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In the 250th year of Beethoven’s birth, Chris Wright reflects on the revolutionary edge of the great composer’s music

Two hundred and fifty years after Beethoven’s birth, we’re 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, melodies from the third, fifth, sixth, ninth or other 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 Beethoven’s music—its subversive, revolutionary, passionately democratic and freedom-exalting nature.

In the year of the great composer’s 250th birthday, it would be fitting to recapture the music’s essence, retune our ears to pick up its political and philosophical message. This is especially appropriate in our own time of democratic struggles against a corrupt and decaying ancien régime, a time of parallels with 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, especially if properly understood, 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). We’ve all heard the legend that they represent “fate knocking at the door.” The source of this idea is Anton Schindler, Beethoven’s notoriously unreliable secretary. Sir John Eliot Gardiner, world-renowned conductor, has a different interpretation: he detects the influence of Cherubini’s revolutionary Hymne du Panthéon of 1794 in the famous notes. “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 Gardiner’s 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!

Some biographical details are in order. Beethoven was a child of the Enlightenment and remained so his whole life. Bonn in the late eighteenth century 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 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, whereupon he joined the Jacobin Club in Strasbourg. (There, he was appointed public prosecutor for the Revolutionary Tribunal, enthusiastically sending aristocrats to the guillotine—until he lost his own head a couple years later.) Schneider’s republicanism stayed with Beethoven, but it was Schiller whom Beethoven worshiped.

Schiller’s poem “An die Freude,” of course, impressed Beethoven immensely, given that he planned early on to set it to music and finally did so in the Ninth Symphony. But he was just as enamored of Schiller’s idealistic, heroic plays, such as The Robbers, William Tell, and Don Carlos. In marginal notations on 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???” In a similar vein, he once wrote to a friend, “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, 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 Joseph’s 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 his most generous benefactor, 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.” Corresponding to this was the fact that he was “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.”

One reason for Beethoven’s decades-long fascination with Napoleon was that the latter was not an aristocrat, that he was the “little corporal” who had conquered Europe by his own efforts. “He admired Napoleon’s ascent from such a low beginning,” remarked a French officer he befriended in 1809. “It suited his democratic ideas.” On the other hand, Napoleon’s crowning himself Emperor certainly did not suit Beethoven’s ideas, as we know from the anecdote of how he furiously tore up the title page of the Eroica Symphony (1803), which he had originally intended—incredibly, given the political repression in Vienna—to title Buonaparte. “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!” And yet twenty years later, in the thick of the Restoration, his views had softened: “earlier I couldn’t have tolerated him [Napoleon]. Now I think completely differently.” However bad Napoleon was, he wasn’t the despised Emperor Francis II—or, even worse, Metternich.

The Eroica is arguably the most revolutionary of Beethoven’s 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 famous first two chords, which crash like cannon shots, are indeed supposed to represent the cannon fired by Napoleon’s armies as they marched across Europe carrying the banner of revolution. “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—for Beethoven loathed the complacent, apolitical, frivolous Viennese of his day, intimidated by repression and censorship into sybaritic silence.

The symphony is full of the techniques of “disruption” that have come to be considered quintessentially Beethovenian, including sudden dynamic contrasts, extreme dissonance, colossal noise, massive dimensions, density of ideas, bursting of forms and conventions, even an extra French horn to conjure the atmosphere of revolution. All of it together serves to communicate the abiding essence of Beethoven’s 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 speak—artistic, creative, moral, political, even spatial and temporal. Gardiner’s characterization is apt: Beethoven represents the struggle to bring the divine down to Earth, a struggle he shares with revolutionaries everywhere. (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.)

Theodor Adorno was surely right when he said, “If we listen to Beethoven and do not hear anything of the revolutionary bourgeoisie—not the echo of its slogans, the need to realize them, the cry for that totality in which reason and freedom are to have their warrant—we understand Beethoven no better than does one who cannot follow the purely musical content of his pieces.” The man 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 Beethoven’s 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, much like Lord Byron, 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, not only music. 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 Beethoven’s 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 prison’s 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. At last 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 everyone’s 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 newly freed 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. He was, in fact, a lifelong child, as sincere and pure in his values—as well as in his “utterly untamed personality” (quoting Goethe)—as a naïve 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 affirmative—or more entitled to affirmation, in light of his terrible suffering—than 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; above all, struggle for emancipation. “Freedom remained the fundamental motif of Beethoven’s thought and music,” Clubbe writes.

Lest a political conservative misinterpret this last point, I must insist that “freedom” for Beethoven did not mean the freedom to try to start a business, to rent yourself to a corporation (on pain of starving), or to enjoy the wealth you have inherited. These are deeply impoverished “freedoms,” however glorified they may be in the rhetoric of modern conservatism. Richer is 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 Beethoven’s favorite theme, according to his biographer W. J. Turner. Indeed, there is something incongruous about the attendance of the lavishly dressed moneyed elite at public concerts of Beethoven symphonies or concertos, given the music’s expression of the revolutionary, democratic, humanitarian spirit the elite’s existence is premised on crushing. But 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 naïve. 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 let’s be sure not to forget, in the cultural wasteland that is twenty-first-century America, the nobler aspects of our civilization’s heritage.

Admirers of Richard Wagner’s music have been known to call it the “Music of the Future.” Let’s hope that Beethoven’s is the real Music of the Future, and that humanity one day will be free.

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