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Encountering politics, personality in Beethoven’s Polonaise

On May 1, pianist Emanuel Ax performs an all-Beethoven recital at Jordan Hall including the composer’s Op. 89 Polonaise — which was also a souvenir of the era’s most consequential political summit. The 1814 Treaty of Paris, seemingly ending the Napoleonic Wars (which Waterloo would finally finish the following summer), called for a conference to broker a final agreement. The Congress of Vienna convened that September under the auspices (and machinations) of Klemens Wenzel von Metternich, the Austrian foreign minister.

Vienna was Beethoven’s home base, and soon after the army of monarchs and ministers descended, most of them turned up at the opera house for a performance of his opera “Fidelio.” Ever on the prowl for patronage, Beethoven invited the potentates to a self-produced concert in November, but by that time, factional divisions had erupted, even among the potential audience. Beethoven’s perceived Russian sponsorship (via his longtime supporter Count Razumovsky) kept Austrian and English contingents away; Prussian financial appreciation was disappointingly frugal.


The Russian Tsarina Elizabeth Alexeievna, however, gifted Beethoven 200 guilders. She was in Vienna with her husband, Alexander I — and her onetime lover, the Polish prince Adam Czartoryski. (The imperial marriage was parabolic: utterly devoted at the beginning and end, persistently adulterous in the middle.) Czartoryski, Alexander’s former foreign minister, became an unofficial point person regarding the Congress’s most vexing question: what to do about Poland. (It ended up partitioned, an all-too-familiar fate.)

Such was the atmosphere in which Beethoven wrote and dedicated his Polonaise to Elizabeth. But what from a historical distance seems subversive was actually pure courtiership. The polonaise was then still associated with Imperial Russia, de rigueur at Russian balls, and the Tsarina enjoyed hearing newly composed polonaises on her birthday. (The dance only took on more exclusively Polish nationalistic overtones after the November Uprising of 1830, which installed none other than Czartoryski as head of a brief-lived Polish government.)


What Elizabeth really wanted was a piano recital, but Beethoven’s well-advanced deafness made him reluctant to perform. That, perhaps, influenced the Polonaise’s unusual structure, which repeatedly interrupts the dance with seemingly improvisatory, fantasia-like passages. Musicologist Birgit Lodes has argued that it was Beethoven’s way of compensating: The work impersonated his playing style without him having to play. Then again, Beethoven showed up at the Tsarina’s birthday concert, and ended up accompanying one of his songs; he might have played the Polonaise as well. It was the last time he played piano in public.

Matthew Guerrieri

Emanuel Ax performs music of Beethoven at Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory, on May 1 at 3 p.m. Tickets: $35-$90. 617-482-6661;

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at