Wellington’s Victory is largely discounted now, considered a gimmicky and ham-fisted lesser work residing in the shadows of Beethoven’s symphonies—but, at the time, there were a great many factors that contributed to the enthusiasm for the piece. First, the obvious political/cultural emphasis on patriotism during wartime led to a fashionable investment in the events of the Napoleonic War, and to an enthusiasm for military-inspired musical topics. Second, during this period, it was not unusual for concerts to include shorter pieces alongside longer, more substantial ones—operatic overtures placed next to art song followed by a symphony and or/concerto, coexisting with more vernacular fare. And, third, ideas about what audiences should value in concert music were rapidly changing during this period. The monolithic stronghold that Beethoven’s symphonies later developed in the symphonic music world had not yet cemented. There was less emphasis on “timelessness” in musical composition—that insistence developed in the later part of the 19th century and still persists today. We expect concert music that is performed in symphonic halls to be easily reinterpreted by each new generation; and we value this timelessness over contextually-bound works. This contributes to the trend of putting certain composers on a pedestal, a veneration that is reinscribed in subsequent concert series seasons as the same orchestral pieces are programmed again and again.
It is not true, however, that there was no enthusiasm for Symphony No. 7, at that premiere performance and afterward. The piece’s second movement, a somber march chorale that belied expectations of a slow section after the relentless opening movement, became its own “hit,” and was often encored in the middle of the piece by inspired audiences. Indeed, the movement was subsequently programmed as a stand-alone piece at orchestral concerts and was sometimes interpolated into others of Beethoven’s symphonies—notably the Second and Eighth—due to its popularity. This is yet another example of how concert audiences and ensembles differed in their expectations of our own time; it was not unusual at the time to present partial works, or insert movements from other works within codified pieces, in a “pick-n-mix” approach to concertizing that is seldom espoused today.
Symphonic concert culture has significantly changed since Beethoven’s life and death, and much of our experiences in Western concert halls are indeed predicated on how Beethoven was venerated by composers and audiences alike throughout the 19th century. Though it is fascinating to think, when we hear his Symphony No. 7—so full of the clever permutating thematic transformation audiences have come to expect of his works—that, at the time, it may have been considered “a companion piece” to the more immediately culturally-relevant Wellington’s Victory. This indicates just as much about what concert culture has conditioned audiences to expect and value over the last two hundred years as it does about the contextual tastes of the original audiences in 1813.
– Eugenia Siegel Conte
PhD Candidate, Ethnomusicology, UC Santa Barbara