Main content
Sorry, this episode is not currently available

From the Ridiculous to the Sublime

Donald Macleod explains how the success of Beethoven's so-called potboiler, Wellington's Victory led to the revised version of his opera Fidelio.

Donald Macleod explains how the phenomenal success of Beethoven's trashy potboiler Wellington's Victory had positive repercussions; it led to the revised version of Fidelio.

If Bonn had had a child protection unit in the 1770s, its officers would doubtless have been frequent callers at 24 Rheingasse, the Beethoven family home. A neighbour might have heard little Ludwig calling out from the cellar where he had been locked up by his drunkard father Johann, or witnessed one of the regular beatings Johann administered to 'encourage' his son to practice the piano. Yet from this abusive background, Ludwig van Beethoven emerged as the greatest musician of his age - the composer who absorbed the Classical legacy of Haydn and Mozart, then utterly transformed it. This week, Donald Macleod charts the course of this transformation in a series of five snapshots of Beethoven's life and work, from his first attempts at composition to the extraordinary productions of his final years.

Today's programme charts one of the most extraordinary episodes in Beethoven's life, from late 1813 to the end of the following year. For the previous decade, Europe had been dogged by the Napoleonic Wars. Now Napoleon's fortunes were beginning to unravel, and in June 1813, Austria abandoned its neutrality and joined the alliance against the French. In the same month, the French army, fighting under Napoleon's brother, Joseph I, was defeated by Wellington at the Battle of Vitoria. Vienna was awash with a tide of patriotic fervour, and that's when the imperial court mechanician, Johann Nepomuk Mälzel, came to Beethoven with an unusual proposal - would he compose a patriotic piece celebrating Wellington's victory? The work was originally to be written not for orchestra but for the Panharmonicon, a bellows-powered contraption-in-a-case of Mälzel's invention that could reproduce the sounds of a military band. Beethoven agreed, but in the event he produced an orchestral version instead. Premièred at a public concert in December 1813, this fatuous work became an immediate sensation, and several more performances followed. By the law of unexpected consequences, when the management of the Viennese court opera were looking for a new production, they turned to the most successful composer of the moment: Beethoven. They approached him with a view to staging his opera Fidelio, and he agreed, but only on the basis that he would be able to revise it completely - in the process, creating the version most widely performed to this day.

1 hour

Music Played

  • (Trad)

    Stero Canon Shots From Opening Of Wellington'S Victory Commentary Track

    Performer: 2nd New Jersey Light Artillery. Performer: Gerald G Stowe.
    • Mercury Living Presence: 434 360-2.
    • Mercury Living Presence.
    • 6.
  • Trad

    Stero canon shots from opening of wellington's victory commentary track

    Performer: 2nd New Jersey Light Artillery. Performer: Gerald G Stowe.
    • Mercury Living Presence: 434 360-2.
    • Mercury Living Presence.
    • 6.
  • (Trad)

    Stero Canon Shots From Opening Of Wellington'S Victory Commentary Track

    Performer: 2nd New Jersey Light Artillery. Performer: Gerald G Stowe.
    • Mercury Living Presence: 434 360-2.
    • Mercury Living Presence.
    • 6.
  • Ludwig van Beethoven

    Symphony No. 8 In F Major Op.93- 2nd movement; Allegretto scherzando

    Orchestra: Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. Conductor: Sir John Eliot Gardiner.
    • ARCHIV : 439-900-2.
    • ARCHIV.
    • 6.
  • Ludwig van Beethoven

    Symphony No. 8 In F Major Op.93- 2nd movement; Allegretto scherzando

    Orchestra: Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. Conductor: Sir John Eliot Gardiner.
    • ARCHIV : 439-900-2.
    • ARCHIV.
    • 6.
  • Ludwig van Beethoven

    Wellingtons Sieg Or Die Schlacht Bei Vittoria Op.91 -Schlacht

    Orchestra: London Symphony Orchestra. Conductor: Antal Doráti.
    • MERCURY : 434 360-2-.
    • MERCURY.
    • 4.
  • Ludwig van Beethoven

    Wellingtons Sieg Or Die Schlacht Bei Vittoria Op.91 -Schlacht

    Orchestra: London Symphony Orchestra. Conductor: Antal Doráti.
    • MERCURY : 434 360-2-.
    • MERCURY.
    • 4.
  • Ludwig van Beethoven

    Elegischer Gesang Op.118 (Sanft Wie Du Lebtest) For 4 Solo Voices And String Qu

    Ensemble: Collegium Musicum 90. Singer: Mark Padmore. Singer: Stephen Varcoe. Conductor: Richard Hickox. Singer: Pamela Helen Stephen. Singer: Rebecca Evans.
    • CHANDOS : CHAN-0703.
    • CHANDOS.
    • 14.
  • Ludwig van Beethoven

    Elegischer Gesang Op.118 (Sanft Wie Du Lebtest) For 4 Solo Voices And String Qu

    Ensemble: Collegium Musicum 90. Singer: Mark Padmore. Singer: Stephen Varcoe. Conductor: Richard Hickox. Singer: Pamela Helen Stephen. Singer: Rebecca Evans.
    • CHANDOS : CHAN-0703.
    • CHANDOS.
    • 14.
  • Ludwig van Beethoven

    Fidelio (Leonore) - Opera Op.72 - Act 2 no.15; O namenlose Freude! [duet]

    Singer: Nina Stemme. Orchestra: Lucerne Festival Orchestra. Singer: Jonas Kaufmann. Conductor: Claudio Abbado.
    • Decca : 4782551.
    • Decca.
    • 7.
  • Ludwig van Beethoven

    Fidelio (Leonore) - opera Op.72 final vers. [1814] in 2 acts

    Singer: Nina Stemme. Singer: Jonas Kaufmann. Singer: Falk Struckmann. Singer: Christof Fischesser. Orchestra: Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Orchestra: Lucerne Festival Orchestra. Conductor: Claudio Abbado.
    • Decca : 4782551.
    • Decca.
    • 8.
  • Ludwig van Beethoven

    Fidelio (Leonore) - Opera Op.72 Final Vers - Act 2 no.16; Heil sei dem Tag [finale]

    Singer: Nina Stemme. Orchestra: Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Orchestra: Lucerne Festival Orchestra. Singer: Jonas Kaufmann. Singer: Falk Struckmann. Conductor: Claudio Abbado. Singer: Christof Fischesser.
    • Decca : 4782551.
    • Decca.
    • 8.
  • Ludwig van Beethoven

    Sonata No. 27 In E Minor Op.90 For Piano

    Performer: Charles Rosen.
    • SONY : SB2K-53531.
    • SONY.
    • 1.
  • Ludwig van Beethoven

    Sonata No. 27 In E Minor Op.90 For Piano

    Performer: Charles Rosen.
    • SONY : SB2K-53531.
    • SONY.
    • 1.

Broadcasts

Composers A to Z

Composers A to Z

Visit the extensive audio archive of Radio 3 programmes about Composers and their works.

Who knew? Five eye-opening stories from Composer of the Week

Who knew? Five eye-opening stories from Composer of the Week

The production team reflects on 5 of Donald Macleod’s best stories from the last 20 years

A man out of time – why Parry's music and ideas were at odds with his image...

A man out of time – why Parry's music and ideas were at odds with his image...

The composer of Jerusalem was very far from the conservative figure his image suggests.

Five reasons why we love Parry's Jerusalem

Five reasons why we love Parry's Jerusalem

What is the strange power of Jerusalem which makes strong men weep?

Composer Help Page

Composer Help Page

Find resources and contacts for composers from within the classical music industry.