Schoenberg's Ode to Napoleon Buonapart" has its origins in a commission from the League of Composers. The work was to employ few instruments and be performed during the next concert season. Manuscript sources reveal that the Ode was begun on March 12, 1942 and completed on June 12 in its original form for speaker, piano, and string quartet. However, the work would be presented in a slightly different format, with string orchestra instead of string quartet, at its première of November 23, 1942 (this version is occasionally referred to as Op. 41b). Numerous people were approached for the part of speaker, among them actor Basil Rathbone, before Mack Harrell was chosen for the first performance, with Edward Steuermann at the piano and Artur Rodzinsky conducting the strings of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.
Byron composed his ode on April 10, 1814, the day after Napoleon's resignation, and had it published anonymously. Originally in sixteen verses, Byron's publisher later asked for an additional three, which Byron supplied, including the closing homage to George Washington. Byron's impassioned barrage was directed not only against Napoleon but toward every dictatorship. It is likely that the portentous lines, "If thou hadst died as honour dies, / Some new Napoleon might arise, / To shame the world again - / But who would soar the solar height, / To set in such a starless night?" evoked the image of Adolf Hitler in Schoenberg's mind. Byron's description of the demise of Napoleon's tyranny was, in 1942, also prophetic: In three years the Third Reich would meet the same fate. Certainly, the thirteenth verse, opening with "And she, proud Austria's mournful flower," touched Schoenberg as much as anything could have.
During a rehearsal for a 1949 performance of the original scoring of Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte, Schoenberg coached the speaker in the declamation of the text. A proper performance, he noted, should emphasize the "dramatic and expressive values" of the text, while the pitches, as marked in the score were of secondary importance. Leonard Stein once related how Schoenberg pointed out his subconscious combination of the Marseillaise and the rhythm opening motive of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony at the point where the narrator speaks, "The earthquake voice of Victory."
Composed just after the Variations on a Recitative for Organ in D minor, Op. 40, the Ode, musically, is constructed on a diametrically opposed process. Whereas the "tonal" Variations borrow formal ideas from serialism, the dodecaphonic Ode retains tonal procedures and actually ends with a "cadence" on E flat major.
The Ode is best characterized as a melodrama, similar to Pierrot Lunaire or Erwartung, but in many ways the Ode is more relaxed and accessible. This is in large part due to the methods in which Schoenberg uses the primary twelve-note row, which is constructed in such a way that the chords of G minor, E flat minor, and B minor can appear easily. All of this results in a more consistent, predictable texture and "harmony" than is typical of the composer's works of the previous two decades.