Academic journal article The Beethoven Journal

Beethoven and Mälzel: A Re-Evaluation of Mälzel's Character and the History of Wellington's Victory

Academic journal article The Beethoven Journal

Beethoven and Mälzel: A Re-Evaluation of Mälzel's Character and the History of Wellington's Victory

Article excerpt

I. Introduction

The controversy between Beethoven and Mälzel over the rights to the composition known as Wellington 's Victory has been discussed by a number of biographers. The overwhelming consensus has been that Beethoven acted in an irrational and ungrateful manner toward someone who had, albeit unintentionally, rescued the composer from the depths of emotional despair and compositional inactivity. Thayer concluded his considerable analysis of the episode by stating: "Candor and justice compel the painful admission that Beethoven's course with Mälzel is a blot - one of the few upon his [Beethoven's] character, which no amount of misrepresentation of the facts can wholly efface; whoever can convince himself that the composer's conduct was legally and technically just and right, must still feel that it was neither noble nor generous."1 Solomon, who avoids the controversial aspects, writes:

The process of mourning for his beloved was not yet completed. By mid-1813 Beethoven had fallen into a state of mental and physical disorder which brought his musical productivity to a halt ... It was, therefore, fortunate late that summer when the inventor and entrepreneur Johann Nepomuk Mälzel enthusiastically brought to Beethoven the idea and a partial draft for a new composition celebrating a British victory over Napoleon in the Peninsular War.2

The purpose of this retelling is to consider afresh this controversy, giving a more complete treatment of Mälzel's character than has been attempted previously. Although it is quite true that twenty years after taking up residence in Vienna Beethoven found himself in a most precarious emotional circumstance, a question remains whether he was aided by "a brilliantly inventive man," or whether he was vulnerable to the manipulations of a pseudo-inventor and charlatan.3 The story of their association is a fascinating one, as the tale touches such notable personalities as Napoleon and Edgar Allan Poe. The convoluted plot involves a chess playing Automaton, several mechanical music-making devices, the metronome, and a forged composition.

II. Historical Overview of Napoleonic Europe

By 1800 the advent of the Industrial Revolution had provided both the scientific interest and technological means to advance mechanical instruments and measuring devices a giant step forward. However, there was one major political impediment: Napoleon's act of crowning himself Emperor of France in 1802 set in motion what would become more than a decade of division and strife throughout Europe. Upon hearing of Napoleon's betrayal of the ideals of the French Revolution, Beethoven, who had been an early admirer of Bonaparte, went so far as to tear up the dedication page of the Eroica, a work originally intended for Napoleon. Instead of the spread of republican ideals, what would ensue would be a full scale war on the continent and the virtual isolation of England. Vienna would be occupied twice by the French army, and both times the Hapsburg royalty would flee the city. The invincibility of Napoleonic forces seemed assured until a twist of fate occurred, in which Napoleon's desire to legitimize and perpetuate his dominion would actually lead to the reversal of all his fortunes. Coincidentally, the destruction of Napoleon's dream to conquer all Europe and the Middle East occurred in September 1812, just as Beethoven's personal life reached catastrophic proportions.

In 1810 Napoleon, having divorced Josephine with the hope of fathering a legitimate royal heir to his throne, attempted to negotiate an alliance with Russia by proposing marriage to Anna Pavlovna, the younger sister of Emperor Alexander I. However, the Grand Duchess Anna, being just fifteen and slow to develop physically, was understandably lacking in enthusiasm for the possibility of marrying a forty-one year old, even if he were to be considered the most powerful man in Europe. Customarily, Anna would have had little say in the matter, except that Anna's crafty sister Catherine (perhaps in consultation with her husband) reminded the family that two of Anna's sisters had died giving birth. …

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