I am an author, a reader, a history-lover, and a musician. And while I don’t always write about music, I always have that question at the back of my mind: What were they listening to?
What was Lizzy playing that so entranced Darcy? What was Mary’s concerto that so bored the guests at Netherfield? What did Mary Crawford play on that harp she loved so much? And what other music was around that our favourite characters might have heard and loved… or hated?
I have plenty to say on the subject, but today I want to write about one piece in particular – Ludwig van Beethoven’s third symphony in E-flat, Op. 55, nicknamed the Eroica.
Beethoven was born in Bonn in 1770 – coincidentally he and Jane Austen likely shared a birthday, December 16th – and showed great musical talent as a child. His first harsh teacher was his father, Johann, and later the composer Christian Gottlob Neefe, under whom he published his first set of keyboard variations at the age of 13. When he was 21, he moved to Vienna, which remained his base through the rest of his life. He studied with Haydn and became known as a virtuoso pianist as well as a composer and conductor. His first symphony was premiered in 1800 and his first set of string quartets were published in 1801. I have a particular love for this set of six quartets, Op. 18, so you can expect to read more about them at some later date.
It was about this time that his hearing started to deteriorate, but he continued conducting. He also started sketching out ideas for what would be his third symphony. He intended, at first, for the work to be fully programmatic – that is, music with a narrative rather than pure abstract sound – and he proposed the title Bonaparte. In other words, his intention was to write a symphonic tribute to the man who he saw leading Europe from darkness before the French Revolution and into a new age of freedom and change. According to Beethoven’s student Ferdinant Ries, the composer had “the highest esteem” for Napoleon and “compared him to the greatest consuls of ancient Rome.”
Napoleon, at this stage of his career, appeared to stand up for the rights of the oppressed. His armies wrested downtrodden communities from the grasp of despots and sought to reform society so working classes could enjoy more equality. Likewise, this symphony was revolutionary. It was by far the longest instrumental piece he had written; the first movement alone was as long as many full symphonies by other composers of his time. It was vast, original, bold, bridging into what is considered his “middle period” where the precise restraint of the Classical style was reaching into the new world of Romantic music, less formally constrained, more expansive, with extended periods of thematic development and harmonic adventure.
By early 1804 the score was complete. Beethoven wrote Sinfonia intitolata Bonaparte (Symphony entitled Bonaparte) on the cover, leaving it out where his friends could see it. This was his tribute to the man he saw liberating Europe.
But his admiration for the general were dashed when, on the 18th of May, 1804, Ries came to Beethoven with news. Napoleon had declared himself Emperor of France. In true Romantic style, Napoleon flew into a rage.
“So he is no more than a common mortal! Now he, too, will tread underfoot all the rights of man, indulge only his ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men, become a tyrant!”
The story gets even more dramatic. Beethoven, so the tale goes, grabbed a pen and scratched out that dedication to Bonaparte with such vehemence that he tore a gash through the paper. The symphony would henceforth be called Sinfonia Eroica – the Heroic Symphony.
The symphony had its first public performance in 1805 in Vienna. It was only two years later, on March 26, 1807, that the symphony was first performed in London at that Covent Garden Theatre.
Reviews were mixed. One reviewer from the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung wrote,
“this new work of B. has great and daring ideas, and… great power in the way it is worked out; but the symphony would improve immeasurably if B. could bring himself to shorten it, and to bring more light, clarity, and unity to the whole.”
Still, within a few short years it had become a beloved part of the repertoire, and received its North American premier in Boston in 1810.
So what does this have to do with Jane Austen? Nothing and everything. As a musician herself, I like to think that she had an opportunity to hear this marvelous music. And more so, I imagine our favourite characters in London, getting dressed up for a night out at the theatre and going to hear this spectacular piece of music. It was part of their world, and as influenced by world events as were Austen’s writings, although in a very different way.
Here is a recording to enjoy if you don’t already have a favourite interpretation to listen to. This recording by Sir Roger Norrington and the London Classical Players incorporates early 19th-century performance practice (and that’s another post too), so it might be as close as possible to hearing exactly what the Darcys heard on their evening out.