Beethoven’s Eroica: Is Tyranny Voluntary?

Recommended Film

Have you listened to Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony, the Eroica, lately? If not, you might enjoy giving yourself a little break from today’s little tyrannies and watch Beethoven’s Eroica – A film by Simon Cellan Jones – BBC 2003 . It’s free on YouTube, it’s beautiful, and the Eroica is well played.

Here we see in 1804, Prince Franz Joseph von Lobkowitz, a patron, hosting at his Vienna palace the first private performance of the Eroica. We hear discussions between the aristocratic guests, musicians, and servants respectively about the revolutionary musical path Ludwig van Beethoven took with Eroica. And we hear differing views on Napoleon Bonaparte, the original subject of this symphony.

As the symphony’s name suggests, the Eroica creates an audible image of struggle and heroic triumph — Beethoven’s view of Bonaparte.

In 1799, Bonaparte staged a coup d’etat, dissolved the Directory that ruled France and appointed himself first council. In 1804, Beethoven wrote the Eroica and dedicated it to Bonaparte.

Indeed, Bonaparte must have appeared at the time as bringer of order in midst of the chaos first brought about by the Reign of Terror and then by the ineffective Directory.

However, he also gave evidence of being a talented and ruthless opportunist by conquering most of Europe. When Bonaparte proclaimed himself Emperor, Beethoven changed the dedication of Eroica to his patron, von Lobkowitz.

Beethoven was able to turn his back on his former hero. All he had to do was erase Bonaparte’s name from the Eroica’s score and replace it with that of Lobkowitz. But the people of France and later most of the territory Napoleon Bonaparte conquered were not able to get rid of him so easily. His reign lasted until 1815.

Tyranny starts as voluntary

Voluntary tyranny sounds totally counterintuitive. But is it? Some of the world’s notable tyrants enjoyed popular support at the beginning of their careers.

Here are a couple of quotes that might explain the paradigm.

Recognizing a Tyrant To Be, Econlib.org, May 18, 2019

Everything is a matter of degree, and we should say that a ruler is a tyrant to the extent that he consistently favors a given part of the population against another, even if the law allows it.

Thus, recognizing a tyrant is not easy, especially before he has assumed full power. The process can be so gradual that most people may not see tyranny coming; only the last step may be obvious.

John Philpot Curran, The Speeches:

It is the common fate of the indolent to see their rights become a prey to the active. The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt.

Be careful what you vote for, you might get it.