On this day in 1809, eager to protect his precious hearing during the heavy bombardment of the Siege of Vienna, composer Ludwig von Beethoven hid in his brother’s basement with pillows covering his ears.
Few public figures impacted Beethoven’s life and work as acutely as Napoleon Bonaparte. Throughout his life, the composer regarded the Bonaparte with mixed emotions, from admiration and respect, to fury and revulsion, to ambivalence and esteem.
When General Bernadotte, then a French ambassador to Austria, suggested to Beethoven to write a piece in homage to Napoleon, Beethoven’s Third Symphony was born. He named the sweeping piece the Bonaparte Symphony in honour of the French general. But in 1804, when Beethoven learned Napoleon had renamed himself “Emperor,” the composer was so angered he scratched “Bonaparte” off the title page of his score with such vehemence it tore a hole in the page. He refused to dedicate the piece to a man he now considered a tyrant, he told one of his friends. The piece was renamed Eroica, or “Heroic Symphony.” Nevertheless, it still carried the inscription, “composed to celebrate the memory of a great man.”
That wasn’t the end of Napoleon’s influence on Beethoven’s career. The general’s two occupations of Vienna, in 1805 and 1809, greatly disturbed the composer’s career. Napoleon’s 1805 siege interrupted the premiere of Fidelio, Beethoven’s only opera. Then, in 1809, Napoleon invaded Austria and laid siege to Vienna. The French Emperor established his base camp in Linz and proceeded to bombard the city with heavy fire for a prolonged period of time. The intense shelling caused such a racket that Beethoven, concerned about his worsening hearing, took refuge in his brother’s basement at the height of the Siege of Vienna on 10 May 1809. Along with his brother, Carl, Carl’s wife Johanna, and their son, Karl, Beethoven sought shelter, at times covering his ears with pillows to block the harsh sounds of bombardment.
Vienna ultimately fell to Napoleon, again. In a year’s time, however, the two countries were on peaceful terms again and Beethoven briefly considered dedicating his Mass in C Major, Opus 86, to Napoleon. In a departure from his previous feelings about the Emperor, he even told his friend and former student Carl Czerny, “I used to detest him, but now I think quite differently.”