Friday, July 13, 2012

Beethoven and the Empress of Russia

In 1814, during the Congress of Vienna, Ludwig van Beethoven was one of the many composers who produced music to entertain the many heads of state and diplomats of Europe. Among these array of sovereigns and ministers, Beethoven was introduced to the Empress Elizabeth Alexeievna of Russia, wife of Tsar Alexander I. His interview with the gentle Empress Elizabeth deeply affected him, and he conversed with her in his customary frank, open way, completely setting aside all etiquette. The Empress immediately took a keen interest to the composer, and a friendship soon sprang up between them. Beethoven frequently met the Empress during the countless balls and receptions held at the palace of the Russian ambassador, and she gave the composer much attention whenever she met him. Apparently, these meetings left a deep impression on him, and he constantly referred to the Empress's affability and courtesy towards him.

During the time of the Congress of Vienna, Beethoven was heavily in debt. A friend of Beethoven tried to convince him to compose a Polonaise for piano and dedicate it to Empress Elizabeth. He assumed that if she liked the composition, she might pay generously, therefore, solving Beethoven's problems with money. Unfortunately, at that time, Beethoven had been having emotional problems, and grumbled that he disliked writing polonaise. Eventually, his friend succeeded in convincing him, and Beethoven wrote Polonaise in C Major, Op. 89. To make the dedication official and public, he first had to obtain formal consent in order to name the dedicatee on the title page of the first edition. He asked an acquaintance to obtain this consent through the Empress's lord chamberlain, who had accompanied her to the Congress, and formulated a few sentences of address. Beethoven was granted an audience to present the piece to the Empress, and as expected, she enjoyed the composition very much. Beethoven received 50 ducats for the composition, a substantial amount at that time. The Empress also gave him another 100 ducats for the Violin Sonatas Op. 30 he dedicated to the Russian Emperor a few years before, for which he had previously received nothing. These were Beethoven's only dedications that resulted in payment.

The dedication reads: "Polonaise for Piano-Forte composed and
and dedicated to Her Imperial Majesty Elisabetha Alexeiewna,
Empress of Russia, by Louis van Beethoven.

On January 25, 1815, the Empress Elizabeth celebrated her 36th birthday in Vienna. It was a grand celebration, and she wished to see Beethoven play the piano in public. However, Beethoven knew at that time that he was no longer a skillful piano player as before, but he did not want to refuse the Empress's request. With the Empress's encouragement, Beethoven played his favorite composition, "Adelaide". This was to be his last public performance as a pianist.

Two years later, Beethoven wrote another composition, this time a more dramatic piece, 7th Symphony, Op. 92, and again, he dedicated it to the Empress Elizabeth. We will never know exactly what prompted him to produce a more dramatic and powerful piece as compared to his earlier dedication, but I'd like to think that the piece perfectly mirrors Elizabeth's character: her unhappiness and seclusion during those times, as well as her resilience, dignity and forbearance in face of difficulty. She must have liked this composition a lot.

Polonaise in Piano, Op. 89.
7th Symphony, Op. 92.


Christina said...

Gem, this post is very touching. Have you seen the film "Immortal Beloved"? I think it is very beautiful and it's one of my favourite films.

Gem said...

Thank you for your lovely comment Christina! I haven't seen "Immortal Beloved", but I'd like to watch it sometime. It really intrigues me about the identity of Beethoven's Immortal Beloved. There was a long list of women associated with him, and there were even speculations that "Fur Elise" was dedicated to the Russian empress. Elise was her nickname within the family.

Christina said...

How fascinating! I never knew that Fur Elise might have been written for the Empress! In the film, his Immortal Beloved is his sister-in-law and it is a tragic quirk of fate that keeps them apart....and his 'nephew'is actually his son. It's very moving!

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