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In Praise of Beethoven

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In Praise of Beethoven


Steve Arnott takes a look at the composer Beethoven and argues he is an artist revolutionary and revolutionary artist for all times.




I’ll own up – I have a guilty pleasure. Not the great composer Ludwig Van Beethoven – no guilt can accrue from a lifetime’s attachment to genius.  No, my guilty pleasure is the slightly more lowbrow and populist Classic FM.  I know I should really be listening to Radio Three with its clear intellectual approach and tendency to play more challenging and obscure works – but hey, when you are working away on the computer you can’t beat a good tune.

Every year, Classic FM conduct their Hall of Fame vote of listener’s favourite pieces and every year, over the four days Easter holiday weekend the top 300 – that’s right, 300 - classical tunes are played.  Beethoven regularly has about twenty pieces in the chart (think about it – that’s one in fifteen). Sometimes fellow freemason and genius Mozart has more, but the Beethoven pieces always dominate higher end of the chart.

Is there a reason for this perennial popularity beyond the notes of the music? Perhaps.  The composer is an iconic figure – the half mad, more than half deaf musical revolutionary doomed in love. But the real reason I would argue lies in the revolutionary content of the music itself, artistically, spiritually, ideologically and structurally.

I remember going to see a performance of Beethoven’s only opera Fidelio, performed by Scottish Opera and leaving thinking a) that was brilliant and would bring every socialist in Scotland to their feet if they could only see and hear it and b) my mum and dad would have loved that – so why as working class people would they not think twice about going to see Les Miserables but regard classical music as ‘not for them’?

This essay is dedicated to those two thoughts.  



Beethoven - The modern phenomenon


My earliest experience of Beethoven, as a young boy, was as comic cliché. Beethoven was a staple of comic sketches on the telly – I particularly remember a typically deranged Monty Python sketch with John Cleese.  At that age, Beethoven meant a comically mad deaf German with rolling eyes and a brass horn in his ear and “DAA-DAA-DAA-DAAAHH!”.  I was also aware, however, from World War Two stories I’d read, that Churchill had used that same refrain from Beethoven’s Fifth symphony for radio propaganda against Hitler. In Morse code dot-dot-dot-dash stood for V, for victory.

Dialectically, artistic works that become the property of elites make their way back into popular culture in the most surprising and diverse of ways. Even now I can’t hear Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries with seeing Elmer Fudd bouncing along, shotgun in hand, singing “I’m going to hunt wabbit, I’m going to hunt wabbit…”  The agitated, crashing and truly revolutionary finale of old Ludwig’s “Moonlight” Sonata suffers from the same difficulty of a temporally specific cultural meme. It takes a real effort to listen to that runaway piano without seeing (in grainy black and white) an imperilled lady tied to a railway line by a black clad pantomime villain, looming above her, twirling his waxed moustache…

And herein lies the difficulty in writing about Beethoven the revolutionary for a socialist magazine in the early 21st century. What was “revolutionary” then may not necessarily seem so now, at least at first glance or hearing, either in the complex politics of the man or the music. We have 200 years of subjective experience to overlay on his original artistic intent, and being human cannot help but do so. The fact that Beethoven lived in the shadow of the censor much of his life - the choral finale of the Ninth symphony was changed from “Ode to Freedom” (freiheit) to “Ode to Joy” (freude) to allow performance - does not help clarify matters either.


Of his time, yet ahead of it


History is a human construction and as such can be both obscuring fog and clarifying lens.

Yet, set in the context of his time and his antecedents, I would argue Beethoven is THE revolutionary artist and artist-revolutionary. He is both of his time and ahead of it. Not only is he the consistent musical voice of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in Europe, he is the first composer to make the trials and tribulations, the feelings and struggles and consciousness of the artist central to the musical work. He is the musical embodiment of the struggle of the Enlightenment against feudal oppression, the brotherhood of man against tyranny, but also, for the first time in the history of his art, of the intimate and the personal in music. His “heroic” period (1800 -1812) builds the bridge between the classical music of Mozart and Haydn and early Romanticism and programme music. His last great works, the Ninth Symphony, the Solemn Mass in D minor (Missa Solemnis), and the final string quartets, prefigure modernity itself.

Like Marx, Beethoven spent most of his adult life embroiled in whole layers of personal and political struggle. The struggle against poverty, the struggle to be recognised as an musical artist in his own right rather than as a liveried servant of the aristocracy, a tragically unfulfilled love life, and, of course, his rapidly increasing deafness, which, for the last ten years of his life was total.

The Europe in which Beethoven struggled was no less stormy. As a young man Beethoven was an articulate student and advocate of Enlightenment thought, and a supporter of the French Revolution. At the turn of the nineteenth century he placed much of his hopes in the First Consul of France, the young Napoleon Bonaparte. Famously, his first truly revolutionary symphony, the monumental 3rd, had been originally dedicated to Bonaparte. When Beethoven heard that Napoleon had declared himself Emperor he scratched the Corsican’s name from the title page. “Now he will trample on all human rights and indulge only his own ambition,” he said. “He will place himself above everyone and become a tyrant.” 

Later, French troops occupied Vienna as Napoleon attempted to bring his Thermidorian version of the French Revolution to the rest of Europe on the point of a bayonet. The Austro-Hungarian Prince Lichnowsky, one of Beethoven’s patrons, once asked the composer to play for officers of the French occupying force. Beethoven refused and broke with his patron – risking destitution and poverty in those days – saying “I am not a performing monkey.” He later wrote to the prince “…what you are you are by accident of birth. There are and will be thousands of princes. There is only one Beethoven.”

In one of those great ironies of history, the sovereign heads of Europe at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, which redrew the map of Europe in the wake of Napoleon’s defeat chose Beethoven’s opera Fidelio, with its story of political prisoners, the struggle against tyranny, of brotherhood and love, to open the Congress.

One can only presume that, like the Nazi’s who came after them who played Beethoven in the concentration camps, they saw only their own pale and egotistical reflection in Beethoven’s universal and soaring musical themes.  For the first time ever in an opera the hero of the piece is a woman, the protagonists for the most part ordinary workers and officials or political activists. The political prisoners are finally set free by a Minister who represents “the best of kings” i.e. freedom itself, and, again, for the first time the masses, the crowd, the ordinary people play a critical role.

We can only presume these elements passed over the crowned heads of Europe in their moment of self satisfaction. In any case the applause was thunderous, though by that stage of his life, Beethoven, the most celebrated composer and musician in Europe, could not hear any of it. 

A generation later, and some twenty years after Beethoven’s death, the revolutionary impulses in Beethoven’s music would find new resonance. If the first wave of the European revolution against feudalism had been the Reformation and the second the French Revolution,  then these same great Houses of Europe that applauded Fidelio that evening were shaken to the core by the third great wave of the bourgeois-democratic revolution, as the masses again took to the streets in 1848. 

Marx had penned the Communist Manifesto in January of that year.



The flawed human


In purely modern terms – and I use that caveat advisedly – Beethoven was undoubtedly abused as a child and was also, as an adult, himself an abuser.

Beethoven came from a family of court musicians. Remember that this is the time of Mozart and Haydn. Such occupations were largely modestly paid and the position to the aristocratic household to which the musicians were employed was one of master and servant.

When it became clear to his father that young Ludwig had talent, the elder Beethoven saw the opportunity to raise the family name and bank balance through developing a young Mozart-style prodigy. From an early age Beethoven would spend many, many hours a day practicing the piano while his father looked on. Mistakes would often be punished by the stroke of a cane across the knuckles. Quite often his drunken father would bring friends home and wake young Ludwig up in the middle of the night to perform for them, something he hated.

When Beethoven grew old enough, and had developed enough of a reputation to be invited to study with the great German maestro Haydn, he left provincial Bonn for Vienna. He was never to return or see his parents in person again.

In Vienna, Beethoven rapidly became a huge celebrity among the “noble-born” elite who would hold evening parlour parties and invite top pianists of the day to compete with one another on who could best entertain them. Musical improvisation did not begin with black music or early Jazz. Top pianists in the 1790’s and early 1800’s would vie with Beethoven to see who could improvise the most bold and daring piano variations on well known tunes of the day. But Beethoven always trounced them. He was the top gun by a country mile and the rising star of society. Little did the aristocrats who applauded him wildly suspect the punishment and suffering that had, at least in part, gone into creating such facility on the keyboard, or the part the distorted values of their own society had played in shaping it.

Beethoven taught piano to the sons and daughters of rich aristocrats. At this time in his life, he falls in and out of love like a Romantic poet. All of his love affairs – consummated or not – end in tragedy for him. He is hugely talented and charismatic, but not particularly tidy or well kept. Above all these daughters of the aristocracy must first think of their station, and Beethoven is a commoner, a “mere” musician.

By 1800 Beethoven has hearing problems, by 1802 it is clear these are incurable and he will face a musician’s worst nightmare; a long slow collapse into total deafness. He considers suicide, but instead finds the fullest expression of the human spirit through his art. This time of failed love affairs and growing deafness is amongst his most productive. Beethoven is defiant. At the end of the “Eroica” symphony he musically shakes his fist at God.

He had always been demanding, particularly of musicians who played his works, but from this time on he was never an easy person to deal with. Beethoven withdrew into himself, avoiding human society apart from a few trusted friends and lieutenants. He was often short, rude, even downright offensive - even to those friends and fellow musicians. He would often write to them the next day apologising for his behaviour and assuring them of “his highest regard”.

But if deafness and social awkwardness, together with the artist’s drive for perfection could explain much of Beethoven’s behaviour during this period, his later treatment of his brother’s wife, Johanna, and his attempts to win sole guardianship of her son, his nephew, after his brother’s death, seem like monomania and downright nastiness, and not only from our privileged modern perspective.

Beethoven never believed that Johanna was a good enough wife for his brother, or mother for his nephew, Karl. Before his brother’s death from consumption he made him sign guardianship of the young boy over to him. After his brother’s death there was a protracted and unpleasant legal battle over custody of Karl which Beethoven eventually won. Beethoven took Karl under his wing and in a frightening parody of his own father tried to teach the boy music.

Young Karl, however, had no talent or desires in that direction. He wanted to join the Army. Eventually, despairing of his uncle’s lack of understanding he tried, and failed, to commit suicide. Beethoven relented and allowed the boy to go back to his mother.

Maynard Solomon, Marxist, musicologist, psychoanalyst and Beethoven biographer has said that in these unproductive and wasted years of 1812-1822, Beethoven may well have been clinically insane. His attempt to use his celebrity and power to create a surrogate family for himself nearly destroyed him, and pitilessly hurt and alienated those around him.

But, not untypically for this great artist of extremes, Beethoven was once again, in the closing years of his life, to find an answer in his music. 

Now, having given up at last the dark path on which he had set himself, he was to compose his finest music - the last string quartets, a deeply personal and spiritual journey in music; the great choral Missa Solemnis, with its utterly secular musical depiction of war, and call for peace; and, of course, the Ninth Symphony, his last great revolutionary gift to mankind “Oh you millions I embrace you. This kiss is for the whole world.”

Johanna is reputed to have said that, for the Ninth, she forgave Ludwig everything, but that’s probably apocryphal.


The Promethean


So was Beethoven both a revolutionary artist and an artist-revolutionary?

That he was a revolutionary artist is beyond doubt. He virtually creates single-handedly modern music for the piano in both sonata and concerto form. He expands the bounds both of the symphony and concerto beyond the conceptual limits of the time, in every direction. He develops wholly new techniques of exposition. He brings folk song and the voice and dances of the urban and rural masses into the classical form for the first time. He creates a new musical language that is capable of being both deeply internal and reflective and a joyous call to arms.

And artist revolutionary?  Beethoven’s commitment to the Enlightenment values of liberty, equality and fraternity are never in doubt, or his hatred of aristocratic privilege.  Though he enjoyed the company of aristocrats he never tired of reminding them, in many different ways that “I too, am a king”. Beethoven enters an eighteenth century world where musicians and artists are essentially still feudal servants and leaves it in the nineteenth century, when, largely due to his efforts, this one group of workers can now be treated on their own terms – as creative artists.

But Beethoven can, in the last analysis, only be judged on his music. And here, ultimately, we go beyond any political or philosophical debate. Beethoven’s music, at its very best, deals with real human feelings and emotions, engages the human spirit and strives towards the future – whether in the titanic opening bars of the Fifth symphony, the haunting battle between piano and orchestra in the Fourth Piano Concerto, or the dithyrambic rush to infinity at the end of the epic choral Ninth.

Beethoven stands, along with Shakespeare, Marx and Darwin, as one of the true modern Prometheans. From the deep cell of his own deafness, and the prison of his own time, he called forth, and still calls forth, lightning to our nations. 



External links:

Bella Caledonia

Bright Green

George Monbiot

Green Left


The Jimmy Reid Foundation

Richard Dawkins

Scottish Left Review

Viridis Lumen