Part I: Early Stirrings
Knowing Beethoven on a personal level is a relatively simple task. Long and arduous perhaps, but the path itself is clear. The sources are readily available, everywhere from the fall of the Berlin Wall to deodorant commercials. As a pioneer of the “self expression” approach in western music, he bared the most significant aspects of his constitution for anyone who would listen.
To know Beethoven in relation to the world around him however is considerably more challenging. His personal letters reveal little commentary on the world at large, or his thoughts on a number of important subjects. Instead, they are filled with overwrought attempts at poetic truth and grandeur, gratuitous social pleasantries, and run of the mill business and finance episodes. This presents obvious difficulties to those who would like to know just how
Beethoven felt about say, the French Revolution, and to
what extend he was influenced by the times. It is customary to list Romanticism with Nationalism as two major offsprings of the revolution, just as we list Beethoven as a major figure in the birth of the romantic era. The interaction between Beethoven and his world thus comes across as particularly intriguing, and worth the trouble.
The main bulk of this process involves considering his letters, and several important works. Important in the sense of stylistic development that is. The goal is to show that the works which were inspired by or and in reference to events around him, were significant in the development of Beethoven's style, which became pivotal in the development of European aesthetic values. No attempt will be made to politicize works which were not overtly so already. These other pieces will be examined in order to contrast and highlight important phenomena in the principal works.
We'll start by taking a look at his letters during the early days of the revolution. The following excerpts are from the most empassioned letter from the period of either the National Assembly or National Convention I was able to find. Written in late 1793, it was contemporary with the
beginnings of the terror in France, while Ludwig was doing the rounds in Vienna. The first excerpt follows the lavish and gushy dedication of a set of variations for piano and violin "Se Vuol Ballere”, to one of Beethoven's many crushes, a woman by the name of Eleanor, who was a contact of his back in Bonn. This excerpt, which is a typical display his poetic thrashings, reads:
“Perhaps it may serve to remind you of me till I return, though this is indeed a distant prospect. Oh! how we shall then rejoice together, my dear Eleonore! You will, I trust, find your friend a happier man, all former forbidding, careworn furrows
smoothed away by time and better fortune.”
What do we glean from this snippet? For one we see that, Beethoven was no more conservative with words than he was with notes, although decidedly less skilled. Also apparent is Beethoven possessed quite the hankering for Eleanor. The most important thing we gain from it is the impression of Beethoven the romantic. From the P.S. we derive another view of Beethoven, already quite the elitist, and caught in a bout of social fencing.
“P.S. The variations are rather difficult to play, especially the shake in the Coda; but do not be alarmed at this, being so contrived that you only require to play the shake, and leave out the other notes, which also occur in the violin part. I never would have written it in this way, had I not occasionally observed that there was a certain individual in Vienna who, when I improvised the previous evening, not unfrequently wrote down next day many of the peculiarities of my music, adopting them as his own ...Concluding, therefore, that some of these things would soon appear, I resolved to anticipate this. Another reason also was to puzzle some of the pianoforte teachers here, many of whom are my mortal foes; so I wished to revenge myself on them in this way, knowing that they would occasionally be asked to play the variations, whereupon these gentlemen would not appear to much advantage.”
Entertaining stuff, yes, but nothing like the political or philosophical details we would so love to see. Convenient as it would be, it seems Ludwig will never suffer the same type of “Well...Beethoven believed (insert ideologically convenient quotation)” abuses as Einstein or God are often subjected to.
Going through more of Beethoven's writings, we also dig up few reverberations of enlightenment thought, such as “freedom, progress are purpose in the arts as well as in universal creation.” This jibes well with the enlightenment notions in “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen” of rights springing from natural laws. Thus linking Beethoven to the 18th century, shows Beethoven was in life as well as music, a pivot figure between reason and romance.
The problem remains however, that Beethoven left little or no direct commentary on the events taking place around him, at least in the from of letters. We would expect some response to a Revolution which was espousing the same ideals Beethoven was imbued with. The closest we come
is a remark, presumably in response to concerns in 1794 that Austria might undergo a similar revolution to the one in France. Ludwig's somewhat bitter rebuttal; “I believe that so long as the Austrian has his brown beer and sausage, he will never revolt.” further displays his elitist attitudes.
It appears from this quip that Beethoven had little love for the common man, and may have seen the early stages of the revolution as peasants clamoring for bread and circuses. It's a good start, but not enough to go by on its own. Had Beethoven been a Poet or shopkeep, I would resign myself to defeat, admitting that in the absence of evidence, we must also maintain the absence of assumption and conjecture. Thankfully though, we have recourse to the music itself, a valid if somewhat problematic primary source. We know for certain that Beethoven wrote a number of politically inspired works. So the cause for hope is there, but leads us down the dark path of reading political ideas in works of music, far from impossible in and of itself, but furnishing an extra-musical link between the notes and the man is a bit trickier.
Before the final plunge into nonesense, some biographical justification of the coming pursuit is called for, in order to put Beethoven's words and music in context. As much as this author would enjoy a music for music's sake approach, his skill in musical analysis is insufficient to so stand on its own. Beethoven will thus be considered both musically, and to justify the musical analysis, biographically. When pondering the lack of commentary from Beethoven during the first decade of the revolution, we have to ask ourselves this question; Why would Beethoven feel anything but contempt for the revolution in France, when it stood to destroy the aristocracy from which, especially in his early years, Beethoven derived the majority of his audience and pay? We have seen that he was generally scornful of the masses, and was subsidized by the nobility. But we have also seen displays of 18th century idealism. Obviously, the two sides must be reconciled.
Beethoven was born and raised in the city of Bonn, which in the southwest part of modern day Germany sat very near the French border, and had been somewhat of a cultural upstart at the time. A new university had opened recently, the arts and letters were generously patronized under the direction of Elector Maximilian Franz who, unlike his sister Marie Antoinette, was something of an “enlightened despot”. Beethoven enrolled briefly in the university and as we have seen from certain diary entries, became quite enamoured with enlightenment thinking. If we look at Beethoven as a child of the enlightenment it seems quite reasonable that Beethoven would be in support of political change. And what could hope to better reconcile enlightenment ideals with elitism and political realities than an “enlightened despot”? Was Beethoven then, in agreement with Voltaire, that prophet of the enlightenment in supporting “enlightened despotism”?
The proof is in the portamento, actually. When in 1790, Beethoven received a commission to compose the funeral cantata for Austrian Emperor Josef II, one of the more prolific ”enlightened despots”, the wind players boycotted the piece as too difficult to play. At this time Beethoven was still conventional in style, if not talent, and the nature of the commission would lead us to
expect something typical of 18th century classicism, nice and easy, Mozartean in its grace. Presumably so, but from what we know of the piece based on reactions, (the score being magnificently difficult to find), in actuality he composed a work which stretched technical and aesthetic norms. While Beethoven came to be known for just that type of work, in 1790 this piece stands out from most others of the period as progressive, and most importantly, more distinctly aligned with what we think of as Beethoven.
Would Beethoven have stretched his abilities and the players technique for any run of the mill despot? Perhaps, as a shrewd career move he may have. However, given that the work is not surrounded by other stylistically aberrant pieces for personal profit, and the likelihood of backfire
(should audiences fail to appreciate his musical eccentricities at the Emperor's expense.) this possibility seems remote. A more convincing explanation involves Beethoven's concurrent commission to write for the coronation of Josef II's successor to the throne, Leopold II.(9) Writing for the new emperor would seem to provide a much more profitable forum for brown-nosing than that of
the recently deceased, were that Beethoven's motive for innovation. But when given a "regular" despot to write for, exactly the opposite happened.
As regards the quality of the Leopold Cantata, and its importance in Beethoven's output, only a peep is to be found in reference to the Leopold II, but a revealing one at that. In the Leopold II Piece Beethoven for the first time sets Schiller's ”Ode to Joy” to music. The line used; "Stürzt ihr nieder, Millionen? (Do you bow down, millions?)” borders on dangerously subversive in the context, so we
are quite fortunate in that it, like the piece on Josef II, was never performed. The revelation here is that the “normal despot” Leopold II got not only musical mediocrity, but outright venom from the composer. So while the Leopold Cantata is important in that it contains Beethoven's first treatment of Schiller's “Ode to Joy”, (which would continue throughout his career, culminating in the Ninth Symphony.) more importantly for our purposes, it betrays his possible belief that not all kings are created equal, and that Leopold was of the lesser variety.
As for the content of Josef II's cantata, we look to the response of Josef Haydn, who upon seeing the work, commended Beethoven and encouraged him to continue composing.This encounter likely played a considerable part in his later decision to take Beethoven on as a pupil. With Haydn reigning as Europe's musical emperor, the accompanying prestige had a large effect Beethoven's reception by many Viennese circles, as eventual heir to Haydn and Mozart. The skeptic may at this time point out that Haydn, vanguard of classicism, may vouch for the quality of the work, but certainly not its progressiveness. However, the reaction of Johannes Brahms to the work upon its rediscovery in the 1880's, should put these doubts to rest.
"Even if there were no name on the title page none other could be conjectured--it is Beethoven through and through! The beautiful and noble pathos, sublime in its feeling and imagination, the intensity, perhaps violent in its expression, moreover the voice leading and declamation, and in the two outside sections all the characteristics which we may observe and associate with his later works".
If psychiatrists may be admitted as expert witnesses for insanity pleas, surely Brahms can be called upon to assist my case as regards Beethoven. While both works are too obscure to easily secure a copy of the score, the extra-musical evidence paints a reasonable, if questionable picture. One openly hostile and formulaic, the other progressive and sincere. Beethoven now begins to emerge with
a balance between conservative notions of constitutional
monarchy and the more radical 19th century mantras of Freedom, Democracy and Nationalism which we normally associate him with.
Beethoven's "Political" Works Part II: What a Sellout!