Beethoven’s fifteen-minute orchestral work ‘Wellington’s Victory’ (Op. 91, 1813) by the late Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields begins with a minute of chirping, by what sounds like both birds and crickets. Then enter the hoof beats of galloping horses, then drums and trumpets sound the rhythms of a marching army. Rising from this background, the music finally comes into its own with renditions of ‘Rule, Britannia!’ and, after some clinking of mess cans, ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow’ (or rather, the French folk song of the same melody, ‘Marlborough is leaving for the war’). These tunes represent the British and French sides respectively at the 1813 Battle of Victoria, which the piece celebrates.
Throughout the remainder of the first half of the piece, ‘Battle’, they’re played to symbolise the events of the battle, while ‘God save the king’ is the subject of the fugue celebrating the British victory in the second half of the piece, the ‘Victory Symphony’. All good fun. But also, at least for me, rather embarrassing. The bird song and hooves are additions by Marriner, but Beethoven’s score already has generous helpings of cannonry and rifle fire. When I hear a ‘Marlborough’ played to represent a French retreat, accompanied by yet another bout of gunfire, I cringe. Does this really live up to Beethoven’s venerable name?
My reaction is far from unique. Critical evaluation is almost uniformly negative. Musicologists, such as Richard Taruskin, describe it as a ‘piece of orchestral claptrap’. Yet in Beethoven’s time, it was one of his most popular works. It also shares much with the most admired and canonical of his works, such as the Third (‘Eroica’) Symphony. As in the first movement of the Eroica, whose structure is the subject of much musicological discussion, in Wellington’s Victory an amorphous, potential-laden beginning ramifies, reaches a crisis
(the forte fortissimo chromatic descent in the ‘Storm March’ section of ‘Battle’) and is followed by a triumphant return in the ‘Victory Symphony’, where ‘God save the king’ is developed contrapuntally with characteristic sophistication.
It’s easier to identify the historical contingency of our expectations than to broaden those expectations. Probably like most people brought up on the more canonical works of Viennese classicism, I still feel an instinctive sense of embarrassment when listening to ‘Wellington’s Victory’. But if the piece isn’t great art, that’s our fault as much as its own.