Beethoven’s Almost Bonaparte Symphony . . .
In the chapter entitled “Violation” (Part 3), we meet a young boy from Germany at Célestine’s glittering salon in Paris. The year is 1803, and he has been hired to play a new piano work by the German composer Ludwig van Beethoven. His presence gives Celestine the occasion to share with her guests something the boy’s manager has told her: that Beethoven is working on a new symphony, and that he intends to call it the Bonaparte, in honor of the man he believes to be liberating Europe from the bonds of tyranny.
Along with many men and women of his era, Beethoven identified Napoleon with the republican ideals of the French Revolution and admired the reforms he was introducing in Europe. For these reasons, his original intent was to name his third symphony—which he saw as a radical new approach to the genre—after France’s First Consul. However, he was horrified at Napoleon’s decision to crown himself emperor in 1804 and changed his mind—supposedly ripping the title page when he heard the news and calling Napoleon a “tyrant. “ In the end, his third symphony was published with the title Eroica (“heroic” in Italian) with the subtitle “per festiggiare il sovvenire di un grand Uomo” (“to celebrate the memory of a great man”).
While it is unlikely that Sophie would have heard much (if any) of Beethoven’s music, his life overlapped hers to a large extent. He was born in 1770, only nine years before Sophie, and died in 1824–four years after her acquisition of the Hôtel Biron. If we believe that the spirit of an age can be felt through the music it spawns, then we can say that Sophie at least breathed some of that same air. (She was surely influenced by the Romanticism of the age. We know, for example, that she loved the poetry of the poet Lamartine; in her biography of Sophie, Margaret Williams claims that Sophie had many of his poems memorized.) It’s hard to believe she would not have reveled in Beethoven’s sacred music, and his music certainly emanates a profound spirituality.
If you wish to listen to the Eroica symphony, as conducted by Leonard Bernstein in Vienna, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W-uEjxxYtHo.
I have also included a link to the Pathétique sonata, which Heloise overhears Marie de Flavigny playing in her room at the Hôtel Biron (“Héloïse and Marie,” Part 7). Here is the second movement (adagio cantabile) played by Glenn Gould:
Recommended reading: Beethoven: Biography of a Genius (George R. Marek)