Did you watch Napoleon last Wednesday (9.30, BBC2)? Since he was 10 years old, historian Andrew Roberts has held Bonaparte in high regard. Bony has had rather a bad press for two centuries now, but according to Professor Roberts, he was a splendid chap. Hell of a fellow, actually. Well, it’s a timely revision; next Thursday is the two hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo at which it is estimated 47,000 soldiers were killed or wounded.
I slept on it. Have you noticed the way a TV programme or a film stays with you, and resonates throughout the following day, the themes, the dramatis personae, the script, the music. Yet, unaccountably and apparently irrelevantly, I woke up thinking about Beethoven, and about two contrasting chords – E minor, and E flat major.
At the start of his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera remarks on the way that History is expunged of the agony of the present precisely because it has been consigned to the past. He found himself looking at pictures of Hitler and recalling memories of his childhood with nostalgia. Could we bear to examine the French Revolution if its existence were ongoing? An eternity of heads being chopped off. He muses throughout the book about the contrast between the importance western culture places on gravitas, and the gossamer transience of a life lived solely in the present. And, towards the end of the novel, he recalls the rather portentous quotation Beethoven places above the last movement of his last work, the string quartet Opus 135 – weightily, and in F minor, Muss es sein? – and then lightly, and in F major, Es muss sein! It sounds like something from the Heiligenstadt Testimony – I will seize fate by the throat! But it turns out to be a joke about Beethoven’s laundry bill. It seems extraordinary that even Beethoven is capable of self-parody in the style of Presley in sequins, doing Elvis impersonations at Vegas.
Is there some way of recapturing the agony of the past? Yes. Visit a place that is locked into the past and incapable of breaking free. Gibraltar. Strange place. Reminiscent of Belfast, full of union flags and ancient parapets scrawled with graffiti – No surrender! In Gibraltar, we are still fighting the Peninsular Wars. Young men cruise the streets in open top sports cars with the sound system blaring, a remnant of imperialist tub-thumping. If you come down off the rock, past the Rock Hotel and the Botanic Gardens towards the ancient naval battlements, you come upon a cemetery full of sailors from Trafalgar. The names on the headstones bring the past into the present; two hundred and ten years is but the blink of an eye.
Another way of visiting the past is to read the words of contemporaries. Beethoven again. Napoleon was born in 1769, and Beethoven in 1770. Beethoven had dedicated his Eroica Symphony to Bonaparte, but when he learned that France’s First Consul had crowned himself Emperor on May 20th, 1804, he famously flew into a rage, and said, “Now he, too, will trample on all the rights of man!” He tore the symphony’s title page in two, and scratched out the name “Buonaparte” with such ferocity as to dig a hole in the paper.
Lord Byron also had a change of heart about Napoleon. He was born in 1788. His Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte is caustic in the extreme.
Thine only gift hath been the grave / To those that worshipped thee; / Nor till thy fall could mortals guess / Ambition’s less than littleness!
When Arnold Schoenberg set Lord Byron’s Ode to music in 1942, he was doubtless thinking of another “little corporal”. It is a serial work based on a tone row – E – F – D flat – C – G sharp – A – B – B flat – D – E flat – G – F sharp, but it is surely no coincidence that its final chord is E flat major, the home key of the Eroica.
Sir Walter Scott’s one essay into biography was The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte. Scott was born in 1771. The first edition of The Life, published simultaneously in French, German, Italian, and Spanish, was a spectacular commercial success. Of particular interest with regard to Andrew Roberts’ programme is Scott’s treatment of the taking of Jaffa by the French in 1799:
The place was carried by storm – 3000 Turks were put to the sword, and the town was abandoned to the license of the soldiery, which, by Buonaparte’s own admission never assumed a shape more frightful.
And of the Egyptian prisoners taken –
This body of prisoners was marched out of Jaffa, in the centre of a large square battalion… They were escorted to the sand-hills to the south-east of Jaffa, divided into small bodies, and put to death by musketry. The execution lasted a considerable time, and the wounded were despatched with the bayonet.
And one final near contemporary – Thackeray, born 1811. Musing on the night of June 18th, 1815:
There is no end to the so-called glory and shame, and to the alternations of successful and unsuccessful murder, in which two high-spirited nations might engage. Centuries hence, we Frenchmen and Englishmen might be boasting and killing each other still, carrying out bravely the Devil’s code of honour.
So we return to the present, and to Prof Roberts’ ongoing assessment of his childhood hero. Part of the young Napoleon’s spectacularly successful Italian campaign was the pillage of Milan and Padua, the systematic looting of Michelangelos, Raphaels, and Caravaggios, and their transport in carriages to the Louvre. Some people have been critical of that. Mr Roberts’ comment – “They need to get over themselves.” Then we come to that segment which, I confess, really got up my nose and made me write this blog, the treatment of the Jaffa atrocity of March 9th 1799 when Napoleon exacted reprisals on up to 4000 prisoners by systematically bayoneting them to death on the beach. Prof Roberts admitted that such an event would now be regarded as a war crime. But not then. The most Prof Roberts could bring himself to say of his great hero was that this was “not his finest hour”.
It’s a common enough argument, the idea that in assessing the actions of the past, we must have due regard for the mores of the time, and not apply the standards of our own morality retrospectively.
I don’t believe in this argument; I don’t buy it. For as long as Homo sapiens has walked the planet, and perhaps for even longer, any of our ancestors being marched down to the beach to be bayoneted has felt – aside from terror – a sharp sense of disgruntlement and injustice. Murder is as old as time itself. Is this why we appear to be the only “sapient” species on earth, because we have killed off all the opposition? Cain murders Abel in Genesis chapter 4. The archetypical stories of our collective consciousness tell us we have always known that murder is the greatest wrong. Yet in the dismal recapitulation of blood and gore through the centuries that continues to be our idea of the study of History, we continue to spew out the usual apologias – he solved the unemployment problem… he got the trains to run in time… okay it wasn’t his finest hour…
Waterloo is a little distraction from the current, burdensome four year celebration of war we are less than a year into. I’d like to hear a bit more Sassoon –
“He’s a cheery old card”, grunted Harry to Jack / As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
But he did for them both with his plan of attack.
I’d like to hear a bit more Owen –
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest / To children ardent for some desperate glory / The Old Lie: Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori.
Now I know why I woke up thinking about Beethoven, and E flat. But why E minor?
The answer lies in the Sixth Symphony of Ralph Vaughan Williams. RVW quotes the Eroica in the second movement of the sixth. He takes the repeated three note motif of the introduction of the last movement of the Eroica and transforms it into something inhuman, mechanistic, and hellish. The last movement of the sixth, so reminiscent of Neptune, the last of The Planets by his good friend Gustav Holst, never rises above pianissimo. Some people think of it as a depiction of a nuclear winter. RVW, great exponent of the Anglo-Saxon litotes tradition, always abhorred the imposition upon music of a programme, but at least he admitted that that very beautiful but deserted music is “full of meaning, and tension”. In the end, it settles on a chord of E flat, which is a chord of resolve, and of resolution. Then it elides into a chord of E minor, which is a chord of anxiety and trepidation. And you wonder which way it is going to go. So finally, it settles on to a chord of E flat, and fades out towards silence, much as Holst’s Neptune fades out.
Then, almost inaudibly, it slips back into E minor.