It was already clear from the dedication of Beethoven’s Third Symphony (1804) to Napoleon that he was something of a rebel and that he held strong political views. Beethoven had initially admired Napoleon for his democratic ideals, but angrily withdrew the dedication when Napoleon crowned himself emperor.
Living in Vienna, Beethoven had every reason to be concerned about the political developments at that time. The city had been occupied by the French in 1805 and 1809; the first occupation took place without too much fighting, but the city was shelled heavily during the second. Beethoven was forced to take shelter in his brother’s cellar to preserve the small amount of hearing that remained to him. His patron Archduke Rudolf of Austria was forced to flee the city; in response to this Beethoven composed his Piano Sonata No. 26 'Les adieux', which he dedicated to the duke.
A benefit concert was held in the University of Vienna on 8 December 1813 for the Austrian and Bavarian soldiers who had been wounded in the Battle of Hanau on 30 and 31 October of that same year. Beethoven conducted his own compositions and the orchestra — a Live Aid before its time — was supplemented with great names from the musical world of the time, including Louis Spohr, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Giacomo Meyerbeer, Antonio Salieri and Mauro Giuliani. The programme was also calculated to attract the public in large numbers, with Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory, a ‘war symphony’ composed on the occasion of the British victory over Joseph Bonaparte at the battle of Vitoria in Spain on 21 July 1813. Also on the programme was the first performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, initially regarded by some of those present as a bonus after the bombastic war symphony. The entire concert, the new symphony included, was Beethoven’s most successful concert to that date.
There is no political inspiration to be found anywhere in the music of the Seventh. The audience at the premiere may have heard the second movement as a funeral march for those slain at the Battle of Hanau, but that was certainly not Beethoven’s intention; he had completed the symphony on 13 May 1812, more than a year earlier. This irresistibly rhythmical symphony, later called the ‘apotheosis of the dance’ by Richard Wagner, radiated such enormous vitality and energy that all present were immediately won over. The second movement had to be repeated and is just as popular today as it was then.
Beethoven’s Seventh voiced the audience’s emotions and relief after all the privations of war and with Napoleon finally on the losing side after the Russian campaign of 1812. From his words of thanks to those who took part in the concert we can see that Beethoven did not intend the Seventh purely as art for art’s sake; he also wanted to take his place in society and sought a response from those around him: 'Nothing satisfies us so much as the pure love of our homeland, and the willing sacrifice of our energies for those who have sacrificed so much for us'.
Translation: Peter Lockwood