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.