Beethoven and “Wellington’s Victory”: when a genius mails it in

 There’s something about the work that results from a genius deciding to just…go on autopilot for a bit. Beethoven found himself in 1813 being requested by a friend to write a piece of music for an automated music device, basically a wind-up machine with wind instruments and such, not unlike a player piano but a bit more complicated. The gizmo was called a panharmonicon, and I wouldn’t mind hearing what one of these sounds like. Apparently Beethoven wrote a piece too large for the actual machine, so he expanded it further for full orchestra with a lot of extra percussion and brass, and then he performed it at a concert benefitting surviving soldiers of the Battle of Hanau. The work is a musical depiction of Wellington’s defeat of Joseph Bonaparte, and as such it is simply called Wellington’s Victory.

The music starts with snare drums, playing softly and getting louder, as if to suggest the marching infantry. Then…well, it’s not really a piece on describes or analyzes. It’s a series of popular martial tunes, some of which are still familiar to this day. There is also a sequence of actual “battle” music, complete with muskets. The whole thing is just…well, it’s a fun listen. It really is. It is also impossible to take seriously. There is no sense at all that Beethoven put any serious effort into this piece whatsoever. He needed a piece that could be played by a machine, so he wrote a mechanistic potboiler. And yet…well, it’s Beethoven. When a towering genius does something that for them is no real effort whatsoever, they still have a habit of turning out something of interest.

And Beethoven himself knew this, because when the thing was criticized, he made a rather pointed retort: “What I shit is better than anything you could think up.” Ahhh, Beethoven. Ever the social charmer, even when he was right.

Here’s Wellington’s Victory. The thing that staggers my mind about this piece is that it was programmed on the exact same program as his genuine masterpiece, his Symphony No. 7. One of the enduring masterworks of not just music, but of all Western art…and a trifle commemorating a battle no one much remembers. It’s the kind of thing that makes you remember that Abraham Lincoln’s little speech at Gettysburg wasn’t actually the headlining event that day; that was a two-hour droning oration that Lincoln followed with ten sentences that endured into history.

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