The bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo on 18 June 2015 is commemorated through a myriad of events and exhibitions in the UK. It was indeed a damned serious business, as is so aptly demonstrated in the University Library exhibition and certainly deserves our due attention. The Waterloo 2015 celebrations in Belgium focus on an actual re-enactment of the battle and a reconstruction of the encampment. This ambitious programme of events starts with an opening show called Inferno, a visual and musical interpretation of the battle by Luc Petit. As one would expect of such a significant event, the battle in specific as well as the political situation in general have been reflected in music over the past two-hundred years. Let’s start with looking at an excellent contemporary example which is held in our collections.
Upon hearing the news of the battle and victory, Carl Maria von Weber felt inspired to”celebrate the great event by a grand composition”. Herr Wohlbrück provided the text for what was to become the cantata “Kampf und Sieg“, first performed in Prague on 22 December 1815. Cambridge University Library holds a copy of the printed vocal score (at MRA.260.80.39). Although you won’t find (m)any recent full performances, the cantata’s premiere was well received (if you are reading this and have access to our subscription resources, you can check out a review in RIPM Online Archive) and the music is a typical product of it’s time, containing marches and particularly descriptive musical elements. The different nations are characterised as well through the use of, amongst others, Ça Ira and God save the King.
On a smaller scale the battle was remembered in songs of extremely varying character and the copies at our music collections illustrate this quite nicely. The martial The dream of the lion of Waterloo (CUL A1878.1515) for example talks about blood cemented plains, Belgium’s burning fields and a Lion’s dream of glorious deeds of war. The story of Brave drummer Joe (CUL A1885.643) on the other hand tells the tale of soldier Joe taken captive by Napoleon and subsequently released for his bravery. The “humorous song” Bill Grant. A tale of Waterloo (CUL A1886.294) relates how Bill Grant, a pensioner of Chelsea, is asked by Wellington to defeat three-hundred French soldiers (and promptly and successfully proceeds to do so). The “historic ballad” Twas the day of the Feast (CUL MR290.a.80.111/30) takes a completely different approach. It is a tribute to William IV, and the composer laments the fact that William IV sadly passed away on 20 June 1837, the day of the commemorations of Wellington’s victory.
Although none of these pieces made it into the commemorative concert at the Royal Albert Hall earlier this month, music of a vaguely similar character has (with marches featuring quite heavily) and the Battle of Waterloo continues to have an influence in music and popular culture. Think ABBA, and much much more.