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War and Peace

War and Peace

Music does not always tell a story. But, sometimes it does.

Jeffrey Gedmin

I’ve always been of the view that music—to paraphrase the legendary teacher of composition Nadia Boulanger—is a way to take us out of time. Having said this, music cannot help but be caught up in time. This applies above all to periods of war and peace. So it was 225 years ago.

Napoléon Bonaparte had defeated the Austrian army in four major battles as Franz Joseph Haydn was finishing his Missa in angustiis (“Mass for Troubled Times”). And Napoléon was on the move south. This was summer 1798. After capturing Malta, French forces landed in Egypt. But a counteroffensive was prepared. On August 1, the British arrived off the coast of Egypt. Led by Admiral Horatio Nelson, the Brits split the French navy, decimating both anchored and seaward-positioned ships, and destroyed seventeen of nineteen French vessels. It was a stunning victory. Nelson was awarded the title “Baron Nelson of the Nile”—and Haydn’s Mass for Troubled Times quickly became known as the Lord Nelson Mass.

The Lord Nelson Mass is a stirring piece of music, arguably one of Haydn’s finest works. It was intertwined with politics of the day in more ways than one. For one thing, war had its effect on European economies and Haydn’s employer, Prince Esterházy, felt compelled to reduce budgets. This affected his court composer; Haydn had to dismiss his woodwinds and was forced to work with an orchestra of strings, trumpet, and timpani. Organ had to substitute for oboes and flutes and French horns. Haydn made do.

The opening Kyrie of the Lord Nelson Mass is dark and foreboding. There are fireworks throughout. By the end, Dona Nobis Pacem—“grant us peace” from the Latin mass—strikes like a flash of light in the sky. Haydn closes the mass with a joyous, victorious fugue. Great music requires both serious rigor and affectionate joy, Boulanger liked to say. Listen and follow the score for the end of Haydn’s mass here and you’ll get the point. The Agnus Dei—“Lamb of God”—starts meditative, but then things break wide open.

For Nelson, victory over the French was a break. He had suffered malaria, yellow fever, the loss of his right arm, and military defeat against the Spanish at the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife on July 25, 1797. The American War of Independence two decades earlier was no picnic, either. Admiral Nelson very likely heard the Lord Nelson Mass performed by Haydn himself in 1800 at the Palais Esterházy in Vienna. As for peace in Europe, it remained elusive. In 1805, Napoléon seized Vienna. Seven years later, the emperor’s forces were marching east.

In September 1863, Leo Tolstoy asked his sister-in-law Elizabeth Bers for research assistance. Tolstoy was interested in letters and diaries from the War of 1812. War and Peace, set during the Napoleonic Wars, was published six years later.

In October 1880, pianist and composer Nikolai Rubinstein commissioned his friend Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky to write a piece commemorating the Russian defeat of Napoléon’s forces. Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Solemn Overture—popularly known as the 1812 Overture—premiered in Moscow in 1882. The exuberant finale with chimes, brass, and cannon fire has become a popular accompaniment to Fourth of July fireworks in the United States.

Tchaikovsky struggled with depression and fought to find his way in the Russian musical scene. Art was caught up in a nationalist movement and Tchaikovsky’s music was criticized for being insufficiently Russian. Some lamented his weak link to Western style, tradition, and methods.

Today, Tchaikovsky has been caught up in culture wars, with some orchestras tempted to ban him, along with other Russian composers. Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine—and the ongoing atrocities committed by Russian forces—has stirred debate about collective guilt, individual responsibility, and the power of gestures. Last year, the Israeli Philharmonic performed Tchaikovsky at Carnegie Hall—to both delight and protest. Wales’ Cardiff Philharmonic took the 1812 Overture off a program last year. Last summer, the Ukrainian Parliament voted to ban music by Russian artists from the post-Soviet era.

Ludwig van Beethoven was in his mid-thirties when he composed his Fifth Symphony. Troubled times, to be sure: The composer was becoming deaf, Napoléon was in Vienna, occupation and censorship plunged Austria into political turmoil. Beethoven worked on Symphony No. 5 between 1804 and 1808.

Beethoven had already ripped up in rage the dedication page of his Third Symphony, having originally thought Napoléon to be a man of freedom, not of tyranny and domination. He remained furious. “If I understood the art of war like I do the art of music,” he quipped, “I’d conquer Napoléon!” He once called out after French soldiers in the same vein with a clinched fist on a street corner in Vienna.

The opening of the Fifth is filled with fury. You have to hear the right kind of performance, though. Here’s Nikolaus Harnoncourt in rehearsal. There’s something raw and brutal in key passages. “It’s about oppression,” says Harnoncourt, “about how one can free oneself [and] the desperate shaking of shackles.”Listen to the first ten minutes—interspersed with Harnoncourt’s vivid commentary—and you’ll get the point.

Jeffrey Gedmin, co-founder of American Purpose, is currently in Prague on temporary assignment as acting president and CEO of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Views expressed in this article are solely the author’s.

Image: Joseph Mallord William Turner, "Boats Carrying Out Anchors to the Dutch Men of War," 1804. (National Gallery of Art, Corcoran Collection [William A. Clark Collection])