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Portrait of Beethoven by Mähler2

Early 19th-century oil painting of a young man

Historisches Museum der Stadt Wien

Willibrord Joseph Mähler (1778-1860), a talented amateur poet, musician and painter from West Germany, was introduced to Beethoven in the fall of 1804 at the latter's apartment in Vienna, Austria. When asked to play something for his guest, Beethoven rendered a piano version of the finale to his Eroica symphony, just then nearing completion.

Sometime that winter Mähler painted this portrait, of which his subject was especially fond. With his proper left hand resting on a Greek lyre, and a Greek peristyle behind his right, the composer clearly considered himself a disciple of the Classical tradition whose plenipotentiaries were Mozart and Haydn. Only the dark cloud above his head hints at the stormy spirit of musical Romanticism of which he was to become the herald and hero, and which the painter must have felt in Beethoven's playing on the day they first met.

At four o'clock in the afternoon of April 7, 1805, the Corps of Discovery again headed west up the Missouri River, leaving behind their winter camp among the Mandan and Hidatsa Indians in today's North Dakota. It was a portentous step, as Lewis knew:

We are now about to penetrate a country at least two thousand miles in width, on which the foot of civillized man had never trodden; the good or evil it had in store for us was for experiment yet to determine.

A year and a half of preparation and eleven months of prologue had brought him and his party to this hour and to the place beyond which the course of his country's destiny and of the world's history was directed.

On that same day, perhaps at that very hour, by one of those amazing coincidences that history leaves us to stumble upon by surprise, another kind of explorer was revealing his own "discovery" to an expectant and appreciative audience in Vienna, Austria. His name was Ludwig van Beethoven, and he was conducting the first public performance of his Third Symphony. Beethoven was thirty-five, the same age as William Clark; Lewis was thirty-one.

Play the beginning of Beethoven's Symphony No. 31

Nothing like Beethoven's Third Symphony had ever been heard before. It spawned a new term, "masterpiece," in the lexicon of music criticism, and initiated a Beethovenian lineage of musical touchstones by which the value of every other composition would be ranked until well into the twentieth century.

Also, it was a cornerstone of the Romantic era, which placed the heart in command of the head, and embodied values that were inimical to the Rationalist precepts by which Jefferson and his generation lived. Similarly, Lewis's steps led not merely into an unfamiliar territory, but into a historical realm that would host a new idea of American nationhood, and a new concept of American citizenship and of the individual.

Both journeys were "experiments," and both still inspire contemplation and admiration.


1. Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Opus 55 (Eroica): First movement, Allegro con brio (Fast, with brilliance)—Excerpt. Recorded in performance April 17, 1999, by the Bismarck-Mandan (North Dakota) Symphony Orchestra (founded 1975), Thomas Wellin, conductor. Sound engineer, Dave Derung.

2. No relation to the German composer Gustav Mähler (1860-1911) who was a musical heir of Beethoven, and one of the last exponents of the Romantic movement.

Supported in part by a grant from the Idaho Governor's Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Commission