Beethoven, Bonaparte, Inflation, and the Sell-Out

By Nicholas Csicsko

Music and Markets 

How markets and major events shaped the life and works of great artists 

In 1809, with the help of Napoleon’s brother and a little luck, Beethoven orchestrated a salary of 4,000 florins a year for life – by 1811, thanks to Napoleon himself, its purchasing power was approximately 1/5 its 1809 value.  From financial security for life, to having to battle to get paid at all, Vienna’s wild inflation of the 1810’s would force Beethoven to extremes to keep his head above water and would turn him from Napoleon fanboy, to hater, to populist sell-out.

Stoked by the fires of the American and French revolutions, Beethoven grew up with egalitarianism and enlightenment in the air. By age 22, he was sporting the newest revolutionary fashions of 1792 Vienna, including the short short hair style that a young Napoleon also wore, “a la Titus” – rejecting the powdered wigs of Haydn’s prime. [1]

Young Beethoven and Napoleon sporting the "a la Titus"

As Napoleon continued to inspire young revolutionaries like Beethoven at the turn of the 19th century, “liberating” lands and uniting a disorganized France, Beethoven was so taken with Napoleon that he became the subject of his 3rd Symphony, giving it the title of Bonaparte in 1804.  This was short-lived as when First Council Napoleon made himself Emperor Napoleon a heartbroken Beethoven vigorously scratched out the title Bonaparte and re-titled the work the Heroic Symphony.  Adding insult to injury, Napoleon’s army occupied Vienna one year later, all the while Beethoven sought to establish himself as the successor to Mozart and Haydn despite political upheaval and his attempts to conceal his growing deafness.

Beethoven became increasingly business savvy as he worked with various publishers to maximize profit while also building relationships with key patrons in Vienna who had been blown away by his piano skills a decade earlier.  Beethoven shined in the social salons of Vienna’s music lovers, defeating most, if not all, his competition in the piano duals that his rich patrons loved so much (yes, these were real things).  As time passed, he established himself as a leading composer and soon became the pride and symbol of Vienna itself to many of his patrons.

By 1809 Beethoven had made enough of a name for himself that he received an unsolicited offer from Napoleon’s brother to take the position of bandmaster in Kassel.  We may never know if he had real interest in a formal job, but he used this opportunity to test his worth with his patrons in Vienna (totally modern move), informing his patrons he had accepted the position. Within a few weeks his three largest patrons had a counteroffer to keep Beethoven out of French hands and in Vienna.   Beethoven’s patrons matched the offer: Prince Kinsky (1,800), Archduke Rudolf (1,500), and Prince Lobkowitz (700) offered Beethoven a combined 4,000 florins annually for life to live in Vienna and just do his thing.  Beethoven accepted, knowing that 4,000 florins was enough to live comfortably and write what inspired him.  He felt so settled that he wrote a friend saying that now that his finances were on sound footing, he could find a wife (as if it were going to be that simple for him).
Beethoven’s Annuity Agreement with Three Leading Patrons

With hindsight, Beethoven could have used a contract lawyer. He should have insisted on an inflation adjustment clause in his contract and to be paid in hard currency (something he would do in future negotiations); however, the agreement stipulated payment in Banco-Zettel notes (the first paper money circulated in Austria) which had a variable exchange rate with silver.  As luck would have it, Beethoven signed his contract on the first of March 1809 but by April, Austria had declared war with France and by May Napoleon would occupy Vienna for the 2nd time.  His patrons fled the city while Beethoven hid in his brother’s basement for days, covering his ears with pillows during the bombardment of the city to hopefully preserve what was left of his hearing. In less than two months after signing his dream contract, Beethoven was left in occupied Vienna without any of his patrons to pay up on their promise.

1,000 Florin Banco-Zettel Note from 1800

Over the following years, Napoleon enforced strict reparations that, combined with the money printing for the war and subsequent payments to the French, led the total Banco-Zettel notes in circulation to rise ~14x by 1811, leading to rampant inflation and ultimately a devaluation of the currency and Austrian bankruptcy.  Beethoven felt this pain hard, finding his purchasing power erode to an extreme level.  He no longer ate out and what money he did receive from publishing and concerts barely covered his rent as he questioned how he would make ends meet going forward.

He soon began a multi-year campaign to adjust his annuity to the devastating effects of inflation which proved difficult given his patron’s own financial disarray, or worse, from the conflict: Lobkowitz went bankrupt, Rudolf was in and out of hiding, and Kinsky died from an equestrian accident.  After more than a 5-year fight of personal appeals and legal battles, all would eventually settle in Beethoven’s favor with his patrons or their estates honoring the original agreement which remained helpful but not life changing for Beethoven after the effects of inflation eroded the real value of the annuity. 

During the battle over his annuity, Beethoven did not sit still.  The impact of this financial turmoil in addition to the day-to-day stresses of living through occupation and war took its toll, though he soon discovered a way to profit from all of it.  As wars do, renewed nationalism ran throughout the empire, especially in Vienna, so when Beethoven’s sometime friend Johann Nepomuk Maelzel (inventor of the metronome and other gadgets) approached him about making a piece that included some of Maelzel’s gadgets that celebrated Wellington’s recent victory at the battle at Vittoria, Beethoven, smelling an opportunity, surprisingly said yes.  The piece presents gun and cannon fire along with renditions of “for he is a jolly good fellow” and “God Save the King.” Needless to say, it is not the pinnacle of his artistic expression.  Famously, Beethoven responded to a critic’s harsh assessment of Wellington’s Victory as populist garbage saying “what I shit is better than anything you could ever think up.” Critics aside, the public loved it.  It premiered at a benefit concert for the troops alongside the 7th Symphony and it was by far the favored piece between the two (how tastes have changed…).  Repeat performances were scheduled and Beethoven quickly realized he could ride the wave of nationalism to refill his coffers as his annuity battle raged on. 

Then with Napoleon’s first defeat and surrender in 1814, the stage was set for Vienna to host Europe’s diplomats and aristocracy at the Congress of Vienna, prompting the need for all kinds of entertainment.  Beethoven was ready to make the most of it.  He kept the populist pieces coming, honing in on the age old skill of providing shout outs to cities and countries in his works, think Jay Z and Alicia Key’s Empire State of Mind, Tony Bennett’s I Left My Heart in San Francisco, or Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A.  He wrote songs like Germania which makes a strong case for a unified German people, and perhaps the best shout out was in his work The Glorious Moment in which a chorus breaks out in a lengthy “Vienna, Vienna, Vienna….”

People loved it and Beethoven received the most attention he would in his whole life.  He was granted the title of honorary citizen of Vienna, miniature figurines were created and sold (think concert t-shirts), and he was even able to resurrect his, until then, failed opera Fidelio.  Most importantly, Beethoven made good money, which would serve him in the coming years as tastes, and his personal life changed.  It is telling that many of the populist pieces from this period were not assigned opus numbers (unlike other pieces of the period including his 7th and 8th symphonies) but were integral to building the legend of Beethoven as we know it today.


Beethoven went into a quiet period (more than a decade sits between the 8th and 9th symphonies), perhaps in reaction to the success of his populism but most likely a combination of that with life altering personal events.  His brother Karl died soon after the Congress, leaving Beethoven to fight a drawn-out custody battle for his nephew whom he ultimately adopted. By 1820, Beethoven’s life would look vastly different than the young firebrand sporting “La Titus” – a single father caring for an adopted son as he struggled with crippling deafness.

[1] Beethoven and Napoleon both sported the style of the day known as a la Titus which was a style started by Francois-Joseph Talma who wore his hair short in the fashion we often now associated with Romans when he played the role of Titus Junius Brutus in Voltaire’s play Brutus.  The play depicts the founding of the Roman Republic and the haircut become a symbol for support of republicanism and hence was sported by Napoleon and Beethoven.