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Beethoven and Goethe Confront Nobility

Europe was struggling with modernity, with Napoleon championing an end to feudalism. A German composer from the city of Bonn, Ludwig van Beethoven, was a progressive, thirty-year-old when Napoleon came to power in 1800. He was a cosmopolitan who had believed that Napoleon stood for Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. He had been impressed by Napoleon's opening opportunities to people regardless of their social position. He saw Napoleon as representing the Enlightenment. But in 1804, when Napoleon crowned himself emperor, Beethoven went into a rage and tore up the title page of what he had called Symfonia Buonaparte. This was his third symphony and had been subtitled the Symfonia Eroica, eroica meaning heroism. And it is by this name, Symphony No. 3, the Eroica, that it later became known.

Beethoven's belief in equality surfaced in 1812 when he was annoyed with his friend, the German poet Goethe, for using humble expressions when conversing with nobles. You shouldn't do that, Beethoven said to Goethe, "It's not right." While strolling that year in the town of Teplitz, Beethoven suggested to Goethe that they let approaching royalty get out of their way. Beethoven strode through the crowd of princes, touching his hat in greeting, while Goethe moved to the side of the road, removed his hat and bowed.

Beethoven wrote that Goethe was "much too fond of court atmosphere... fonder than is compatible with the dignity of a poet."


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