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Wellington's Victory, or, the Battle of Vitoria (Wellingtons Sieg oder die Schlacht bei Vittoria), Op. 91, is a minor 15-minute-long orchestral work composed by Ludwig van Beethoven to commemorate the Duke of Wellington's victory over Joseph Bonaparte at the Battle of Vitoria in Spain on 21 June 1813. It is known sometimes as "The Battle Symphony" or "The Battle of Vitoria", and was dedicated to the Prince Regent, later King George IV. Composition stretched from August to first week of October 1813, and the piece proved to be a substantial moneymaker for Beethoven.
After the Battle of Vitoria, Beethoven’s friend Johann Nepomuk Maelzel talked him into writing a composition commemorating this battle that he could notate on his 'mechanical orchestra', the panharmonicon, a contraption that was able to play many of the military band instruments of the day. However, Beethoven wrote a composition for large band, so large that Maelzel could not build a machine large enough to perform the music. As an alternative, Beethoven rewrote the Siegessinfonie for orchestra, added a first part and renamed the work Wellington’s Victory.
The piece was first performed in Vienna on 8 December 1813 at a concert to benefit Austrian and Bavarian soldiers wounded at the Battle of Hanau, with Beethoven conducting. It was an immediate crowd-pleaser and met with much enthusiasm from early concertgoers. Also on the programme were the premiere of his Symphony No. 7 and a work performed by Maelzel's mechanical trumpeter.
"Wellington's Victory" is something of a musical novelty. The full orchestration calls for two flutes, a piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, a contrabassoon, four horns, six trumpets, three trombones, timpani, a large percussion battery (including muskets and other artillery sound effects), and a usual string section of violins I and II, violas, cellos, and double basses. It is interesting to note the greater number of trumpets than horns, and the expansion of brass and percussion.
In the orchestral percussion section one player plays the timpani, the other three play the cymbals, bass drum and triangle. On stage there are two 'sides', British and French, both playing the same instruments: two side drums (englisches/französisches Trommeln in the score), two bass drums (Kanone in the score), two (four) ratchets, played by eight to ten instrumentalists.
The music simulates approaching opposing armies and contains extended passages depicting scenes of battle.
It uses "Rule Britannia" and "God Save the King" for the British, and "Marlbrough s'en va-t-en guerre" ("Marlborough has left for the War") for the French – the latter tune also now known as "The Bear Went Over the Mountain" or "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow." Beethoven might have been expected to use the tune to "La Marseillaise" to represent the French side, as Tchaikovsky later did in his "1812 Overture". However, the song was considered subversive in Vienna at the time of the composition.
The first version of "Wellington's Victory" was not written for an orchestra. Mälzel, known today primarily for patenting the metronome, convinced Beethoven to write a short piece commemorating Wellington's victory for his invention, the panharmonicon. It never caught on as anything more than a curiosity. Nonetheless, Mälzel toured Europe showing off Beethoven's work on the mechanical trumpeter and the enthusiasm for the music convinced Beethoven to turn it into a full-blown "victory overture".
The composition today
The novelty of the work has waned, and "Wellington's Victory" is not performed much today. Many critics lump it into a category of so-called "battle pieces", along with Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture and Liszt's Hunnenschlacht (Battle of the Huns): Charles Rosen wrote that 'Beethoven's contribution lacks the serious pretentiousness or the incorporation of ideology of Felix Mendelssohn's Reformation Symphony, or of Hector Berlioz's Symphonie funèbre et triomphale, but it is only the less interesting for its modesty.'
In their book Men of Music, Wallace Brockway and Herbert Weinstock termed the piece an "atrocious potboiler".
Beethoven had no illusions about its merits, and responded to similar criticism in his own time: "What I s*** (scheisse) is better than anything you could ever think up!"
It has had somewhat of a renaissance in recent years as it forms the centrepiece of the Battle Proms Concerts that take place at stately homes around the UK. This is the only concert series known to play the piece with the full complement of 193 live cannon: modern technology has allowed it to be played using electronic firing devices, operated by the orchestra percussionist.
- "Beethoven, Siegessinfonie". Whitwell Books. Retrieved 2013-09-06.
- Rosen, C: The Classical Style, p401. London: Faber & Faber, 1971.
- Michael Rodman. "Wellington's Victory, for orchestra, Op. 91 – Ludwig van Beethoven | Details, Parts / Movements and Recordings". AllMusic. Retrieved 2013-09-06.