Vienna was in raptures over the rhythmic energy they encountered at the premiere of Beethoven’s new symphony. Was the composer finally mad? Or had the audience just experienced a musical victory over Napoleon?
Wednesday, December 8, 1813: in the sumptuous "Redoutensaal" ballroom of Vienna's Hofburg Palace, Ludwig van Beethoven celebrated one of the greatest artistic triumphs of his career - the premiere of his Symphony No. 7, op. 92. With its sweeping melodies and dominating rhythms, it was the talk of the town in 19th century Vienna.
Just two months earlier, on October 19, 1813, the allied troops of Russia, Austria, Prussia and Sweden had scored a major victory over the French army led by Napoleon Bonaparte and forced it into retreat at the Battle of Leipzig. Even in Vienna, it was clear that the despot's days were numbered.
After years of French occupation, the mood in the Austrian capital was jubilant. The Viennese were out to celebrate the freedom of Europe from Napoleon’s tyranny with a large-scale gala concert in which Beethoven's 7th Symphony was included on the program. With proceeds from the ticket sales set to be donated to the wounded soldiers who fought in the Battle of Leipzig, it's no wonder the biggest names in the city stormed the box office. Even the orchestra was filled with prominent musicians such as Antonio Salieri, Louis Spohr and Giacomo Meyerbeer.
The abyss of barbarism
As with the premiere of any new Beethoven symphony, contemporary critics responded first with confusion. The rhythmic ferocity used in the first and last movements proved too taxing for even the most expert of writers.
One critic from even questioned Beethoven's sanity, writing, "What has happened to this once great man recently? His latest symphony bears testament to the fact that he has fallen into some kind of madness. The whole work is a quodlibet of tragic, comic, serious and trivial ideas whose unnecessary bursts of noise which almost explode the listener's eardrums and send him into the abyss of barbarism."
A funeral march as hit
However, the response from the public was quite different. With the overwhelming power and exuberance of the symphony, Beethoven managed to tap into the zeitgeist of the time. The audience interpreted the work as a musical representation of the recent victory over Napoleon and saw it as mirroring their pleasure at having regained freedom and peace.
If witnesses such as Beethoven's personal secretary Anton Schindler are to be believed, there were standing ovations before the performance had even finished. "The outbreaks of jubilation during the A major symphony exceeded anything I had ever seen in a concert hall before," Schindler said.
The audience was particularly overwhelmed by the second movement, with its rhythms suggestive of a funeral march. It was interpreted as a lament for the soldiers who fell at the Battle of Leipzig. Even during the premiere, this part had to be repeated several times due to popular demand and became a cherished hit during the composer's lifetime.
Symphony of liberation
Beethoven's contemporaries aren't the only ones to derive a sense of liberation from his Seventh Symphony. Many experts today believe Beethoven, a revolutionary and committed humanist, expressed his own joy over the end of tyranny in the work. They say Beethoven also expressed his attitude to Napoleon in an earlier work; in 1805, Beethoven had intended to dedicate his 3rd Symphony, Eroica, to the French consul. But when the composer found out that the power-hungry Napoleon had crowned himself emperor, he angrily tore out the dedication page with the words, saying, "Now even he will crush human rights underfoot!"
Once the French conquest was underway, Beethoven is reported to have said, "A pity I don't understand the art of war as I do the art of music: I would defeat him!"
The music speaks for itself
Beethoven himself always rejected requests to come up with a non-musical program to accompany performances of his 7th Symphony. What was important was the "character of the music" he said, adding that the work merely represented, "one of the happiest products of my weak faculties."
Such programmatic additions were also rejected by many of his contemporaries. One critic in Leipzig had a tip, which still holds two centuries later. He said, "Simply listen to this latest work from the genius to appreciate all its beauties. Because the beauties of this splendid work, the spirit of the whole, can't be put into words."