Tuesday, April 19, 2011

4/19 Beethoven with Cannons

The very first post on The Daily Beethoven (back in the sepia-tinged days of July 2010) was about Wellington's Victory (or, the Battle of Vitoria, Op. 91 (Wellingtons Sieg oder die Schlacht bei Vittoria)).  I'd like to revisit that work just briefly - mainly because I found a video of a performance with live cannons.

This is almost a theatrical piece  because there are actually opposing teams on each side of the orchestra playing the "battle sounds" on drums and rattles. It also uses "nationalistic" themes to portray the movements of each army: "God Save the King," "Rule Britannia" for the British, and "Marlbrough s'en va-t-en guerre" ("Marlborough Has Left for the War") for the French (sounds like "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow").  The work is in two parts, the "Battle" part and the "Victory Symphony".  The Victory Symphony was derived from a kind of simple wind band version for Maelzel's Panharmonicon contraption, but B. added the battle part and expanded it into Wellington's Siege (both parts).

Besides the Panharmonicon version and the concert version, there is also a piano 4-hands version with offstage cannons (I'm assuming the roof repairs were a real pain).

The Battle "plot" goes something like this:
1. Drums and Trumpets on the English Side
2. English March: Rule Brittania
3. Drums and Trumpets on the French Side
4. French March: Marlborough
5. Summons
6. Countersummons
7. Battle: Allegro (Cannons and musket fire commence from both sides)
8. Forward March: Allegro assai
9. Andante

Here's a video from someone's iPhone of an actual concert with real cannons.  I think there were a few misplaced cannon shots, but cannonade is hardly an easy instrument to master.  Also the fireworks are a bit much, there are no fireworks in the actual score... And the symphony is a bit drowned out, but hey - there's explosions!

Battle Proms - Beethoven's Battle Symphony, Op. 91 (Wellington's Victory)
(Althorp Park Battle Proms 2009)

Here's a pretty interesting staged version with some artillery at the end - you can actually hear the music with this one:

Beethoven was actually criticized in his own lifetime for creating such a "cheezy" piece.  His reply:
"what I sh*t (scheisse) is better than anything you could ever think up!"


  1. I completely and unashamedly love Wellington's Victory, and was lucky enough to conduct the winning English side in concert when I was in grad school. Is it cheesy? Hell yes, but so is 1812 and we wear that piece out. Wellington's Victory is 15 exciting minutes, and that's all you want.

    Have you heard the famous Dorati recording on Mercury? During the minor mode Marlborough section, it gives the impression of the French retreating via the cannon shots becoming quieter and quieter. It's a bloody spectacular effect, and a great recording.

  2. You conducted? That must have been a real blast! haha.

    I'm listening to the Dorati now - yeah that is a rockin version. It's funny tho, that sometimes there's cannon fire coming from the center channel. I can only assume that was the "Lost Brigade". This is also the one piece I can actually play with the score (using my "Real Sound FX!" key chain).