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Wellington's Victory, or the Battle of Vitoria (also called the Battle Symphony; in German: 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.
Composition, premiere and reception
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 (100 musicians), 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.
This performance, which featured 100 musicians, has been noted as being particularly loud. Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim described it as a "sonic assault on the listener" and the "beginning of a musical arms race for ever louder... symphonic performance", quoting an unnamed attendee as remarking that the performance was "seemingly designed to make the listener as deaf as its composer". Frédéric Döhl described performances of this work as "not like an evening at the Berlin Philharmonie, but rather like a modern-day rock concert".
"Wellington's Victory" is something of a musical novelty. The full orchestration calls for two flutes, a piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, 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. There are more trumpets than horns, and more 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 work has two parts: the Battle (Schlacht) and the Victory Symphony (Sieges Sinfonie). The first part is programme music describing two approaching opposing armies and contains extended passages depicting scenes of battle. It uses "Rule Britannia" for the British side and "Marlbrough s'en va-t-en guerre" ("Marlborough has left for the War") for the French side. Beethoven may have elected to not use La Marseillaise to represent the French forces, as Tchaikovsky later did in the "1812 Overture", perhaps because playing La Marseillaise was considered treasonous in Vienna at the time.
If this first part is pictorial music, the second is far from vulgar and exhibits some typical Beethoven composing techniques. It can be considered as a sonata form that, stripped of the development section, comes equipped with an extended coda. The first theme is a "Fanfarre" in D major, which switches to the distant key of B flat major for the second theme. This is "God Save the King", the British national anthem:
However, the final cadence (bars marked E in the score above) is not played. Instead, motif D is repeated so as to switch back to D major and to the re-exposition of the "Fanfarre" theme. This is followed by the re-exposition of God Save the King, now in the main key (D major) and adopting the pace of a "Tempo di Menuetto moderato". Again the final cadence (E) is avoided and replaced by successive repetition of motif D, this time leading to a coda in imitative style. This 'fugal' section ("Allegro") starts as a string octet (later joined by the full orchestra) with the phrase
stemming from phrase A of the "God Save the King" tune. Later a second phrase joins in, still in imitative style,
derived from the anthem's phrase B, thus building up a 'little double fugue'. It all ends up by a truly concluding section based on motif
(which reworks motifs C+D of the original theme) and at last by a final derivative of phrase A:
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.'
Beethoven had no illusions about its merits, and responded to similar criticism in his own time: "What I shit 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.
- Cf. first edition by S.A. Steiner & Co., Vienna, December 1815. The complete score, available from IMSLP, includes a section 'Remarks concerning the performance' written by the composer.
- "Beethoven, Siegessinfonie". Whitwell Books. Retrieved 6 September 2013. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
- Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim (17 April 2020). "Loud, Louder, Loudest: How Classical Music Started to Roar". The New York Times. Retrieved 23 November 2020.
- Also known now as "The Bear Went Over the Mountain" or "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow".
- For similar key shifts see for instance the Missa Solemnis, the 9th symphony and many other mature works by Beethoven.
- 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 6 September 2013. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)