88. Beethoven

Victory Symphony for Large Band

There is no mistaking the claws of the Lion.

An early critic

In the Prussian National Library in Berlin there is a manuscript score for large military band of a composition known as the Siegessinfonie, or The Victory Symphony. The cover page is in the handwriting of Beethoven and he wrote,

On Wellington’s Victory
At Victoria, 1813
Written for Mr. Maelzel, Ludwig von Beethoven

The inspiration for this work is found in the wide public interest in Vienna following the news of the Battle of Vitoria in Spain (21 June 1813) when British, Portuguese and Spanish armies under the Marquess of Wellington defeated the troops of Napoleon. Although Napoleon himself was not present, this was the first instance in which troops of Napoleon were defeated and it resulted in a general sense of relief throughout Europe. Beethoven must have been interested, not only because he regularly read newspapers, but because he no doubt clearly recalled trembling in a basement room on Ballgasse in 1805 when Napoleon was sending rockets into downtown Vienna.

His interest is documented in notes in his sketchbooks,

Wellington’s Victory Vittoria, only God save the King, but a great victory overture for Wellington.
I must show the English a little what a blessing there is in God Save the King.
It is certain that one writes most prettily when one writes for the public, also that one writes rapidly.

All indications are that Beethoven took this composition seriously. Later when adding to it a preliminary “Battle Music,” which is far inferior to the original Victory Symphony, nevertheless in a legal document he refers to it, writing, “I was still writing on the work. In the heat of my inspiration, immersed in my work.”

The surviving score is in the hand of Beethoven’s copyist but it contains numerous corrections in Beethoven’s hand, following his custom of careful proof-reading. On the first score page one also sees in Beethoven’s hand the Italian tempo marking as well as a metronome indication.

Allegro con brio 128 [followed by a half-note symbol].

Even though Beethoven knew he was composing a work to be engraved on a machine, he wrote as if he were composing for real players. One sees, for example, the usual “natural” parts for trumpets and horns, whereas if he were thinking of writing for a machine he could have used chromatic parts for these instruments.

To take advantage of this public interest it appears that Johann Maelzel talked Beethoven into composing a score to commemorate this victory, which he, Maelzel, would then engrave on a new Panharmonicon which he would build for the purpose of public exhibition. As it turned out, Beethoven wrote a score for such a large band that Maelzel was unable to construct the machine necessary to perform the work and the alternate suggestion was to have Beethoven arrange it, together with some battle music, for orchestra, and a new title, Wellington’s Victory, which had one performance in Vienna, requiring a large number of friends to cover all the parts. Among those helping out was the famous string bass player, Dragonetti, and, of all people, Meyerbeer.

Johann Maelzel (15 August 1772 – 21 July 1838) was a German inventor, born in Regensburg. His father was an organ builder who made sure the son received a proper education in music. Johann had a passion (and ability) to build complex machines and in 1792 he moved to Vienna where he eventually was appointed as imperial court-mechanician for the Emperor in Vienna.

While his name is known to every musician today for his little chronometer for establishing tempi, he had created a brief period of public interest with his exhibitions of his Panharmonicon, a machine which must have been a cross between a music box and the vastly popular manufacture of nearly life-sized mechanical dolls in Europe. One of these instruments “performed” several popular overtures, including one by Haydn. This instrument was sent to Boston where it received great attention, one critic exclaiming how wonderful it was to hear “live” music. Whatever this was, it was lost at sea on the return trip to Vienna.

Panharmonicon, from L’Illustration, 25 May 1846

Other creations during this general time by Maelzel included an expanded Panharmonicon which performed something called “The Burning of Moscow” which also blew smoke and snow out at the listeners and a life-size mechanical trumpet player which could play several concerti and which, extraordinarily enough had shared the program in Vienna with the premiere performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. Maelzel took this mechanical trumpet player with him when he later moved to Philadelphia and an article in a local paper there gives us a more complete description.

“]The machinery of the trumpeter is contained within the trunk of the figure, and is worked by a steel spring which drives a revolving barrel, on which are pegs similar to those in a musical box; a bellows just below the neck of the figure furnishes the wind, and a valve with a steel tongue, which is lengthened or shortened by means of levers working on the pegs of the barrel makes the different notes.”]

Maelzel sold this trumpet player to someone in Philadelphia and as of 1877 it was still there and still being exhibited.

His invention which created the most local commentary was a mechanical chess player, a mannequin sitting on top of a large box, presumed to be filled with machinery, dressed like a Turk – which appealed to Vienna’s long concern about being attacked by the Ottoman Empire, and which also resulted in a variety of little “Turkish marches,” by various composers. To the astonishment of the public this machine managed to defeat a number of local chess players, in particular among the aristocrats, a class which had time to play chess.

One visitor to Maelzel’s workroom at this time was the fine composer, and Mendelssohn’s teacher, Ignaz Moscheles. He reported that in his conversation with Maelzel that the latter claimed he provided Beethoven with all the subject matter for the composition, including,

how he should depict the horror of the battle and arrange “God Save the King” with effects of representing the hurrahs of a multitude. Even the unhappy idea of converting the melody of “God Save the King” into a subject of a fugue… All this I saw in sketches and score, brought by Beethoven to Maelzel’s workshop.

As mentioned above, Beethoven created a score too large for Maelzel to turn into some kind of mechanical orchestra and after the one performance of the new version with battle music for orchestra, Beethoven apparently had no further interest in this project. Maelzel, however, still imagined using this music to generate money from the public and he apparently stole some of the manuscript parts and employed some anonymous composer to duplicate this music based on these parts.

When Beethoven realized what Maelzel had done he was, of course, furious and began a lawsuit against Maelzel.


Of my own volition I had composed a Battle Symphony for Mälzel for his Panharmonica without pay. After he had had it for a while he brought me the score, the engraving of which he had already begun [Beethoven probably meant the preparation of the cylinder] and wanted it arranged for full orchestra. I had previously formed the idea of a Battle (Music) which, however, was not applicable to his Panharmonica. We agreed to perform this work and others of mine in a concert for the benefit of the soldiers. Meanwhile I got into the most terrible financial embarrassment. Deserted by the whole world here in Vienna, in expectation of a bill of exchange, etc., Mälzel offered me 50 ducats in gold. I took them and told him that I would give them back to him here, or would let him take the work with him to London in case I did not go with him—in which latter case I would refer him to an English publisher who would pay him these 50 ducats. The Academies were now given. In the meantime Mälzel’s plan and character were developed. Without my consent he printed on the placards that it was his property. Incensed at this he had to have these torn down. Now he printed: “Out of friendship for his journey to London”; to this I consented, because I thought that I was still at liberty to fix the conditions on which I would let him have the work. I remember that I quarrelled violently with him while the notices were printing, but the too short time—I was still writing on the work. In the heat of my inspiration, immersed in my work, I scarcely thought of Mälzel. Immediately after the first Academy in the University Hall [the premier], I was told on all hands by trustworthy persons that Mälzel was spreading it broadcast that he had loaned me 400 ducats in gold. I thereupon had the following printed in the newspaper, but the newspaper writers did not print it as Mälzel is befriended with all of them. Immediately after the first Academy I gave back to Mälzel his 50 ducats, telling him that having learned his character here, I would never travel with him, righteously enraged because he had printed on the placards, without my consent, that all the arrangements for the Academy were badly made and his bad patriotic character showed itself in the following expressions—I [unreadable]—if only they will say in London that the public here paid 10 florins; not for the wounded but for this did I do this—and also that I would not let him have the work for London except on conditions concerning which I would let him know. He now asserted that it was a gift of friendship and had this expression printed in the newspaper without asking me about it in the least. Inasmuch as Mälzel is a coarse fellow, entirely without education, or culture, it may easily be imagined how he conducted himself toward me during this period and increased my anger more and more. And who would force a gift of friendship upon such a fellow? I was now offered an opportunity to send the work to the Prince Regent. It was now impossible to give him the work unconditionally. He then came to you and made proposals. He was told on what day to come for his answer; but he did not come, went away and performed the work in Munich. How did he get it? Theft was impossible—Herr Mälzel had a few of the parts at home for a few days and from these he had the whole put together by some musical handicraftsman, and with this he is now trading around in the world. Herr Mälzel promised me hearing machines. To encourage him I composed the Victory Symphony for his Panharmonica. His hearing aids were finally finished, but were useless for me. For this small trouble Herr Mälzel thinks that after I had set the Victory Symphony for grand orchestra and composed the Battle for it, I ought to have him the sole owner of this work. Now, assuming that I really felt under some obligation for the hearing machines, it is cancelled by the fact that he made at least 500 florins convention coin, out of the Battle stolen from me or compiled in a mutilated manner. He has therefore paid himself. He had the audacity to say here that he had the Battle; indeed he showed it in writing to several persons—but I did not believe it, and I was right, inasmuch as the whole was not compiled by me but by another. Moreover, the honor which he credits to himself alone might be a reward. I was not mentioned at all by the Court War Council, and yet everything in the two academies was of my composition. If, as he said, Herr Mälzel delayed his journey to London because of the Battle, it was merely a hoax. Herr Mälzel remained until he had finished his patchwork, the first attempts not being successful.


In addition to the bad publicity this lawsuit must have caused Maelzel, he came under an even more difficult problem for it had been discovered that his popular mechanical chess player had in fact a midget inside who was making the chess moves. Therefore Maelzel packed up some of his machines and set sail for America!

On 26 December 1826, excited Philadelphians gathered at the Masonic Hall on Chestnut Street between Seventh and Eighth streets. The crowd was hushed when the suave European “prince of entertainers,” John Maelzel, stepped onto the stage and wheeled out “The Turk.” Seated at its own desk, draped in a green silk robe and a turban, The Turk was billed as a thinking machine that played chess. To prove that it was not human, Maelzel unlocked and opened its doors to reveal belts, cogs, and gears. Next, he set up the chessboard and selected an audience member to play against the device. Then Maelzel wound up The Turk. It made a loud ratcheting sound. When the human challenger moved a piece, the machine suddenly jerked to life. Its arm and hand moved forward, and its fingers gently grasped a piece and moved it.

The Turk was a good chess player. More often than not, it won. It could also recognize and correct illegal or improper moves and even uttered “checkmate” in French (chec et mat) when it won the opponent’s king. The Turk made a lasting impression on all who saw it. Years later, the renowned Philadelphia physician Silas Weir Mitchell recalled how The Turk had haunted his boyhood dreams.

After a few months in New York and Boston, Maelzel settled in Philadelphia. In the Quaker city, he rented a building to open a music store, hired workers to renovate the space, advertised, and assisted by his secretary William Schlumberger, assembled his automata. For eleven years, Maelzel and his troupe toured the nation, visiting New York City, Boston, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Richmond, Charleston, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Louisville, and New Orleans.

In late 1837, Maelzel and his troupe made a second trip to Cuba for an extended stay. There, Maelzel suffered a series of misfortunes: attendance dropped and the show lost money, Schlumberger died of yellow fever, and his assistants abandoned him. Alone, broke and depressed, Maelzel borrowed enough money to return to Philadelphia, where he planned to open a new show. He died at sea, however, and his body was cast overboard off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina, on 21 July 1838. His automata and other belongings were auctioned in Philadelphia to pay his creditors.

The Turk’s new owner, Dr. John Kearsley Mitchell (father of frightened Silas), lacked Maelzel’s panache and showmanship skills. Public interest in the “Automaton Chess Player” waned dramatically, so in 1840 Mitchell donated the machine to Nathan Dunn’s “Chinese Museum” at Ninth and George