Wellington’s Victory over Volume II

Accompanied by the rousing flourishes of Beethoven’s oft-maligned Wellington’s Victory, it is with great Freude that we announce the commencement of Volume III! We’re starting into the next volume right as the school year ends (coincidence?), so expect another couple posts on Vol. II as we digest the incredibly rich last couple chapters without the distraction of papers to write and assignments to grade.

I’m somewhat ashamed to admit it, but I’ve never actually heard Wellington’s Victory until now. I’ve heard how awful and un-Beethovenian it is, of course, but I’ve never given it a listen. It’s true, the piece has gotten a bad rap over the years. This is perhaps the most universally mocked piece of the Beethoven oeuvre (and of the whole 19th century); even the usually even-handed (with ironic quotes?) RT describes it as “of a calculated popular appeal,” “noisy,” and a “piece of orchestral claptrap” (II, 672). Indeed, Wellington’s Victory (1813) has become the quintessential reminder that genius composers can produce tripe too.

But are we being fair in this assessment? It’s hard to deny the “noisiness” of the piece, as well as the sappiness of the fugal rendition of “God Save the King” (1:46); this sort of thing sounds like a bad medley for high school band. But Beethoven wasn’t writing his “Battle Symphony” for posterity. Rather, it’s the product of a commission, an unabashed appeal to popularity and the burgeoning market principle, an “early fruit of musical capitalism.” Wellington’s Victory is undeniably a piece of “use” music, in other words; it was not written to be silently contemplated, like his more sublime symphonies, string quartets, and piano sonatas. It is calculated to be a crowd-pleasing spectacle, and on that count, the piece is (and was) a success. Compared to the Ninth, of course Wellington’s Victory leaves a lot to be desired as a piece of “autonomous musical art.” But autonomous musical art this was not.

3 Comments

  1. I heard a wonderful paper in 1995 by Heidi Owen (masters from UT, Ph.D. at Eastman, maybe?) on Beethoven’s *Glorious Moment*, a secular cantata in the same *Wellington’s Victory* style, and his own comments on what one has to do “to please the crowd” in certain kinds of pieces. I don’t know if it was ever published, but it spoke to precisely the issue raised here–it seems beside the point to call it “claptrap” when it was precisely what LvB intended it to be to reach a specific audience. If someone knows where an article version may be found, I’d appreciate knowing.

  2. Thank you Dr. Bellman for your complementary comments on the paper I presented in 1995. The paper came out of a master’s thesis on Beethoven’s works composed during the Congress of Vienna, and no, the work hasn’t appeared in print. What drew me to the topic was the contrast between the almost unanimously favorable reviews the works received at their premieres and the vehement condemnation heaped upon them by Beethoven scholars. (One suggested that the works reflect a general moral turpitude in Beethoven’s life at the time.) What I argued in my paper is that the works illustrate a contextual approach by both Beethoven and his critics to what qualified as “excellence” in music. For example, Beethoven wrote in his diary during the composition of Wellington’s Victory: “That one surely writes nicer music as soon as one writes for the public is certain, even when one writes rapidly.” In a review in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung of one of Beethoven’s 1813 concerts that included both the Seventh Symphony and Wellington’s Victory, the critic noted that, although the symphony may have been the artistically more valuable work, each piece was an exceptional expressive example “within its type.” I think that the Congress pieces are fascinating because they demonstrate Beethoven’s effective use of the type of music that accompanied the influx of royals and nobles into Vienna (dances and fanfares), while at the same time they incorporate elements of musical ideas that lie behind some of the most striking moments of his late style, including the Missa Solemnis and the 9th symphony. For me, to simply condemn the works outright misses how powerful they were for their audience (and still can be if listened to with an awareness of that audience), as well as their moments of great beauty–no matter the context. Fortunately there are not one but two recordings of the cantata available so people can listen and judge for themselves!

    1. Thank you for chiming in on this, Heidi! Your work sounds fascinating – if you’d like, I’d be delighted to post a downloadable PDF of your thesis here so the curious can check it out. It’s a shame it hasn’t been published.

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