Friday, 2 December 2016


Napoleon in Coronation Robes, François Gérard, 1805
212 Years ago today, former First Consul Napoleon Buonaparte declared himself Emperor of France in Paris, much to the angry chagrin of one the newly-minted royals' staunchest and most influential supporters in composer Ludwig van Beethoven.

According to legend, the famous “hole” that appears on the autograph of Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony (the Eroica), which appears to have been scratched out with a vitriolic furor on behalf of the Democratic composer, was Beethoven’s way of sticking it to his former political ally in the quest to rid France of Absolute Monarchy and establish in it’s stead a thriving Republic. The hole, now bored into the parchment, would serve as the symbolic assassination of Buonaparte – for it was at that exact location on the manuscript leaf which previously bore a dedication from Beethoven to the man who was then mere First Consul. Beethoven is even said to have called the work his “heroic symphony” when describing the piece.

Close confidante and secretary to Ludwig, Ferdinand Ries described the harrowing incident:

“In 1803 Beethoven composed his third symphony (now known as the Sinfonia Eroica) in Heiligenstadt, a village about one and a half hours from Vienna....In writing this symphony Beethoven had been thinking of Buonaparte, but Buonaparte while he was First Consul. At that time Beethoven had the highest esteem for him and compared him to the greatest consuls of ancient Rome. Not only I, but many of Beethoven¹s closer friends, saw this symphony on his table, beautifully copied in manuscript, with the word "Buonaparte" inscribed at the very top of the title-page and "Luigi van Beethoven" at the very bottom. Whether or how the intervening gap was to be filled out I do not know. I was the first to tell him the news that Buonaparte had declared himself Emperor, whereupon he broke into a rage and exclaimed, "So he is no more than a common mortal! Now, he too will tread under foot all the rights of man, indulge only his ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men, become a tyrant!" Beethoven went to the table, seized the top of the title-page, tore it in half and threw it on the floor. The page was later re-copied and it was only now that the symphony received the title 'Sinfonia Eroica.'."

The famous leaf from Beethoven's Eroica with 'scratched out' dedication to
Emperor Napoleon Buonaparte, c. 1804
Retrospective analysis of this famous historical anecdote offers little clarity as to the veracity of Ries’ claims. Critics of this story are quick to note the fact that it was in fact, by his own admission, Ries himself who was one of the first to approach Beethoven, bearing the news of Buonaparte’s declaration. There also may have been a financial motivating factor between Beethoven and the Austrian Prince Joseph Franz Lobkowitz, who had offered a generous sum to the composer for a dedication to his Highness in lieu of Buonaparte upon learning the knowledge that Beethoven was planning to dedicate future works to influential figures.

In another preserved ‘conversation’ between Ries and publisher Nikolaus Simrock in late October of 1803, the secretary makes note of Lobkowitz’s wishes, whilst also warning Simrock of the Prince’s intention to seek exclusive rights to the work:

"He will sell the symphony to you for 100 Gulden. It is in his estimation the greatest work which he has written until now. Beethoven played it for me recently, and I believe that heaven and earth must have trembled at this performance. He wants very much to dedicate it to Bonaparte; if not, since Lobkowitz wants it for half a year and is willing to give 400 Gulden for it, he will title it Bonaparte."

This particular twist on this two decade-plus tale is given further credence when one notes the fact that, when all was said and scratched, the dedication of Beethoven’s prized 3rd Symphony was inscribed not to Napoleon, but to Prince Lobkowitz - not forsaking the famously sordid and frequent poorly state of Beethoven's financial affairs at the time (worries over the composers' depleting coffers would reach a desperate and tumultuous hilt during this period, when Beethoven was rumored to engage in suicidal fantasy).

Whether fact or fiction, the persistent legend surrounding the notoriously mercurial composer angrily scratching out in protest his endearing tribute to his former friend in Emperor Buonaparte shows no detectable signs of wear, and one shouldn’t be expecting to see any hint of abatement anytime soon.

Countless novels, biographies, and biopics have been made to mark this most fascinating historical occasion – one of which can be found in the video below, in BBC’s epic drama “Eroica” by British film and television director Simon Cellan Jones:


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