Politics in Beethoven’s Europe

Beethoven was deeply invested in politics, and his compositions often reflect the turbulent political environment in which he lived. This timeline includes some of the major sociopolitical events that took place in Europe during Beethoven’s lifetime.

Beethoven is born in Bonn.

The French Revolution begins.

The Habsburg emperor Joseph II dies. A ruler noted for his deep interest in the science, philosophy, and ethics of the Enlightenment, Joseph will be succeeded in 1792 by Franz, an unapologetic autocrat who institutes a repressive police state.

The French monarchy is officially abolished. Beethoven moves to Vienna.

The Reign of Terror descends on France. King Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, are executed, along with thousands of other perceived enemies of the republic. The librettist Jean-Nicolas Bouilly spends this period working as a prosecutor in the city of Tours; he will later claim to draw on these experiences in crafting stories for his operas.

The opera Léonore ou L’Amour Conjugal (Leonore, or Conjugal Love) premieres in Paris.

Napoleon seizes control of France, essentially turning the country into a military dictatorship.

In January, Beethoven tells a friend that he is working on a German version of Léonore.

In May, Napoleon crowns himself Emperor of France. Beethoven had previously admired the French revolutionary general and even considered naming his third symphony “Napoleon,” but, infuriated by Napoleon’s power grab, he renames the symphony simply “Eroica,” or “Heroic.”

Beethoven completes his opera Leonore. Yet the Viennese censors, skittish about the recent bloodshed in France and the ongoing threat to aristocratic rule posed by Napoleon and his armies, delay rehearsals. A premiere date is finally set for November 20, but on November 13, French forces invade the city. The premiere goes ahead, but the opera receives a chilly response and closes soon after.

After a decade of remarkable successes on the battlefield, Napoleon suffers a series of stinging defeats. He abdicates his position as Emperor and is exiled to the island of Elba in April.

In May, the revised version of Fidelio premieres to enthusiastic acclaim.

Between September and June, the crowned heads of Europe meet at the Congress of Vienna to discuss rebuilding the continent after Napoleon’s downfall.

Beethoven dies in Vienna.

Critical Inquiry
How does the plot of Fidelio reflect the events included in this timeline?