Theme and Variations: Beethoven, Napoleon and “The Great Disappointment”

Anyone who endures a music appreciation class or reads CD notes of any of the symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven is familiar with the description of the composer as a “revolutionary.” This characterization is the result of social, political, and aesthetic influences. It also extols highly original attributes of musical content, form and tonal structure. Beethoven’s music is hailed as highly innovative and historically seminal. Aesthetically, it represents an emergent Romantic Movement sweeping through European concert music during the 19th century. Musical scholars variously characterize Beethoven’s understanding of the significance of contemporary political and social events. However, most agree that Beethoven’s political sensibilities are reflected in some of his most “revolutionary” compositions.

To understand Beethoven as a revolutionary, we should examine the historical record, his artistic production and personal life.  Our goal is to reflect upon Beethoven’s conflicted political perspective, which is reminiscent of the lamentable plight of American liberals during the era of Barack Obama.

Most scholars agree that Beethoven was an enlightened republican throughout his life. Nevertheless, these attitudes were occasionally and prudently hidden, an admirable facade given his otherwise incendiary personality. This caution was at least a matter of survival for a composer whose livelihood relied primarily upon aristocratic and ecclesiastical patronage. However anti-authoritarian Beethoven’s politics were, they weren’t necessarily anti-aristocratic, or intolerant to some degree of wealth stratification. During 1790, for example, the young Beethoven wrote his Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II. It was composed in honor of the Holy Roman Emperor who advocated an enlightened absolutism that embraced religious toleration, a free press and private property. Beethoven also enjoyed the continuing patronage of aristocrats, including Prince Karl Alois Lichnowsky, who was a Freemason and a lodge brother of Mozart.

Beethoven’s political attitude was particularly German. He speculated on freedom and the artist’s role in advancing it, rather than planning overt revolutionary action. He knew Goethe, and admired the work of Hegel, Kant and Schiller. The German idealism of Hegel and Kant were central to his view of the role of the artist in society.  The Eroica (“Heroic”) and Choral Symphonies and the opera Fidelio memorialize Beethoven’s republican and Idealist worldview.

H. C. Robins Landon explains that the Eroica was inspired by Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt. However, there is little doubt that it deeply resonates with the initial electrifying republican promise of Napoleon, and his depiction as a Romantic hero. This was the promise of social and political changes that would foster universal freedom, equality and benign governance. As with Kant, many republicans favored a popular or representative sovereignty. They also assumed a social contract that obliged those invested with power to rule responsively and benevolently. Both Kant and Rousseau disapproved of an adversarial citizenry, but favored a participatory and cooperative one. Wealth inequality was not a necessary evil, but a natural consequence of differences in individual birthright and capabilities. However, those with means were morally obliged to provide for those in need.

Despite this lofty vision, Beethoven’s faith in Napoleon was dashed first by the French Senate’s proclaiming Napoleon Empereur des Français (indicating that Napoleon was not appointed Emperor of the French government). The fall of Austria and Beethoven’s home city, Vienna, to the Grand Armée further infuriated the composer. Once Napoleon was defeated, hopes for a republican Europe were deeply threatened by the repressive Carlsbad Decrees. The Austrian Prince Klemens Wenzel von Metternich, who championed the Congress of Vienna, advanced the decrees, which were implemented in 1819. They severely curtailed free press rights, outlawed nationalist student clubs and created an investigating commission that would investigate “conspiratorial” organizations.

A famous expression of Beethoven’s political disillusionment involves the dedication to his Eroica Symphony. Beethoven, mesmerized by Napoleon’s republican promise, affixed the name “Bonaparte” as a dedication on the symphony’s title page. Later, Beethoven’s friend Ferdinand Ries informed Beethoven that Napoleon crowned himself Emperor of France in 1804. Beethoven flew into a rage and violently scratched the dedication from the symphony’s title page. Ries recalled, “I was the first to bring him the news that Bonaparte had proclaimed himself emperor, whereupon he flew into a rage and cried out: ‘Is he too, then, nothing more than an ordinary human being? Now he, too, will trample on the rights of man, and indulge only his ambition!’ When the symphony was published in 1806 the title became “Sinfonia Eroica … composed to celebrate the memory of a great man.”

Beethoven’s disappointment is cautionary for American liberals. Consider the inspiration offered by the struggle for Black political equality and empowerment during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Advances in this regard led many liberals to hope that Obama, as a Black man, would govern in a manner sensitive to the moral principles of non-violence and universal brotherhood that guided Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Disappointment emerged with the advent of Susan Rice as the US UN Representative. It didn’t take long for a Black woman, ironically, to throw Palestinian children again under the Zionist bus, just as white men have been doing for decades. For Obama, Black empowerment serves capital. Not surprisingly, he has largely paid lip service to Black issues, while a new Jim Crow emerges throughout the nation.

Yet, the oligarchy is an equal opportunity employer. Many liberals bemoan the loss of two wars in the Middle East. They are astonished that Obama is doubling-down on every bad interventionist decision made since 2001. He is doing thus enlisting the expertise of the former “peacenik” John Kerry, who testified in 1971 for peace in Vietnam before the Senate Foreign relations Committee. A handsome young hero has become an aging monger of war; Kerry the “Peacenik” is now Secretary Kerry the imperialist.

Liberals may now learn that shared skin tone, gender or comforting truisms do not guarantee mutual concern in human affairs.

These visionary escapades in hegemony are further aggravated by Obama’s failure regarding nuclear proliferation. While he threatens Iran with attack in the name non-proliferation, he does not press Israel or South Africa to destroy their nuclear weapons. The vast sums to be saved by his program to reduce nuclear weapons stockpiles are being redirected into a $570 billion-dollar warhead modernization effort.

Not only the continuing deception, but also the erosion of Constitutional guarantees disabuses liberals of their faith in a “socially responsible” privileged ruling oligarchy. Obama’s legal hounding of whistleblowers and journalists, and the 4th Amendment violations of his NSA, recklessly gut fundamental functions of a healthy democracy. Equally foolhardy is Obama’s approach to immigration policy. His recent announcement on immigration reform is helpful. However, the IRS recently indicated that a major cause of the current immigration problem is the signing of the NAFTA free-trade agreement. Yet, this President continues to pursue additional agreements, such as the TPP, which will only exacerbate the immigration problem worldwide. Hence, a “Pro-immigration” President becomes “The Deporter in Chief.” Many thus disappointed may be beneficiaries of Obama’s recent largess. However, when the big money is on the table, Obama begins playing good-guy/bad-guy with those farther to the right. In the mean time, a flood of vulnerable immigrants, many children, produces endless profit from low-valued labor time.

If Presidential terms still received monikers, like “The New Deal” or “The Great Society,” the Obama Administration would be likely named “The Great Disappointment.” This allusion to the millennial Millerites of the 1840s reflects what many liberals have experienced over the past 6 years. Socialists might name it “The Great Expected Result,” as they remain less “hopeful” than many liberals. They are skeptical of liberal saviors, and recognize the failures of the liberal political mindset. They propose a “worker’s” attitude that appreciates the capitalist intersections between various social issues. Socialists seek social improvement through direct and collective political action, and not within cloistered and politicized bureaucracies. They support workers who care for one another, and do not passively beg after the largess of politically vested oligarchs. Charismatic, “enlightened” and “representative” leadership helps, as long as it is not on behalf of autocrats, however well intentioned. Socialists praise direct democratic participation, not indifference. This complements the goal of decentralized governance. It also avoids power concentrations that attract moneyed interests. The Principles also appreciate the particularities of various tokens of oppression (racism, sexism, income), and that they ultimately intersect around the vagaries of global capitalism.

The afterglow of the 2008 celebration of “hope” is waning, and liberals are already trying to determine how to market Hillary Clinton. Obama is settling down to business as usual. Perhaps his supporters will, as Beethoven did with Napoleon, rave against the source of their ideological malaise. They may indict Obama as an ordinary servant of capitalism, who will “…trample on the rights of man, and indulge only his ambition!”

This article refers to the following:

Beethoven: The Man and the Artist, as Revealed in His Own Words. Eds. F. Kersh and H.E. Krehbiel. New York, Dover Publications, 1964.

Einstein, Alfred. Music in the Romantic Period. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1947.

Encyclopaedia Brittanica. Carlsbad Decrees.

George, Christopher T. The Eroica Riddle: Did Napoleon Remain Beethoven’s “Hero?” Napoleonic Scholarship: The Journal of the International Napoleonic Society 1.2 (Dec. 1998). Retrieved 1 November 2014.

Pederson, Sanna. Beethoven and Freedom: Historicizing the Political Connection. Retrieved 10/28/14.

Pettit, Phillip. Two Republican Traditions. From section 2: “Rousseau and Kant on Freedom.” Retrieved 28 October 2014.

Robins Landon, H. C. Beethoven. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1970. Print.

The Sixties Project. Retrieved 8 November 2014.


J. Richard Marra

lives in Connecticut. He received his Doctoral degree from Cornell University in 1977, majoring in Musical Composition and the History of Music Theory. While on the Faculty of the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, he completed graduate work at Johns Hopkins University, majoring in the Philosophy of Science. He is a member of the Socialist Party USA, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Philosophy of Science Association. His articles have also appeared on the websites of the Secular Buddhist Association and The Hampton Institute. He is a 2014 recipient of the SPUSA's Eugene V. Debs Award. To read other essays by J. Richard Marra, please visit

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