Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Impact of Napoleon

One person affected the whole of Europe in the early decades of the 19th Century. His name was Napoleon Bonaparte, a general who'd been born on the French island of Corsica in 1769, became the leader of France in 1799 and then crowned himself Emperor of the French in 1804. To some, Napoleon was the villain of the century; to others, he was one of the greatest, certainly one of the most powerful men who ever lived.

Ludwig van Beethoven had composed a great symphony - at 45 minutes, the longest symphony ever composed by 1803 - which some were calling "The Bonaparte Symphony." As Napoleon Bonaparte, he was the hero of those who opposed the tyranny of monarchs (following an age of the Divine Right of Kings) and those who believed in republican ideals. Bonaparte championed the rights of man, the natural out-come of the French Revolution - or at least, its better aspects, in theory if not in fact.

But as Emperor Napoleon, dropping his family name, he became, to many, just another power-hungry ruler, no different than any king who'd ruled before him.

Beethoven erased Napoleon's name from the score of his new symphony and left a big hole in the paper. Instead, he called it "The Eroica Symphony" and said it was dedicated "to the memory of a hero."

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In 1809, the year Felix Mendelssohn was born, Europe was in the midst of almost constant warfare that had engulfed much of the continent starting with the unrest following the French Revolution in 1789 and Napoleon's wars in Italy and Austria in the 1790s. The different wars – with very brief, unstable periods of peace in between some of them – didn't stop until Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo in 1815. That's about 25 years of near-constant warfare, moving back and forth across Europe!

In 1803, the French sold Louisiana to the United States, a young nation that so far consisted of the original 13 colonies along the Atlantic Coast and a few inland territories like Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee that had become states since it had declared its independence 27 years earlier. But this “Louisiana Purchase” was more than just what became the state of Louisiana – it included land that stretched all the way to Canada and included all or part of fourteen future states! Thomas Jefferson was president, then, the third President elected to run the country.

Napoleon did this as much for the money – some $15,000,000 which in those days was quite a huge sum – as to help strengthen the United States into becoming a more powerful country, primarily to rival England with whom France was constantly at war with between 1792 and 1815. By pitting the USA against England, it might weaken England and help France defeat her. There was a lot of friction between England and the United States in those years: war broke out in 1812 and the British occupied the new capital of Washington DC, burned the White House and nearly defeated the army before eventually losing the war.

Meanwhile, in 1809, France and England fought wars in Spain and Holland, then later in Austria and Poland. At the time, what we know as Germany was a loose “Confederation of the Rhine,” a collection of small states and kingdoms, some no bigger than cities. Italy was divided between France (who owned Rome and the western side of the peninsula) and two other, smaller kingdoms: Napoleon had already been crowned king of one of them!

In a war in 1805, Napoleon had bombarded Vienna and occupied it until the Austrian Empire was defeated. The same thing happened again in 1809. This time, the composer Franz Josef Haydn, regarded as the greatest composer of the time, died at the age of 77 shortly after Vienna fell to the French.

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The city of Hamburg (pronounced HOM-boorg) in northern Germany was an independent city-state (a “free state”) within this weak German confederation. Hamburg was one of the major sea-ports of Europe and a financial and industrial center. (The map, right, is of the modern-day Germany but locates major cities in Mendelssohn's life.) This wasn't so much an ally of the French but much of it was controlled by the French army who monitored trade there. Napoleon had blockaded all trade between Europe and England in the hope the economy of England would collapse. This made life difficult on both sides of the blockade.

It didn't really work, though, for Hamburg also became one of the great centers for smugglers. Skinny people would leave Hamburg in the morning and come back “much fatter” in the evening, hiding all manner of goods under their clothes. There was a huge influx of people who were being sent back to Hamburg to be buried – until French custom agents, monitoring the blockade, found the caskets were not always full of bodies, but perhaps shoes or coffee-beans.

In 1797, a Berlin-born banker named Abraham Mendelssohn had gone to Paris to take a post in an important banking firm (he wanted to get out of boring old Berlin). In 1804, he married Lea Salomon. Since things began to change as Napoleon became more powerful, they decided to move to Hamburg which they thought would be a better city to bring up their children. Their daughter Fanny was born there the following year and four years later, a son was born, whom they named Felix. These were happy times. (Felix, by the way, comes from the Latin words for “happy” as well as “cat” – we find it in words like felicity or feline.)

But things soon began to change. Napoleon began clamping down on Hamburg's freedom and in 1810, he simply annexed Hamburg into the French Empire. His governor was a general with dictatorial authority and was authorized to search private homes and arrest anyone associated with smuggling.

This would include the banker, Abraham Mendelssohn, who had business dealings with smugglers as most of the merchants in the city did. So as soon as their daughter Rebekkah was born in April, 1811, the Mendelssohns decided it was no longer safe and took their family back to Berlin. '

Abraham was able to ship his money ahead, but they still had to escape. They left at night, dressed in tattered clothes, carrying false passports, just the mother and father with three children – a girl; 6, a boy (Felix), 2; and a newborn infant. They found a coach across the city's border but they still had to travel through French-occupied territory. In a few days, they arrived safely in Berlin.

But Berlin, too, was a French ally: even though it was occupied by the French, it wasn't as “controlled” as Hamburg was. Life was easier, here, and it helped that the French ambassador to the King of Prussia was a friend of Lea's family.

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In 1812, Napoleon was weakened by his defeat in Russia – not so much by the Russian army but by the Russian winter and being so far from supply lines. He had occupied the city of Moscow which shortly afterward caught on fire and burned to the ground. With no place to house or feed his army during the winter (an especially cold one), he was forced to retreat across Russia.

He entered Russia with any army of 690,000 men, one of the largest ever assembled. After the retreat, there were only 22,000 men left. That means over 2/3rds of the army either was killed, taken prisoner, died of starvation and disease during the retreat or deserted.

The decisive battle of this war, before the French took Moscow, inspired the music by Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky, the 1812 Overture.

(see pictures: above, Moscow burns; right, a German painter's depiction of the retreat from Moscow.)

When the news of Napoleon's defeat arrived in Berlin, the Prussian King threw off the alliance and raised money for an army to try once more to defeat the French. Abraham Mendelssohn contributed considerable money to help buy ammunition and feed the troops. Following Napoleon's defeat at battles in early 1813, he was appointed a City Councillor in Berlin, a rare honor for a Jew in a typically anti-Semitic kingdom.

There were still other battles in this war, though. The French were defeated in a battle in Spain as well, where the victorious troops were led by the English general, Lord Wellington. When news of this reached Vienna, Beethoven caught the public celebration and composed a piece he called “Victory Symphony” that later became known as “Wellington's Victory.”

Outside Dresden, Richard Wagner, born only five months earlier, almost died in the epidemic that killed his father, following the Battle of Leipzig where 120,000 soldiers lay dead on the battlefield just outside the city walls.

Years later, Wagner (pronounced in German, VOG-n'r) would become intensely anti-Semitic and attack Mendelssohn for having been born a Jew. But that is many years in the future from this post's story.

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It was clear now that Napoleon was defeated. The allies marched on Paris and forced him to abdicate. He was exiled to Elba, an island off Italy. The victors met in Vienna to remake the map of Europe and carve up the defeated French Empire and redistribute the boundaries of a continent.

But while they were debating this – and partying the nights away – Napoleon secretly left Elba, raised an army, returned to Paris and reclaimed his throne. Another war soon began. This one ended in Napoleon's last defeat, at the Battle of Waterloo in Belgium.

(Even today, when somebody finally loses a conflict, ends a career in defeat or just gives up, the expression you often hear is "He met his Waterloo.")

This time, removed from the throne, Napoleon was exiled far away, on the tiny little island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic, well over a thousand miles from the coast of Africa (to make sure he could never escape again).

There were plots to rescue him: one included veterans of the French Army who'd settled in Texas, then part of the Spanish colony of Mexico. During Mexico's war for independence, they hoped to bring Napoleon to Texas to form a new empire. There was also talk of his being rescued and taken to South America to form a new empire there, as countries in South America were also fighting for their independence and the political climate was very wide-open to possibilities.

But Napoleon died on St. Helena in 1821. Some say he died of stomach cancer. Others say he was poisoned, possibly with arsenic.

When someone told Beethoven that Napoleon had died, his only comment was, "I have already composed music for that occasion," referring to the "Eroica" Symphony's 2nd Movement, a solemn Funeral March.

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In the next post, I'll write more about the background of Felix Mendelssohn's time.

- Dr. Dick