Beethoven and Tsar Aleksandr. A Polonaise

Posted on December 13th, 2009 by

One promise too many

 Beethoven had little time for Polonaises, and rejected the craze for this dance which swept through Vienna at the time of the 1815 Congress. The most feted composer of this craze was the unjustly forgotten Josep Mayseder, one time violinist of the Schuppanzigh Quartet, to whom Beethoven simply referred as ‘the genius boy’. I was therefore very surprised, when Aaron and I were researching for our Beethoven series to find that he had written two. One of these was scored for military band, but the larger one, was for solo piano. It appears that this was written to embarrass the Russian imperial family into honouring a debt.

 Thirteen years earlier, in 1802, Beethoven like the rest of Europe was in awe of the dashing young Tsar, Alexander 1st, who had come to power in the year before. It seems that Alexander was responsible for the murder of his father, the mad Tsar Paul, in March 1801. In September of the same year, he had shocked the world by swooping down on the Caucasus and conquering Georgia, cannily using Montenegrin soldiers as his shock troops as he pressed south to Tbilisi. These troops were actually were provided by the reigning Prince Bishop of Montenegro Peter 1st, in return for a handsome subsidy. This corps was so ferocious and warlike that the soldiers even terrified their comrades-in-arms in the Russian army. At a skirmish in Clobik, a battalion of Russian troops were making a tactical retreat, when one of their officers, of a certain age, was seriously wounded and fell to the ground. Seeing this, a Montenegrin soldier ran over to him, and drew his sword, the traditional ‘Yataghan’. He said, “You are very brave, and therefore must wish that I should cut off your head rather than that you should fall into the hands of the enemy. Say a prayer and make the sign of the cross.” (Rebecca West)


In the following year Tsar Alexander came to Vienna, where he was feted as a hero, lionized both as a soldier and the epitome of the modern monarch. Beethoven dedicated his Three Sonatas for piano with violin, Op 30 to him. The second of these is full of the fire and fury of battle. The music has vivid representations of quick marches, fanfares, drum rolls, gunshots, paeans of victory and even the moaning of wounded soldiers. The sheer martial extremity of this work led to considerable confusion; one teacher even suggested to me that the cannonades in the Adagio were Beethoven’s terrified memory of hiding in the cellar of the Schwarzenspanienhaus, whilst the French bombarded Vienna, terrified This was a great story, but the siege of Vienna did not take place till the 11th May 1809. Famously, Beethoven held pillows over his ears, in agony from the violent shell blasts, and tried to distract himself by, ironically, working on his new piano concerto, soon to become known as ‘The Emperor’. Haydn was made extremely ill by the conflagration and his servants were overwhelmed with hysterical panic. The shock was eventually too much for the enfeebled and ageing composer. He slipped away twenty days after the attack, on the 31st May. (Iwo and Pamela Zaluski, in The Young Liszt (reprint, London: Peter Owen Publications, 1997), P.12-13.)

 Alexander gave Beethoven a diamond as an advance down-payment for the three sonatas, but the composer complained that he never had received payment in full, though it seems that no figure had ever been discussed.

 In 1804 Alexander took advantage of his treaty with the British to drive further south from the Caucasus into Armenia, laying siege to its capital, Erivan, in June of that year. (Peter Hopkirk, “[Part of Book-optional],” The great Game, [Editor/Tranlator-optional], [Edition] ed., vol. [Volume] ([Original Date]; Oxford: OUP, 1991) 32.)

 At the treaty of Tilsit in 1807, Napoleon and Alexander divided up the ‘Near-East’ between them. When Alexander demanded Napoleon give him Constantinople, Bonaparte exploded:

“Never, for that would make you emperor of the world!”

 In December 1814, a slightly mysterious figure named Dr Andreas Bertolini, who presumably was a court functionary or civil servant, suggested a way of solving this impasse. The Tsarina, Elizabeth, was in Vienna, and like the whole of the city, she was enraptured with ‘Polonaises’. This Tsarina, born Princess Marie Luise Augustina von Baden, had married Alexander in 1793, when he was merely a Grand duke. She took the name Elisabeth Alexiewna, when she was baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church at the time of their marriage. (Georg Kinsky/Hans Halm, “Op 89. Polonaise,” Thematisches-Bilbliographischs  Verzeichnis aler  vollendeen Werke Ludwig Van Beethovens, G.Henle Verlag, Munich ed.,: 247.)


 Bertolini recommended to Beethoven that the up-coming Congress would be an ideal opportunity to take advantage of the Tsarina’s craze for polonaises. Ironically the second violin of the Schuppanzigh quartet at that time, who premiered all of Beethoven’s quartets, was at the forefront of composing pieces for this craze.  This was the virtuoso violinist, Josep Mayseder, a good friend of Beethoven’s, who described him as ‘the genius boy’, Mayseder’s impact was considerable, even though he has become unjustly neglected since. When Brahms wrote his Hungarian dances he directed that one of them be played ‘à la Mayseder’. The young Liszt, blazing his way through the Salons of Germany and France in his teens, was often to be found playing Mayseder’s Polonaises and Piano Trios. Bertolini proposed an ingenious plan; clearly he was a genius at ‘working’ the court system! It was really quite simple, he exclaimed. Beethoven needed to ask permission to compose and dedicate a new Polonaise to the Tsarina. Then, when he had had an opportunity to present it to her, her predictable delight at his offering would provide an ideal opportunity to bring up the subject of the unpaid commission for her husbands three sonatas. Beethoven however was unhappy with the plan. He hated Polonaises. Despite this, Bertolini prevailed, and the pair sat in the receiving room of the Russian Suite of the Rasoumovsky Palace for a couple of days in order to ask permission of the Russian Court Chamberlain to make the dedication. The approval was given, by Count Piotr Wolkonksy, in January 1815. The grovelling tone of a letter that survives to the Count indicates the lengths to which Beethoven was prepared to go in restraining his famed insensitivity in this vital cause, which was wholly financial:

 “Should Her Majesty desire to hear me play, that would be the highest honour for me. But before doing so, I must beg for hr indulgence, seeing that for a considerable time I have devoted myself more exclusively to composition…If only I could be so fortunate as to compose for her Majesty whatever her taste or predilection disposes her to choose…” (Emily Anderson, “(523)Letter to…Vienna end of January 1815,” The letters of Beethoven, Macmillan Press, London ed.,: 492-493.)

 The two came up with a completely unique way of overcoming Beethoven’s dislike for the Polonaise medium. The composer sat at his piano, and Bertolini, I like to imagine, reclined on a nearby sofa, perhaps an Ottoman, like to imagine, with his eyes closed and his hand thrown back on his forehead in Romantic contemplation. Then Beethoven improvised Polonaise melodies until Bertolini leapt up” That’s the tune…” From hence it was a short process to complete the piece, and it was presented to the Tsarina, perhaps neatly rolled up with a red ribbon. Beethoven played her the piece, which is rather grand, with a joking cadenza which alludes pointedly to the ‘Emperor’ piano concerto. Tsarina Elisabeth was, as planned, enchanted, and immediately pressed 50 ducats on the composer.

 “Didn’t you write some wonderful sonatas for my husband before?” she enquired. Beethoven’s reaction is not recorded, but I imagine that it would have been different for him to resist an enormous smile. Another 100 ducats was handed over, and the happy pair, composer and broker, left in triumph. Presumably Bertolini worked on percentage…