In the year of the great composers 250th birthday, we can retune our ears to pick up the subversive and passionately democratic nature of his music.
Two hundred and fifty years after Beethovens birth, were faced with something of a paradox: his music is known and beloved all over the world, probably more than that of any other composer, even as its real significance is hardly ever remarked on except in critical studies largely unread by the public. Familiarity, it seems, has bred not contempt but ignorance. We hear the famous melodies for the thousandth time, whether in movies, commercials, or concerts, from the third, fifth, sixth, or ninth symphonies or from piano concertos and sonatas or pieces of chamber music. But the cutting edge of this music has been dulled through overuse. That is, we have forgotten, and no longer seem to hear, the intensely political nature of Beethovens musicits subversive, revolutionary, passionately democratic, and freedom-exalting nature.
In the year of the great composers 250th birthday, it would be fitting to recapture this essence, to retune our ears to pick up the musics political and philosophical message. This is especially appropriate in our own time of democratic struggles against a corrupt and decaying ancien rgime, with its parallels to the Beethovenian era of revolution, hidebound reaction, and soaring hopes to realize the rights of man. Beethoven belongs, heart and soul, to the political left. Centuries after his death, his music still retains the power to transform, transfigure, and revivify, no matter how many political defeats its partisans and spiritual comrades suffer.
We might start with the most famous of Beethovenian motifs: the opening notes of the Fifth Symphony (1808). Weve all heard the legend that they represent fate knocking at the door. The source of this idea is Anton Schindler, Beethovens notoriously unreliable secretary. Sir John Eliot Gardiner, world-renowned conductor, has a different interpretation: he detects the influence of Luigi Cherubinis revolutionary Hymne du Panthon of 1794. We swear, sword in hand, to die for the Republic and for the rights of man, the chorus sings, to the rhythm of da-da-da-duuum. Beethoven was a great admirer of Cherubini, not to mention a devoted republican, so Gardiners theory is hardly far-fetched. In the stultifyingly conservative and repressive Vienna of 1808, Beethoven issued a clarion call to revolution in the very opening notes of one of his most revolutionary, Napoleonic symphonies. No wonder conservatives detested his music!
Beethoven was a child of the Enlightenment and remained so his whole life. Late eighteenth-century Bonn, where he was born, was steeped in the most progressive thought of the age: Kant, the philosopher of freedom, was a lively subject of discussion at the university, as was his follower Friedrich Schiller, the poet of freedom, impassioned enemy of tyrants everywhere. The young Beethoven was heavily influenced by Eulogius Schneider, whose lectures he attended. One of the most important of German Jacobins, Schneider was so radical that in 1791 he was kicked out of the liberal University of Bonn, whereupon he joined the Jacobin Club in Strasbourg. (There, he was appointed public prosecutor for the Revolutionary Tribunal, enthusiastically sending aristocrats to the guillotineuntil he lost his own head a couple years later.) Schneiders republicanism stayed with Beethoven, but it was Schiller whom Beethoven worshiped.
Schillers poem An die FreudeOde to Joy impressed Beethoven immensely. He planned early on to set it to music and finally did so in the Ninth Symphony. But he was just as enamored of Schillers idealistic, heroic plays, such as The Robbers, William Tell, and Don Carlos. Of the latter play, he jotted down his own thoughts as a young man: To do good whenever one can, to love liberty above all else, never to deny the truth, even though it be before the throne. Decades later, we find him exclaiming in a letter, Freedom!!!! What more does one want??? He once wrote in a letter, From my earliest childhood, my zeal to serve our poor suffering humanity in any way whatsoever by means of my art has made no compromise with any lower motive. . . . I am thoroughly delighted, he continued, to have found in you a friend of the oppressed. The historian Hugo Leichtentritt concludes, Beethoven was a passionate democrat, a convicted republican, even in his youth; he was, in fact, the first German musician who had strong political interests, ideals, and ambitions.
Indeed, his first significant composition was his Cantata on the Death of Joseph II, a heartfelt and moving tribute to the enlightened reformer who died in 1790. Beethoven, who always disliked hierarchy, was wholly in sympathy with Josephs attacks on the power of the Catholic Church and the Austrian aristocracy. His contempt for aristocrats was such that, years later, he was able to write an insulting note to one of his most generous benefactors, Prince Lichnowsky: Prince, what you are, you are by circumstance and birth; what I am, I am through myself. There are, and always will be, thousands of princes; but there is only one Beethoven. Even his fashion sense was democratic. A woman who knew him wrote a reminiscence of his behavior in aristocratic Viennese salons: I still remember clearly Haydn and Salieri sitting on a sofa . . . both carefully dressed in the old-fashioned way with wig, shoes, and silk stockings, while Beethoven would come dressed in the informal fashion of the other side of the Rhine, almost badly dressed. He behaved without manners in both gesture and demeanor. He was very haughty. I myself saw the mother of Princess Lichnowsky . . . go down on her knees to him as he lolled on the sofa, begging him to play something. But Beethoven did not.
Beethoven maintained a decades-long fascination with Napoleon, in large part because the little corporal who had conquered Europe by his own efforts was not an aristocrat. He admired Napoleons ascent from such a low beginning, remarked a French officer he befriended in 1809. It suited his democratic ideas. Napoleons crowning himself Emperor, however, did not suit Beethovens ideas, as we know from the anecdote of how he furiously tore up the title page of the Eroica Symphony (1804), which he had originally intendedincredibly, given the political repression in Viennato title Bonaparte. So he is nothing more than an ordinary man! Beethoven raged. Now he too will trample underfoot all the rights of man . . . and become a tyrant! Twenty years later, in the thick of the Restoration, his views had softened: earlier I couldnt have tolerated him [Napoleon]. Now I think completely differently. However bad Napoleon was, he wasnt the despised Emperor Francis IIor, even worse, the Austrian Empires Chancellor Klemens von Metternich.
The Eroica is arguably the most revolutionary of Beethovens symphonies, which may be why it remained his favorite, at least until the Ninth. John Clubbe, author of Beethoven: The Relentless Revolutionary (2019), believes the Eroicas famous first two chords, which crash like cannon shots, represent the cannons fired by Napoleons armies as they marched across Europe. The chords recall the world of the [French] Revolution: exuberant, over-the-top, colossal. They are wake-up calls to jolt [the] somnolent audiences in Vienna and elsewhere. Beethoven loathed the complacent, apolitical, frivolous Viennese of his day, intimidated by repression and censorship into sybaritic silence. The symphony is full of his quintessential techniques of disruption, including sudden dynamic contrasts, extreme dissonance, colossal noise, massive dimensions, density of ideas, bursting of forms and conventions, and even an extra French horn to conjure the atmosphere of revolution. It all serves to communicate the abiding essence of Beethovens music: struggle, ending in triumph. It is not mere personal struggle, such as his struggle against deafness; it is collective, universal, timeless struggle, a war against limits, so to speakartistic, creative, moral, political, even spatial and temporal. John Eliot Gardiners characterization is apt: Beethoven represents the struggle to bring the divine down to Earth. (Gardiner contrasts this with Bach and Mozart, the first representing the divine on Earth, the second giving us the music you would hear in heaven.)
If we listen to Beethoven and do not hear anything of the revolutionary bourgeoisienot the echo of its slogans, the need to realize them, the cry for that totality in which reason and freedom are to have their warrantwe understand Beethoven no better than does one who cannot follow the purely musical content of his pieces, wrote Theodor Adorno. Beethoven was so political that, by the end of his life, some of his friends refused to dine with him: either they were bored of his constant politicizing or they feared police spies would overhear him. You are a revolutionary, a Carbonaro, a friend of his wrote in his conversation book in 1823, referring to an Italian secret society that had played a role in various national uprisings. Well past the point that it had become (to his contemporaries) anachronistic, Beethoven kept the Enlightenment faith.
It is beyond the scope of this article to trace Beethovens hortatory humanism through all its musical permutations, from the bucolic poetry of the Sixth Symphony (he had a nearly pantheistic love of nature) to the peace that passeth understanding of the final piano sonata, with the dazzling variety of forms and content in between. We can hardly ignore, however, the one opera he wrote, whether in its initial form (as Leonore) or its final form almost ten years later (1814) as Fidelio, which he wanted to dedicate to the Greek freedom fighters in their war against the Ottoman Empire. Here was a chance for the great democrat to express his convictions in words. And the words, music, and plot of the opera are unambiguous: in them the Revolution is not depicted but reenacted as in a ritual, to quote Adorno.
Fidelio gives free rein to Beethovens unalloyed idealism, as the choral movement of the Ninth Symphony would do a decade later. The plot is simple (and ostensibly based on actual events that occurred during the French Revolution). Leonore, disguised as a young man named Fidelio, gets a job at a prison where she suspects her husband Florestan is being held for political reasons. He is, in fact, being slowly starved to death in the dungeon for having denounced the crimes of the prisons governor, Pizarro. The minister Don Fernando will arrive the next day to investigate accusations of cruelty in the prison, so Pizarro resolves to kill Florestan in order to keep his existence and unjust imprisonment a secret. Fidelio and a few others are sent to the dungeon to dig a grave; meanwhile, they set most of the prisoners free, at least temporarily, to gather in the courtyard and see the sun once again. When the time is come for Pizarro to kill Florestan, he approaches with a dagger, but Fidelio leaps between him and Florestan and reveals herself, to everyones shock, as Leonore. She threatens Pizarro with a pistol, but at that moment a distant bugle is heard, announcing the arrival of the benevolent minister. Pizarro ends up imprisoned himself, as Leonore frees Florestan from his chains and is celebrated for her heroism by the crowd of emancipated prisoners.
The symbolism and allegorical meanings of the opera are not hard to discern. Beethoven believed in the courage and heroism of women just as much as men, and was just as affected by its contemplation and depiction. All his life he remained as sincere and pure in his valuesas well as in his utterly untamed personality (quoting Goethe)as a nave boy reading Schiller for the first time. Doubtless it is this quality that so moves audiences, that inspires flash mobs with millions of views on YouTube, and that has made his music immortal. The greatest art is always affirmative in spirit, and no one is more profoundly affirmativeor more entitled to affirmation, in light of his terrible sufferingthan Beethoven.
The spirit of his music is as simple as the spirits of his models (he insisted) Socrates and Jesus: good will triumph over evil; cherish freedom but live with moral seriousness, always challenging authority; love your fellow human beings, not parochially, as in the mode of nationalism, but universally; never compromise your ideals or integrity; and above all, struggle for emancipation. Freedom remained the fundamental motif of Beethovens thought and music, Clubbe writes. For Beethoven, this meant the republican freedom to participate actively in politics, or the freedom to create and think and speak what you will, where you will. Politics as the art of creating society, a society that will express a richer and fuller life, was his favorite theme, according to his biographer W.J. Turner.
There is something incongruous about the attendance of the lavishly dressed, moneyed elite at public concerts of Beethoven symphonies or concertos, given his musics expression of such a revolutionary, democratic, humanitarian spirit. Such are the ironies that result when the historical specificity of art is denied or forgotten and all that is left is a vague feeling of aesthetic enjoyment. Still, even the pure aesthetic enjoyment is significant. The music is exquisitely beautiful in the mode of invigoration: no composer in history is more humanistic than Beethoven. As Leonard Bernstein once said,
No composer has ever lived who speaks so directly to so many people, to young and old, educated and ignorant, amateur and professional, sophisticated and nave. To all these people, of all classes, nationalities, and racial backgrounds, this music speaks a universality of thought, of human brotherhood, freedom, and love.
That even reactionaries today can love Beethoven, however perversely, suggests just how universal his music is.
Let us, then, turn again with fresh ears and open minds to the first great democrat of music, in the words of Ferruccio Busoni. Let us draw inspiration from him in our own struggles to humanize and democratize the world. And lets be sure not to forget, in the cultural wasteland that is twenty-first-century America, the nobler aspects of our civilizations heritage.
Richard Wagner called his own music the Music of the Future. Lets hope that Beethovens is the real Music of the Future, and that humanity one day will be free.
Chris Wright has a PhD in U.S. history from the University of Illinois at Chicago and is the author of Worker Cooperatives and Revolution: History and Possibilities in the United States. His website is http://www.wrightswriting.com.
View original post here:
- Spiritual Enlightenment: What It Is and How to Experience It - November 10th, 2020
- 5 Things You Should Know About Spiritual Enlightenment ... - November 10th, 2020
- Spiritual Enlightenment - Truths & Paths | Live and Dare - November 10th, 2020
- The 3 Stages Of Spiritual Enlightenment : In5D - November 10th, 2020
- What Is Spiritual Enlightenment or Spiritual Awakening? - November 10th, 2020
- Is there a spiritual side to dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic? - RTE.ie - November 10th, 2020
- National Trust observes Divali with educational presentations - Loop News Trinidad and Tobago - November 10th, 2020
- The Wanteds Tom Parker and wife Kelsey say newborn son is light at the end of our tunnel after brain cance - The Sun - November 10th, 2020
- The best response to Islamism is Christianity - Spectator.co.uk - November 10th, 2020
- Astrology 2020: Message of the Day (November 8) - Newsroompost - November 10th, 2020
- Huge chalk art project brings positivity to street on the Outer Banks - OBXToday.com - November 10th, 2020
- The birth of modern Europe - The News International - November 10th, 2020
- NLE Choppa Dated A 46-Year-Old Woman When He Was 16 - HotNewHipHop - November 10th, 2020
- Roy Exum: We Need God's Help - The Chattanoogan - November 10th, 2020
- Faith and Governance: The Role of the Church in Social Justice - THISDAY Newspapers - November 10th, 2020
- When Raving Was Radical - The Nation - November 10th, 2020
- Navigating the Mind: What Medication Cannot Address - James Moore - November 10th, 2020
- No Man's Sky: 10 Things You Didnt Know About The Korvax - TheGamer - November 10th, 2020
- It's Not That Detroit Is Too Poor, But That Seattle Is Too Rich - TheStranger.com - October 19th, 2020
- Eye Gazing Exercise: Possible Benefits and How to Try It - Healthline - October 19th, 2020
- Batman: Bruce Wayne Has The Same Origin Story as The Buddha - Screen Rant - October 19th, 2020
- Fiction: Into the Darkness With Don DeLillo - Wall Street Journal - October 19th, 2020
- Rabbi Art Green (still) believes Hasidic ideas are key to the Jewish future - The Jewish News of Northern California - October 19th, 2020
- Alan Arkin on Hollywood success: 'I was miserable pretty much all of the time' - The Guardian - October 19th, 2020
- The joy of the Mallorcan landscape - Majorca Daily Bulletin - October 19th, 2020
- Sudbury author explores the power of healing - The Sudbury Star - October 19th, 2020
- The Revolutionary Beethoven - CounterPunch.org - CounterPunch - October 19th, 2020
- Exercising Religion and Taming Faction - Los Angeles Review of Books - lareviewofbooks - October 19th, 2020
- Op-Ed: The civil rights legend who opposed critical race theory - The Center Square - October 19th, 2020
- Chant of the Buddha - Part II - Outlook India - September 26th, 2020
- Tantra exhibition review: An enjoyable journey on the road to enlightenment - Evening Standard - September 26th, 2020
- Review: Capital in the 21st Century - Camden New Journal newspapers website - September 26th, 2020
- Finding God: Christianity and the Global Mystical Societies - THISDAY Newspapers - September 26th, 2020
- Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith Used This Parenting Technique That Inspired Jaden and Willow To Be Unusually Close - Showbiz Cheat Sheet - September 26th, 2020
- The art of tantra: is there more to it than marathon sex and massages? - The Guardian - September 26th, 2020
- Saying goodbye to the Israeli one-state prophet - +972 Magazine - September 26th, 2020
- Spiritual Enlightenment - How To Become Enlightened - August 10th, 2020
- Spiritual Enlightenment - The Most Profound Truth Revealed ... - August 10th, 2020
- SERMONETTE: Seek the Holy Spirit and hold on! - Crow River Media - August 10th, 2020
- What Is Spiritual Bypassing? 7 Steps To Avoiding Toxic Spirituality - YourTango - August 10th, 2020
- Will Tammy Duckworth be the first deist veep since Thomas Jefferson? - Religion News Service - August 10th, 2020
- Jamila Woods' "SULA (Paperback)" and Creative Ancestry and Self-Love in the Age of "List" Activism - PopMatters - August 10th, 2020
- Creation, conscience and the bomb | Earthbeat - National Catholic Reporter - August 10th, 2020
- DREAMS OF WALDEN POND: The Way of Liberal Religion - Patheos - August 10th, 2020
- Let's Show Power! Rev Abbeam Danso and Apostle Nkum challenge The Mystic Twins to open battle - GhanaWeb - August 10th, 2020
- Jacob S. Rugh: An open letter to the BYU Committee on Race, Equity, and Belonging - Salt Lake Tribune - August 10th, 2020
- Your Weekly Horoscope News: August 10th - August 17th - Sporteluxe - August 10th, 2020
- #482 Author and Intuitive Michael McAdams and His Book, An Angel Told Me So - BlogTalkRadio - August 8th, 2020
- Hinduism Survived Years Of Raids Through Its Inclusiveness, Not Violence And Bloodshed - Outlook India - August 8th, 2020
- A rebuttal to Sam George's mid-length propaganda: "The path to enlightenment ain't easy. We get it through trial, struggle, self-flagellation.... - August 8th, 2020
- Dimension of Krishna Sadhana - The New Indian Express - August 8th, 2020
- Why Bodh Gaya is Considered the Navel of the Earth - Ancient Origins - August 8th, 2020
- 6 Facts About Water Lilies That Will Make You Love Them Even More - MSN Money - August 8th, 2020
- Satan in the Times | John Mark N. Reynolds - Patheos - August 8th, 2020
- How To Meditate, Body Scan, Breathe Mindfully And Become More Present - elle.com - August 8th, 2020
- When panic disorder hits a nation - The Star Online - August 8th, 2020
- World Teacher and Happy Science Founder Ryuho Okawa Introduces Four Principles of Happiness that Transcends Race and Religion in His New Book... - August 8th, 2020
- ARTIST: Zachary Ian Garden featured in The Art of Tattooists - The News Herald - August 7th, 2020
- Honey I Joined A Cult Coming To Brainwash PCs in 2021 - GameSpace.com - August 7th, 2020
- Pick of the Podcasts: Guru, Calm Down Dear, Give Me Some Good News - The Sunday Post - August 7th, 2020
- Excerpt: From the Translators Note to Rumi; A New Collection Selected and Translated by Farrukh Dh... - Hindustan Times - August 6th, 2020
- 'History will judge us' Have progressive UK rabbis reached end of the road on Israel? - Mondoweiss - August 6th, 2020
- Chulayarnnon Siriphol on Finding Ways to Express Opinions - Ocula Magazine - August 6th, 2020
- Speech and Slavery in the West Indies | by Fara Dabhoiwala - The New York Review of Books - August 6th, 2020
- Power of 5am thoughts - The New Indian Express - August 4th, 2020
- India is a spiritual country, but we're still not taking the wealth of the Bhagavad Gita: Vedanta scholar Jaya Row - The New Indian Express - August 4th, 2020
- The Sacrifice of All Doubts - Kashmir Reader - August 4th, 2020
- View the awe-inspiring Hermitage of St. Sava - Aleteia IT - August 4th, 2020
- A Suitable Boy: Seven films to watch that are set in India - Spectator.co.uk - August 3rd, 2020
- Chingy wants to uplift with self-reflective new album, 'Crown Jewel' - STLtoday.com - August 3rd, 2020
- Feds sprayed chemicals into the eyes of a retired ER nurse and veteran - Street Roots News - August 3rd, 2020
- The American Founding vindicated against its foes on the Right and Left - MercatorNet - August 3rd, 2020
- Lam Tian Xings Anthem of the Calamus is an ode to Hong Kongs resilient spirit - Lifestyle Asia - August 3rd, 2020
- Asking the Clergy: Why is patience a virtue in difficult times? - Newsday - July 31st, 2020
- El Topo: The weirdest western ever made - BBC News - July 29th, 2020
- Lam Tian-xings Anthem of the Calamus is an ode to Hong Kongs resilient spirit - Lifestyle Asia - July 29th, 2020
- Corruption, the Devaluation of the Human Spirit and the Futures of Black Humanity (2) - The News - July 29th, 2020
- 'It took genius to chisel these buttocks' the top 10 bottoms in art, chosen by our critic - The Guardian - July 29th, 2020
- Hippy In the Mikvah - Lubavitch.com - July 29th, 2020
- Author Louis Belmont announces new article series on the Spirituality Industry - PR Web - July 27th, 2020