At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month 1918, Paris time, the Armistice treaty between the Allies and Germany came into effect.
At that moment in the day on the nearest Sunday in all subsequent years there has been a two-minute silence in a ceremony at Lutyens’s Cenotaph in Whitehall. It is marked by a field gun on Horse Guards Parade at the beginning, as Big Ben strikes eleven, and at the end.
Wind thuds against BBC microphones. Then Royal Marines buglers sound the Last Post. The royal family lays its wreaths in silence. When the time comes for politicians and Commonwealth representatives and others to lay theirs, something called “Beethoven’s funeral march” is announced.
Anyone who grew up in England in the ’60s, when there were two television channels and few live events, will have seen or heard this moving broadcast. Many veterans of the Great War took part. That war’s last survivor living in the UK died this year.
It was presented as a public, a state, occasion. I think it still is. There are still no cuts to grieving mothers.
I was struck by much of the music as a boy, but especially by “Beethoven’s funeral march”. But for as long as I’ve had a sense of what Beethoven wrote, I’ve asked myself “what Beethoven funeral march, for heaven’s sake?”. If this is by Beethoven, why don’t we hear about it on any other occasion? Why is it never recorded? It’s a remarkable piece of music, a kind of funereal fantasia, with its commanding opening upbeat and haunting refrain. But Beethoven wrote only two funeral marches that anyone has heard of. The famous one is in the Eroica. The other is in the twelfth piano sonata, from a year or two earlier, which is a kind of dry run for the tune, before he split its atom in the symphony.
You can hear sketches for the Eroica march here at a site (you can’t spend less than an hour there) called The Unheard Beethoven. This is the march, if it wasn’t an orchestration of Chopin’s, which used to interrupt normal radio broadcasts in totalitarian countries when a leader died, before nervous apparatchiks had steeled themselves to make the formal announcement.
There is a third march, but it is never called one. It is a fragment of a funeral march, which Beethoven throws, with hair-raising effect, into the coda of the first movement of the ninth symphony. It appears in the woodwind, and is overwhelmed by falling and rising chromatic cellos and basses and then full strings before the conclusion.
In the BBC broadcast this year, the Cenotaph march was still being announced as “Beethoven’s funeral march”. I googled this a few years ago, before the Internet was up to much, and couldn’t solve the problem. Now I can. It isn’t Beethoven, though it used to be attributed to him as WoO Anhang 13. Even then, it was never recorded. It was sometimes called “Beethoven’s funeral march no 1”. (What was no 2?) It was played as such at the funeral of Edward VII.
Who wrote it? Johann Heinrich Walch. He wrote many marches. The allies marched into Paris in 1814, and the Germans staged their victory parade there in 1940, to the tune of his Pariser Einzugsmarsch. It’s a trivial piece. You can find it on iTunes, but you can’t find the funeral march which is worthy of Beethoven.
Nobody knows who wrote the Last Post, but that could almost be Beethoven too.