Marking the 250th anniversary year of Beethoven's birthday, Thomas Gibbs paints a picture of someone who loved his art and hated royalty in equal measure
In December 1944, Churchill turned on the communist-led partisans who had pushed the Nazis out of Greece. One of those now in the firing line – and losing half of his face – was the then young composer (and member of the Greek People’s Liberation Army) Iannis Xenakis.
Decades later, summing up the work of a now foremost musical revolutionary, musicologist Harry Halbreich referred to music that is
“austere, uncomfortable […] never anecdotal, never sentimental, but expressive to the highest degree […] exalting our courage: music of a formidable master of energy…”
And with this he compares Xenakis to only one other – Beethoven.
Of course, Beethoven’s revolution was a different one. His was the age of three great bourgeois revolutions: the industrial in England, the political in France, and the philosophical in Germany.
Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn in the December of 1770. The exact date of his birth is not known, though this detail is somewhat overshadowed by his own belief that he was in fact born a full two years later.
Much to the disappointment of his father, the young Beethoven was no Mozart. Through hard graft (largely inspired by his father’s drunken bullying), he carved out a career of very fruitful self-employment, and in doing so managed to escape the old feudal world of court musicians owned by aristocrats.
Ever a master of himself, the composer didn’t care for royalty. To one of his earliest patrons, the prince Karl Lichnowsky, Beethoven wrote:
“Prince, what you are, you are by accident of birth; what I am, I am of myself.”
Franz II allegedly refused to have anything to do with Beethoven, on the basis that there was “something revolutionary in the music”. And what friendship the composer had with Goethe was ended abruptly in 1812 when, walking together in the park, he disdainfully shunned the passing Empress.
Born into a world of German idealism, it was in France’s material struggle to rid itself of feudalism that he found his inspiration. An ardent supporter of the revolutionary cause, he keenly followed the course of events in France and their repercussions across the continent, particularly disgusted by Austria’s leading counter-revolutionary role.
This revolutionary spirit inhabits much of his work. He, like many others, saw Napoleon as a defender of the revolution, famously dedicating his 3rd symphony to the officer only to fiercely remove the inscription upon news of his coronation.
The Beethovenian idée fixe is that of freedom. His only opera, Fidelio, tells of a lone woman freeing her husband, a political prisoner, from a Spanish jail (the setting having been moved from France for political reasons, reasons which included his hatred of the regime in Spain). Even those infamous words of Schiller that became the centrepiece of the 9th symphony began their life not as an “ode to joy” but as an “ode to freedom”.
For many listeners, this sense of struggle comes through the music and is ultimately what makes it so compelling.
Talk of Beethoven’s music is very often accompanied by talk of what it means to be human. And his output is that of a very human artist. The ethereal consistency of craftsmanship we find with Bach or Mozart we certainly don’t find with Beethoven (he wrote some music that is downright awful - so awful it’s noteworthy in its own right).
In 1802, he wrote to his brothers revealing the suicidal inclinations brought on by his deafness. In this letter, what became known as the ‘Heiligenstadt Testament’, the composer writes that, facing death:
“...it was only Art it was that withheld me, it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt called upon me to produce...”
This struggle, of having to labour for the sake of his art (and with it his life), never eased. Even at the very end of life he was devoting time to technical exercises, always demanding more of himself.
If there’s one defining feature of Western Classical music, it is its need for a manufactured sense of direction. Over the centuries, this developed through increasingly sophisticated processes of arriving at consonances by ‘resolving’ dissonances.
It could only go so far. In the early 20th century, out of the heights of musical Romanticism, Arnold Schoenberg wrote of “emancipating the dissonance” – of the historical need for music to build itself afresh, free from old hierarchies.
It was Beethoven who had propelled music into this new age of Romanticism. Bringing together the Goethes and Schillers of the German literary scene and the French songs of revolution, he had completely changed what music could be.
The 5th symphony, considered by many to be a watershed moment in this stylistic transition, is brimming with sly references to music of the revolution.
In fact, a little detective work leads straight to words written about murdered revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat:
“We swear, sword in hand, to die for the republic and for human rights”
Beethoven died in Vienna in 1827. He was saluted by the poet Franz Grillparzer in much the manner that Lenin was by Mayakovsky a century later:
“Thus he was, thus he died, thus he will live to the end of time.”
Behind him he left a huge catalogue of works, including 9 symphonies, 5 piano concertos, 16 string quartets, and 32 piano sonatas.
So of course he didn’t “break all the rules”. He worked with established musical forms, but what he achieved within the confines of these forms is nothing short of miraculous. And perhaps more important is that with this he enabled the new-found freedom of music in the 20th century.
Legend has it that, faced with a complaint about his ‘Razumovsky’ quartets, Beethoven responded that they were “for a later age”. 250 years after his birth, we can see he was right. Like any true revolutionary, he didn’t predict the future, he made it. In this spirit, when Halbreich says Xenakis is like Beethoven, let’s remember that there’s more future to be made.
5 essential listens
1Symphony No. 3 ('Eroica')
2Piano Concerto No. 4
3Piano Sonata No. 31
5The late string quartets