A Beethoven a Day: Let’s kick Napoleon now he’s down

A Beethoven a Day: Let’s kick Napoleon now he’s down


norman lebrecht

January 27, 2020

Welcome to the 24th work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition


Wellington’s victory, opus 91 (1813)

The ugliest thing Beethoven ever wrote was undertaken for the kindest of motives, as an act of friendship for Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, inventor of the metronome and other, less useful, instruments. Among Maelzel’s crackpot wheezes was something called a ‘panharmonicon’, a device that simulated the sound of a full orchestra, as well as gunfire, marching and military mayhem. As Napoleon’s armies crumbled, Maelzel felt it could be pressed into service to congratulate the victors.

After the English Duke of Wellington’s defeat of Napoleon’s brother Joseph Bonaparte at the Battle of Vitoria in June 1813, Maelzel asked Beethoven for a piece for his panharmonicon. Beethoven, who loved the British national anthem, jotted in his diary: ‘I must show the English a little what a blessing there is in God Save the King’.

An eyewitness, Ignaz Moscheles, reports that Maelzel practically dictated the piece to Beethoven, including trumpet flourishes, the burning of Moscow and the anthems Rule Britannia and Malbrouk s’en va en guerre. Beethoven dedicated it to the British Prince Regent, later King George IV, and – aside from the panharmonicon – reinstrumented it for a symphony orchestra and presented it in a concert in December 1813, together with the premiere of his seventh symphony, for the benefit of Austrian soldiers wounded in the Battle of Hanau. He conducted the symphony first, to general bewilderment, then two marches on Maelzel’s magical machine and, finally, Wellington’s Victory. It was a huge success.

And complete rubbish. Lots of loud noise bumbling around to no obvious purpose for 15 minutes. The gunfire sounds pretty realistic. The rest of it has been cannibalized by Hollywood composers to far greater effect than even Maelzel could imagine. The two men quickly fell out and never spoke again. The work is, for obvious reasons, seldom performed. Among a dozen recordings, I would narrow your attention to three or four. Idagio has exclusive audio of a 1960 Manhattan performance by Morton Gould and his orchestra in which no element of showbiz is too tacky to be included.

Antal Dorati adds a Hungarian whimsicality to his 1960 Wembley Town Hall session with the London Symphony Orchestra that the listener cannot imagine anyone is taking this seriously, and so much the better for that. If it’s a straight performance you’re after, nobody does it better than Karajan and the Berliners although a 2020 release from Ondrej Lenard in Slovakia is not half bad, and in very decent sound.




  • MusicBear88 says:

    I remember getting the orchestral volume of the DG Beethoven edition and being rather excited that there was a work I’d never heard. Then I listened to it. The only Beethoven I’ve ever wanted to turn off halfway…

    It still means it’s better than 90% of composers will ever write but for Beethoven, it’s a dud.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    The only reason I have a recording of this work at all is because it is coupled with the “1812”: yep, it’s Dorati’s, and I can’t imagine anyone doing it any better.

  • Esther Cavett says:

    ==And complete rubbish

    Why just not miss it out ?

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    That’s children’s (boys’) playground soundtrack, and in this way it’s big fun. Or maybe the kids don’t ‘play war’ anymore?

  • Tom says:

    Still, if it’s put on a concert program, for many in the audience it will be their favorite piece and worth doing occasionally if only for that reason.

  • C Porumbescu says:

    This is a rather humourless review – it’s huge fun, has given a lot of harmless pleasure, and is proof that Beethoven could actually turn out a professional job to a commission if he felt inclined – no five year delays, un-singable choruses or unlistenable fugues here.

    And what greater cause for celebration than the defeat of a warmongering dictator? So perish all tyrants!

  • David K. Nelson says:

    The late Lukas Foss maintained that Wellington’s Victory was the only possible work by Beethoven that he could put on the same program with the 9th Symphony. His reasoning was that the 9th would automatically put any other piece on the program in shade, an unmusical thing to do to anything by Beethoven — except this piece.

    It is worth noting that great musicians of the time vied to be part of the orchestra that played the premiere. The great violinist Ludwig Spohr, for example, although far from an unconditional admirer of Beethoven’s music, sat in. So did Salieri, Romberg, Hummel, Meyerbeer, Moscheles, and Dragonetti. I seem to recall reading that Beethoven was amused at how the pianists among them who knew no orchestral instrument were assigned to play percussion.

    • Sam the Nylic says:

      Of course! Doesn’t the apochripical story relate that the “bad” musicians are given 2 sticks to “play the drums”, and the “bad” drummers are given one stick to lead the orchestra.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Wasn’t the premiere also one of the largest financial successes of Beethoven’s life?

  • BrianB says:

    Sorry, but fashionably pseudo-sophisticated as it is to knock Op. 91, take a look at the score sometime and see the meticulous marking of every rifle shot, volley and cannon round. Musique concrete a century and a half before such a thing was every heard of. Capped by some nifty variations and riffs on the Brit National Anthem. Certainly not to be numbered among Ludwig Van’s great works but by no means a cyinical hack job. And good clean fun.

  • Gaffney Feskoe says:

    Beethoven’s idea of movie music yet to be invented perhaps?

    • BrianB says:

      I’d rather see Wellington turned into a ballet than the Seventh symphony which scarcely needs “azione coreografica.”