Heroics

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The beginnings of both voyages are hazy. Beethoven evidently began planning his symphony sometime in 1802, perhaps in late summer or early fall, about the time when Jefferson, newly aware of Alexander Mackenzie's successful crossing of the continent, may have begun shaping his plans for an American expedition to be led by Lewis.

Between June and October of 1803 the sounds of Beethoven's symphony emerged in the composer's mind all the more clearly and forcefully, perhaps, as his increasing deafness blotted out the sonorous world around him. Simultaneously, the young American infantry officer wrapped up his preliminaries, set out down the Ohio in his custom-built keelboat, and directed the building of the winter's camp at Wood River, Illinois.

Beethoven had conceived his Third Symphony as a musical testament to his own faith in the ideals of democracy and as an homage to Napoleon Bonaparte, then First Consul of France, whom he regarded as a champion of equality and freedom.1 On the title page the composer wrote, Sinfonia grande initolata Bonaparte del Sigr Louis van Beethoven-- "Majestic symphony dedicated to Bonaparte by Mr. Ludwig van Beethoven."

Within the year, Napoleon's fatal hubris started him on his swift descent to ignominy, defeat, and exile.

In mid-May, 1804, France became officially the heartland of the Holy Roman Empire, with Napoleon as its Emperor. "So he too is nothing more than an ordinary man," Beethoven railed to a friend. "Now he also will trample on all human rights and indulge only his own ambition." Disillusioned and enraged, Beethoven erased his hero's name with such vehemence that he tore the paper.

On May 14, 1804, the Corps of Discovery left Camp Wood at four o'clock in the afternoon to explore the Louisiana Territory, which Napoleon had sold to the United States in order to finance the bloody conquests by which he would personally, if only temporarily, revise the world's geography.

Yet, as if reluctant to abandon his hero, the composer rewrote the dedication to read simply Sinfonia Eroica--"Heroic Symphony."

1. Beethoven once considered emigrating to America. So did Napoleon.