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Napoleon's Armies Advance On Vienna: Beethoven's "Empire of the Mind" Prevails

Beethoven inititally planned to dedicate his "Eroica" symphony to Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821).

Ludwig van Beethoven’s "Les Adieux" or "The Farewell" sonata (Piano Sonata No. 26) is considered the composer's most significant work from the period between 1809 - 1810. It was a time when the Napoleonic Wars continued to bring upheaval to Beethoven’s adopted city of Vienna, the surrounding region, and beyond.

Even before his Piano Sonata No. 26 in E-flat Major was composed, Napoleon’s unyielding push for power had left many disillusioned. Beethoven himself had abandoned his initial decision to dedicate his "Eroica" symphony to the French leader many hoped would be a liberalizing force. 

William Kinderman, a music professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a Beethoven biographer and concert pianist, spoke with Meridee Duddleston about the artistic and historical context in which the "Farewell" sonata was conceived.

Kinderman says its three-part progression of departure, absence, and joyful reunion, reflects Beethoven’s sense that art carries within it the seeds for improving society where politics has failed. 

Five years later, with Napoleon headed for his final defeat at Waterloo, and European leaders jockeying for territory within his disbanded empire, Beethoven’s cynicism remained intact. Kinderman says he writes rather characteristically to a friend in Prague, and says, ‘Well, I’ll not say much about our monarchs and our monarchies, if you want you can read about that in the papers. What I prefer is the empire of the mind.’

William Kinderman, Professor of Musicology and Germanic Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


Radio script:

A Beethoven piano sonata, composed when Napoleon Bonaparte’s army occupied Vienna, transcends politics. WRTI’s Meridee Duddleston has more.

Meridee Duddleston: Beethoven wrote the German word for "farewell" over the first three notes of his Piano Sonata No. 26. Each note corresponds to a syllable of the word: Le-bo-wohl (Fare-thee-well). 

He dedicated the work to his patron and pupil Archduke Rudolf, who was among the nobility who packed up and fled in the days before Napoleon’s army besieged Vienna in 1809.  But Beethoven biographer and pianist William Kinderman says "The Farewell" sonata or "Les Adieux," really encompasses a more pervasive leave-taking, by some who would say good-bye forever. 

William Kinderman: It’s as if there’s a whole chain of individual different farewells, not one, but eight or ten of them.  And that’s partly what conveys this idea of there being not just one farewell, directed to one person, like the Archduke Rudolf, but actually many.

MD: Beethoven stayed in his adopted Vienna, but found it difficult to work. Early on, Beethoven was initially enthusiastic about Napoleon’s potential, but the French leader’s  incessant push for power and ruthlessness had left him disillusioned.

WK: He had been initially enthusiastic about Napoleon.  At that time many were hopeful that Napoleon would be a liberalizing figure. But once Napoleon crowned himself emperor in 1804, those hopes were absolutely dashed.  

MD: The great composer later told a friend that what he preferred over politics was the "empire of the mind" he so expressly demonstrated in the departure, absence, and joyful reunion movements of his 26th piano sonata.