Ludwig van Beethoven

Wellington's Victory, for orchestra, Op. 91

    Description by Michael Rodman

    Few works by great composers are as famously infamous as Beethoven's Wellington's Victory, Op. 91 (1813). This most dubious of Beethoven's accomplishments is a hodgepodge, a potboiler, and a special-effects extravaganza that hardly ranks with the composer's greatest works; still, its melodramatic, gaudy bombast lends it a certain charm and appeal that has allowed it to retain greater popularity than a mere curiosity would merit. The popular success of Wellington's Victory in Beethoven's own lifetime is suggested both by the lucre it brought the composer -- in terms of financial return, it was one of his most rewarding efforts -- and by the variety of editions in which it was published, including one for two pianos and offstage cannons. The composer himself defended the work against critics as one might protect a child from bullies; in response to one critic's negative assessment, he wrote that "what I sh*t (scheisse) is better than anything you could ever think up!"

    The work had its genesis in a commission from Johannes Maelzel, best remembered for his role in the development of the metronome. Maelzel asked Beethoven to write a piece for a contrivance of his own invention, the Panharmonicon. This "mechanical orchestra" worked on the same principle as a barrel organ, using various types of organ pipes to recreate the sounds of brass and woodwinds, while a pneumatic system powered actual percussion instruments like triangles, cymbals, and drums. Beethoven filled Maelzel's request with Wellington's Victory, a work commemorating the then-recent British victory over the French at the Battle of Victoria. Soon after, Beethoven made a version for orchestra, touching off a battle of its own between the composer and Maelzel over ownership rights to the work. In any event, the more extensive instrumental palette offered by the orchestra spurred the composer to even greater heights of veracity, including the addition of an entirely new section in which the conflict itself is played out in you-are-there sonic detail. Beethoven's only "battle" piece belongs to a genre characterized mainly by the recreation of the sounds of warfare; such works typically include antiphonal effects (representing opposing forces), patriotic tunes, military tattoos, fanfares, and marches, and even the boom of actual artillery. Wellington's Victory is amply equipped with such features, arranged into a loosely structured sonic tableau. Strains of "Rule, Brittania" and "God Save the King" celebrate the British triumph and provide Beethoven a source of thematic and motivic material, while the French are represented by "Malbrouk s'en va-t-en guerre," whose tune is perhaps more familiar as "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow." The showy, extensive use of brass and percussion lends a martial atmosphere throughout. But the crowning touch of realism is the use of real ordnance, supplementing the instrumental volleys with gunfire and cannonades. Because of this last feature -- which hardly falls within the usual means of an orchestra -- Wellington's Victory is often paired with Tchaikovsky's similarly armed 1812 Overture on concert programs and recordings.

    Parts/Movements

    1. Schlacht - March, Rule Britannia - March, Marlbororough - Schlacht, Allegro
    2. Siegssymphonie, Intrada ma non troppo - Allegro con brio

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2016 Alpha ALPHA 473
    2014 DG Deutsche Grammophon
    2013 Brilliant Classics 94630
    2012 Decca / Mercury Living Presence 001653302
    2011 DG Deutsche Grammophon
    2011 Deutsche Grammophon / DG Deutsche Grammophon 4779830
    2011 DG Deutsche Grammophon
    2011 Brilliant Classics 94052
    2010 Decca
    2010 RPO 28990
    2008 Accent 10060
    2007 Simax 1282
    2007 Brilliant Classics 93525
    2007 Cascade Records 2200
    2007 Decca 4758508
    2004 Philips 000281300
    2004 Telarc Distribution 80640
    2003 RPO 204490
    2000 Intersound 2899
    1997 Deutsche Grammophon / DG Deutsche Grammophon 4537132
    1997 RCA 68471
    1995 RCA / RCA Victor 68076
    1995 DG Deutsche Grammophon / PolyGram 439690
    1995 Mercury 434360
    1994 Berlin Classics 0020782
    1994 Nexus 10306
    1992 Naxos 550230
    1990 Telarc Distribution 80079
    1990 RCA 7731
    1987 DG Deutsche Grammophon 419624
    Philips 442356
    Cascade Records 2213
    Tahra 128
    Brilliant 93525/12
    RCA 902661713
    RCA 61713
    Collins Records 3002
    Philips 426487
    CBS Records 44901
    Tahra 126/8
    CBS Records 37252