Thursday, December 16, 2010

"Entangled" in History

The other day I received electronic mail from an old friend in which she wrote about the experience of hearing Ludwig van Beethoven’s seven variations on “God Save the King” (WoO 78) and wondered how he came to write them.  Alexander Wheelock Thayer is a bit skimpy on this piece, but he provides enough data to support some viable hypotheses.  Most important is that the variations were composed in 1803 (sent to the publisher Breitkopf and Härtel in September). That puts the music in the same time frame as the third symphony (Opus 55 in E-flat major).  This immediately brings to mind the story that Beethoven originally intended to dedicate that symphony to Napoleon.  Unfortunately (for Napoleon), this was around the time that Napoleon's reputation as a liberator was turning into that of an imperialist tyrant.  Supposedly, Beethoven scratched Napoleon's name off of the title page and replaced it with the word "Eroica."  (Anthony Burgess would later try to restore Napoleon's proper place in the symphony with a bizarre synthesis of literature and music that he called Napoleon Symphony.  I remember reading a piece, probably in The New York Times, that he wrote this book at a desk with his typewriter on one side and his piano on the other!)

The bottom line is that Beethoven became an avid British sympathizer, seeing England as the one force that could stop Napoleon.  (His WoO 79 set of variations on "Rule Britannia" was written around the same time as the "God Save the King" variations;  and both sets were submitted to Breitkopf in a single package.)  "God Save the King" would surface again (along with "Rule Britannia") when Beethoven wrote "Wellington's Victory" to honor the hero of Napoleon's final defeat.

I feel it is important to realize that these are more than pedantic details.  They are part of a more general argument, which I have been trying to pursue, that every musical act (composition, performance, listening) is embedded in a rich context of history.  I like the way the philosopher Wilhelm Schapp put it:  We are “verstrickt” in history.  (Since that adjective often applies to knitting, the best translation may be "entangled.")  Lincoln put it in blunter language when he said that we cannot escape history (and he was certainly not thinking about those of us involved in music).  The historical context is usually our best source of data for conjecturing the motives of the music-makers;  and, unless we take those motives into account, the music is little more than what San Francisco composer David Garner calls "dots on paper."

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