My Country ‘Tis of Thee

Theme & Variations on “My Country ’Tis of Thee”   L. Beethoven (1770-1827)

In Beethoven’s day a popular musical form was “Theme and Variations”. The template was to take a popular tune of the day — the ‘theme’ — which the composer states rather simply, and follow it with ‘variations’ which displayed the composer’s imaginative powers. Beethoven was regarded as the “Chuck Norris” of that form and wrote twenty-two sets just for piano.

The themes Ludwig chose were very familiar in his day but have long been forgotten — thus much of the punch of Beethoven’s imagination is lost on modern ears. But one set is based on a theme that is still very familiar, namely “My Country ’Tis of Thee”.

As an historic aside, Benedict Arnold (1741-1801) is infamous for being a colonist turned traitor to the American cause. What isn’t as well known is the grand irony of his decisive rôle in the colonists’ ultimate victory. For all of General Washington’s abilities, the harsh reality was that he simply lacked the resources to defeat what was then the world’s reigning superpower. What the colonists needed was to convince a major power to come to our aid — at that time that would be France. France, for her part, was reluctant to do so until she was reasonably certain we could hold up our end of the bargain — she didn’t exactly want to back a loser and irritate Britain.

Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), schmooze-meister extraordinaire, was in Paris doing his darndest to woo the French to our side. Badly needed, however, was one good solid American victory over the British to prove to the French that we had what it takes, and Major General Benedict Arnold provided just that at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777. (Arnold achieved his victory by brazenly disobeying the orders of his commanding general. Consequently Arnold was both decorated and reprimanded.) Between Arnold’s victory and Franklin’s silver tongue, the French scales finally tipped towards sending men, materiel and navy to our aid. Meanwhile, Congress broke one too many promises to him and Arnold switched to the British side in 1780. His foresight which had served him so well at the Battle of Saratoga completely failed him on this decision: the Americans & French ground to ultimate victory for the colonists at Yorktown a year later in 1781 — a victory for which Arnold had laid such a critical cornerstone.

After the American Revolution, Arnold and his colonist wife moved to England. The British provided handsomely for Arnold, but never completely trusted him. He was never given an important military command. The Arnolds moved to London where he found no job, some admiration and even contempt. He moved his family to Canada where he reentered the shipping business. Many there disliked him and had no use for him, and eventually he returned his family to London. When the fighting began between France and England in 1793, he tried again for military service, but to no avail. His shipping ventures eventually failed and he died in 1801, virtually forgotten.