation.

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