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A land battle and a sea battle – in a book about Beethoven

I’ve been reading a three-volume fictionalised life of Beethoven, by, of all people, John Suchet, whom most people probably know only as a television newsreader.

The way Suchet tells the story, Beethoven was an oddball from the start. I recall doing a posting here about how Beethoven’s deafness prevented him from having a normal life, as a star pianist, but Suchet’s Beethoven was always set on getting shot of being merely a talented performer, and on becoming a great composer.

Beethoven’s friends and supporters had to put up with a lot at the hands of the irascible genius. They took all the angry insults and demands because, when it came to it, they shared Beethoven’s high opinion of his musical genius, and because they knew also what miseries Beethoven himself had to contend with.

Beethoven’s deafness was no mere inability to hear all the sounds he was surrounded by. It was also the presence of other often very loud sounds inside his own head, often painfully so.

And just to put a tin lid on everything, throughout a lot of Beethoven’s adult life, he had to contend with the consequences of war. Napoleon’s armies took possession of Beethoven’s city of birth, Bonn, and then of the city where Beethoven was based for most of his adult life, Vienna. Quite aside from the usual deaths and disruptions this inflicted upon the Viennese, this played havoc with Beethoven’s various plans to get rich and thereby achieve the freedom he yearned for to just compose his music.

In connection with some of this fighting, Suchet, like the journalist he is, quotes a couple of stories that the Wiener Zeitung published, on a particularly black day for Vienna, in October 1805.

The first concerned the disastrous battle of Ulm:

OUR BRAVE FORCES FACE IGNOMINY!

On 20th October 1805, outside the city of Ulm in southern Bavaria, some twenty thousand of our brave Imperial soldiers, fighting for the honour of His Imperial Majesty, stood and faced the forces of the French imposter Bonaparte, His Excellency General Mack von Leiberich in command.

By an entirely dishonourable manoeuvre, against all the rules of war, the French succeeded in surrounding the Imperial Austrian army.

It is our sad duty to report that General Mack was forced to surrender his army of twenty thousand to the French, handing over the illustrious colours of our brave forebears. The French have taken forty-nine thousand prisoners, whose release His Imperial Majesty is making strenuous efforts to secure.

The latest intelligence from the battle front is that the French are marching east towards our border.

We call on all able-bodied citizens to make preparations to resist the army of the French. The same Bastion which resisted the Turkish invader a century and a quarter ago is being made secure and our civil forces are drilling on the Glacis in readiness to repulse the invader.

John Suchet then adds that at the bottom of this one page, that being all that the Wiener Zeitung could manage on this particular day, there was, in considerably smaller print, a briefer item, which was, Suchet says, “largely ignored by the people of Vienna”. This concerned an insignificant sea battle, somewhere or other off the coast of Spain:

One day after the ignominy suffered by our forces at Ulm, a Franco-Spanish fleet was defeated by a British fleet under the command of His Lordship Nelson off the Cape of Trafalgar.

So, good news, surely. But the Wiener Zeitung cannot force itself to deceive its readers:

This victory for the allies, inglorious and shameful as it is for the enemy, will have no effect on the progress of the war on land.

There you have it. The Continental European attitude to the relative importance of sea power and land power. It took quite a while for that little sea battle to result in the undermining of Napoleon’s power, but it definitely had consequences.

The Samizdata world view is more than a mere preference for navies over armies. But that contrast is definitely part of the story.

I don’t think a German or Austrian author, writing about Beethoven, would have pointed up this particular contrast the way Suchet does. And does, I think you will agree, rather gleefully, despite him ending his chapter with that second quote.

9 comments to A land battle and a sea battle – in a book about Beethoven

  • […] something there, with a couple of quotes from a book about Beethoven. But quotes not about Beethoven. About […]

  • I got about half way through Captain Coignet’s story about marching all over Europe in service to Napolean. I do remember him going to Vienna, but was that before or after he went to Italy? Whatever. Then there were a couple of paragraph’s in Patrick O’Brian’s epic sea saga that talks about watching the battle of Trafalgar from Spain. All they could see was flashes of light on the horizon.

  • Mr Ed

    Rick Beato is an American music teacher and YTer who does superb breakdown videos of popular music songs, e.g. Boston’s More Than A Feeling, but he also did an excellent video about Beethoven’s deafness and how he heard music.

    The Austrian Navy is, like the Bolivian Navy these days, not really a thing anymore. For those in the centre of a continent, life without the sea is how it is. Certainly Trafalgar was a turning point, but with the imposter marching towards you it must, in all fairness to those scribes, it must have felt scant consolation that the French and Spanish were ‘on the ropes’ (or rather, off them) at sea.

  • Mike Solent

    I have memories of Ulm being discussed in our seminars with Michael Howard; it was regarded as an excellent example of the contrast between the pre revolutionary “classical” and perhaps more limited concept of war, and the revolutionary, “romantic” and unlimited Napoleonic concept. Mack had been manoeuvred, and to extent almost manoeuvred himself into a position from which, by his own calculations he could not win. From his perspective, surrender was the logical course of action and it did indeed save many lives. Prof. Howard’s Comment ( and I am thinking back over more than 40 years!). was along the lines of In that position, Napoleon would have said ” *£!&*! that, We’re attacking!”
    His language in academic discourse was often quite colourful….

  • Rob

    By an entirely dishonourable manoeuvre, against all the rules of war

    Lol. Mack was a clown and allowed his army to be outmanoeuvred and trapped. A calamitous appointment.

  • Paul Marks

    The Hapsburg State was deeply inefficient compared to the French State of that time.

    Not only was there still MASS serfdom in the Hungarian parts of the Hapsburg lands in 1805 (something that was not got rid of in France by the Revolution of 1789, because it had actually ceased to exist in France CENTURIES before), but the state bureaucracy itself was very big – for example mass state education existed in Austria (as in Prussia), but not in the France of he period. There were indeed government schools in France – but not on the mass scale of the German lands.

    Hapsburg bureaucracy continued – even in 1914 the Austro-Hungarian state was the most bureaucratic in Europe – there were hundreds of thousands of government officials.

    The Hapsburg State inspired the novels of Kafka, and the English term “Red Tape” – as the Hapsburg bureaucracy used different colours of tape to show what different bundles of documents were about (there were so many documents that they used to fall out of drawers and get all over the place in offices – so one needed a way of telling what the subject of them was without having to open and read them).

    No wonder Beethoven wanted a Revolution to sweep all this bureaucracy and privilege away – he was not to know that when the Revolutions came (after the First World War) what would come would be vastly WORSE than what it replaced.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Paul Marks wrote:

    Hapsburg bureaucracy continued – even in 1914 the Austro-Hungarian state was the most bureaucratic in Europe – there were hundreds of thousands of government officials.

    I am somewhat surprised to learn that, because my understanding was that France was the European leader in bureaucracy, beginning with Philippe Auguste. That is the message that i got from Tocqueville’s L’Ancien Regime et la Revolution (pardon my accent-free French).

    No wonder Beethoven wanted a Revolution to sweep all this bureaucracy and privilege away – he was not to know that when the Revolutions came (after the First World War) what would come would be vastly WORSE than what it replaced.

    If legend is to be believed (which in this case seems likely) Beethoven knew a tyrant when he saw one. He changed his mind about Napoleon when the latter assumed absolute power, and before he did anything wrong with such power.

  • GC

    You should not forget that the Austrian navy was a real thing, with Trieste as its major port – the fourth city of the Empire, after Vienna, Budapest and Prague. It also owned Venice from time to time during the Napoleonic period. So it is a bit surprising that maritime concerns were so far from their minds.

  • Tom Grey

    Napoleon was the Greatest General.
    Ever.
    https://www.wearethemighty.com/mighty-history/best-generals-ranked-by-statistics/

    Very interesting about Beethoven’s deafness – thanks!

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