That Beethoven welcomed the French Revolution and admired Napoleon, its most flamboyant product, is common knowledge. So is the story of his outrage at the news that his hero, in flagrant disregard of liberté, égalité, fraternité, had himself crowned emperor: striking the dedication to Napoleon of his “Eroica” symphony, he addressed it instead “to the memory of a great man.” Less well known is how the memory of another great man, Beethoven himself, figured in the lead-up to the second French Revolution – the one that toppled the Restoration Monarchy in a mere three days of July 1830, and that Delacroix commemorated in his provocative “Liberty Leading the People.” That story, too, bears telling, not least because it encapsulates one of the great revolutionary shifts in the history of Western music.
Beethoven died a celebrity in his homeland, in 1827, but virtually unknown in France, where fledgling regimes following 1789 clung all the more tenaciously to Classicism in the arts as innovative currents challenged it more radically elsewhere. Romanticism, as it came to be called, erupted belatedly in France in the 1820s, fed by growing discontent under the Restoration Monarchy established after Waterloo. In the fall of 1827 Victor Hugo’s iconoclastic Preface to Cromwell served as a pivotal rallying call, together with eye-opening performances of Shakespeare. When the newly formed Société des Concerts du Conservatoire orchestra began to introduce Beethoven to Paris, in March 1828, the audience was primed: the “Eroica” Symphony, plainly chosen for its Napoleonic associations, opened the series to electrifying success. It was the Fifth Symphony, to be sure, that soon became the favorite, not for its now-iconic first movement, but for the apotheosis Finale, heard as a Napoleonic triumphal march.
Berlioz remains our best witness to what he called the “thunderbolt” revelation of Beethoven in Paris. For him, the experience was transformational. It overturned the pillar of his Conservatoire training – the assumption that instrumental music was inferior to dramatic. Within two years, Berlioz had written a symphony of his own, the first of four within a decade. Composed in the early months of 1830 as Victor Hugo was leading the Romantics to victory in the Classical bastion of the Comédie française, the Symphonie Fantastique premiered in December 1830, closing out the tumultuous year.
The entire decade surrounding 1830 was in fact tumultuous, especially for music. At the Conservatoire, the Beethoven concerts did more than introduce a new composer: they upset an entire world view. They brought into existence, among other things, the first great modern orchestra, formed of virtuoso performers led by a standing conductor, the orchestra that gave Beethoven’s symphonies their first world-class performances. Those symphonies, in turn, prompted a new kind of listening and a new kind of writing about music. As challenging for audiences of the time as contemporary music can be today, they needed the guidance of critics who wrote not as professional writers who happened to like music (as was the Classical way) but as professional musicians who – like Berlioz and Schumann – were equally skilled as writers. Not by accident did the same decade see the emergence of the first successful French music journals, and of a canon in music equivalent to that of the art in the Louvre. Not by accident did it see a surge in status, in France, for musicians and music itself. But if Beethoven revolutionized music in France, France returned the favor. It was in Paris, then the center of Western culture, that Beethoven acceded to the world stage. It was in French writings, notably those of Berlioz, that the world beyond Germany learned to revere Beethoven as the supreme musical genius who embodied all that was best in the Revolutionary heritage.
Headline Image: Napoleon’s coronation by Jacques-Louis David. Louvre Museum. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.