Overtones: Music Fit For An Emperor Named Napoleon

Works include Beethoven's Eroica, Kodaly's Hary Janos Suite.

[Editor's Note: "Overtones" is a weekly opinion column by Washington Post classical-music critic emeritus Joe McLellan.]

Contributing Editor Joe McLellan writes:

Thirteen years and 10 days after America began its revolution, the French did the same, which they duly celebrate every year as Bastille Day.

The French Revolution began with an angry mob storming the Bastille, a royal prison in Paris, on July 14, 1789. And its end began in 1812, with the defeat of Napoleon's Grand Armee at the hands of the Russian winter and the czar's artillery.

It was that military disaster — and the eclipse of the French emperor, Napoleon — that inspired 19th-century Russian composer Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, a tone poem — and one of his most popular works — that has, ironically, been embraced by Americans as a musical symbol of their revolution.

But the 1812 Overture is not the greatest work associated with the name of Napoleon, who has probably inspired more music than any other historical figure except Jesus Christ. Most music lovers would give that title either to Beethoven's Symphony No. 3, or to his Piano Concerto No. 5. But the 1812 Overture has some qualities found in most music of this kind — at least the music that is still performed regularly two centuries after Napoleon reached the height of his glory.

First, it is the work of a composer whose attitude toward Napoleon was negative. Second, it has a high level of color and vitality. Finally, at some points it becomes very loud.

From Ode To Critique

Beethoven's Symphony No. 3, titled the Eroica ("Heroic"), has a history that represents a drastic change in Beethoven's attitude. When Beethoven composed it, he considered Napoleon a hero, embodying the ideals of freedom, equality and brotherhood that were a slogan of the French Revolution.

It was originally titled "Bonaparte," but when Napoleon dropped the revolutionary mystique and proclaimed himself emperor in 1804, Beethoven tore off the title page of his manuscript. It was published with the Eroica title and the inscription "composed to celebrate the memory of a great man." Napoleon was still alive, but his greatness was dead.

Napoleon's title, if not his name, was attached to Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 without Beethoven's approval and more or less by accident. According to legend, it was given to the concerto by a veteran of Napoleon's army, sitting in the audience, who was so stirred by the orchestra's majestic first theme that he jumped up and shouted, "C'est l'Empereur" ("It's the Emperor.")

Otherwise, the music has nothing to do with Napoleon.

'A Struggle Between Melodies'

There is a very close resemblance to the 1812 Overture in Beethoven's Battle Symphony, also known as Wellington's Victory, which was composed in 1813 after one of Napoleon's armies lost the battle of Vittoria in Spain. Like Tchaikovsky, but 67 years earlier, Beethoven stages the battle as a struggle between two melodies. England is represented by "God Save the King," which wins the battle amid the sound of gunfire and celebrates the victory by turning itself into a fugue.

Beethoven's melodic representation of France comes as a shock to those who are hearing it for the first time. It is a march that was used by French soldiers, "Marlborough s'en va-t-en-guerre" ("Marlborough Goes Off to War"), but in English-speaking countries the tune is known variously as "The Bear Went Over the Mountain," "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" or "We Won't Be Home Until Morning."

Two other works associated with Napoleon and dating from his lifetime are settings of the Mass by Franz Joseph Haydn, both of which reflect the tensions rampant in Vienna during the Napoleonic Wars.

The "Lord Nelson Mass" is nicknamed in honor of the great English admiral who won the battle of Trafalgar and swept the French Navy out of action. In spite of its religious text, the "Mass in Time of War," also called the "Paukenmesse" or "Kettledrum Mass," fulfills the tradition of noisiness in music about Napoleon near its end, when Haydn throws in his drums to punctuate the Latin plea, "Dona Nobis Pacem," ("Grant us peace").

The longest and most elaborate piece of music about Napoleon is Sergei Prokofiev's epic opera War and Peace, based on Leo Tolstoy's novel of the same title. It is a masterpiece and would be much more familiar to American audiences if its libretto were in Italian, French or German rather than Russian. Fortunately, it is available in a very good recording by the Kirov Opera company.

Finally, there is one funny (also colorful, loud and hostile) piece of music about Napoleon: Zoltan Kodaly's Hary Janos Suite. It was written as incidental music to a play about an old Hungarian veteran of the Napoleonic Wars who likes to tell tall tales about his military exploits. The music vividly describes Hary's capture of Napoleon, his rough treatment as he marches the emperor into captivity and Napoleon's pitiful pleas for mercy.

Napoleon probably expected that memorable music would be written about him. But he could hardly have imagined what it would be like.