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Beethoven’s political resonance

Beethoven was a musical revolutionary – but was he a political one, too?

On 2 July 2019, the 29 Brexit Party MEPs attending the European Parliament in Strasbourg turned their backs as a saxophone quartet and an opera singer performed the European anthem. Their protest caused discord. The European Parliament’s then president, Antonio Tajani, said it was “a question of respect”. Richard Corbett, the Labour Party’s leader in Europe, described the gesture as “pathetic”. The tune of the anthem in question is “Ode to Joy”, an extract from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

Beethoven’s works have long held political significance, both in his lifetime and after it. Two of his early pieces, for example, were commissioned to mark the death and anointment of Austrian emperors (“Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II” and the subsequent “Cantata on the Accession of Emperor Leopold II”). He originally dedicated his seminal Third Symphony, “Eroica”, to Napoleon, but later retracted the honour – a tale much mythologised. The opening notes of the Fifth Symphony corresponded with the Morse code for “V” – short-short-short-long – and thus became a symbol for Allied victory during the Second World War.

The significance of this political undercurrent has not been overlooked – in 2012 Nicholas Mathew published a biography entitled Political Beethoven – and it is also the chief motivation behind John Clubbe’s new study of the composer, Beethoven: The Relentless Revolutionary. In it he argues that Beethoven’s “complex greatness” can be attributed largely to his engagement with the political turmoil of the time; that his revolutionary spirit, inspired by Napoleon, gave way to revolutionary music.

Ludwig van Beethoven was born in 1770, the son of a musical father who became his teacher. He gave his first public performance aged seven and moved to Vienna in 1792 to study with Joseph Haydn, who, with Mozart (who had died the previous year aged 35), had shaped the city’s musical zeitgeist. Within three years French troops had occupied the Rhine’s left bank, precluding Beethoven’s return to his hometown of Bonn: he remained in Vienna, despite, writes Clubbe, feeling he “differed greatly from those among whom he had chosen to live”. Vienna was under Habsburg rule, and Beethoven was wrapped up in Napoleonic ideas of freedom.

Political unrest was prevalent for much of his life; he was 18 when the French Revolution broke out in 1789. Even on his journey from Bonn to Vienna in 1792 his coach was intercepted by Hessian troops, attempting to recapture territory from the French. He became a staunch republican and in both his letters and conversation spoke frequently of the importance of liberty. During the course of his lifetime the rationalism of Enlightenment philosophy was shaken up by thinkers such as Goethe and Schelling: by the time Beethoven died in 1827, Europe was a very different place.

Beethoven’s political engagement is indisputable, but whether it finds direct expression in his work – aside from dedications and commissions – is a sticky topic. It is contentious to argue that music can hold inherent meaning, or express anything concrete, beyond its listener’s interpretation. But Beethoven’s music is even more problematic because of all the other attributes that have been bestowed upon the composer. As his work had such a profound influence, there is a tendency in musicology – as with Shakespeare in literary criticism – to project on to him whatever characteristic will prove a particular theory.

Much has been made of his deafness, which began around the turn of the century and would become progressively worse for the rest of his life. But there are other, much more speculative critical theories. In Feminine Endings of 1991, for example, the feminist musicologist Susan McClary wrote: “The point of recapitulation in the first movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony unleashes one of the most horrifyingly violent episodes in the history of music… The Ninth Symphony is probably our most compelling articulation in music of the contradictory impulses that have organised patriarchal culture since the Enlightenment.” In a previous iteration of this idea, she wrote that the energy of the first movement of the Ninth Symphony “finally explodes in the throttling murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release”.

Beethoven’s life marked the beginning of the period during which music came to be seen as expressive (Kant had previously compared music without words to wallpaper). Concerts became longer and more serious. Reviews became more emotive. Audiences no longer gossiped and preened during performances, but paid attention. In 1813 the German author and critic ETA Hoffman wrote that Beethoven’s music “discloses to us the realm of the colossal and the immeasurable. Beams of incandescent light shoot through the deep night of this realm, and we become conscious of enormous shadows.”

Crucially this revelation was reflected in the audience reaction; the shadows, he wrote:

annihilate us – without, however, annihilating that pain of infinite yearning upon which each and every pleasure… in the exultation of melody founders and then perishes, and it is only in virtue of this pain… that we survive the ordeal as enraptured communicants with the great beyond!

The projection of interminable, almost god-like characteristics on to Beethoven began during his lifetime. But finding yet more ways to explain Beethoven’s greatness is not straightforward. In an article in 1954 in the New Statesman, entitled “Why Picasso?”, John Berger asked why a Picasso exhibition then running in the Lefevre Gallery was “intensely memorable”, despite no significant works being displayed. “The easy answer,” he wrote, “is to say: because Picasso is a great artist… But to answer like that is to beg the question.” This is true also of Beethoven: his attributes are the reason for his greatness – and yet his greatness is the reason we value these attributes.

Clubbe discloses from the outset that he is not a musicologist but a “cultural historian”. He wants his book to be readable for the lay person, and it is: it includes virtually no music theory, save the occasional reference to tonality (E flat major is Beethoven’s signature key; C major signals triumph). Without musical analysis, the argument for political influence becomes one of correlation rather than causation: to believe the music is politically charged, surely we need to know what exactly makes it so.

Clubbe does use Beethoven’s work to illustrate his argument. He notes that the “cry of alarm” (“Marchons, marchons”) from “La Marseillaise”, the rallying call of the French Revolution, is echoed in the opening chords of the “Eroica” symphony. The Fifth Piano Concerto (“Emperor”) exudes “military energy”. Trumpet passages in Fidelio echo those in Handel’s Messiah that occur under the vocal line “the trumpet shall sound… and we shall all be changed”. The final movement of the Ninth famously sets passages from Schiller’s “Ode to Joy”, originally published in 1785 and a drinking song for German republicans.

Broad political ideas find echoes in the music. But the book also seeks to prove that Beethoven was a musical revolutionary. Given the shift in musical philosophy during his lifetime, this is not a contentious idea. Before Beethoven, there was essentially no musical canon: the number of works by dead composers performed in concerts increased dramatically in the 19th century. His symphonic writing was like nothing that had come before it and cast a formidable shadow over all that came after. Indeed, the Beethoven effect itself was not unpolitical: his work became a symbol of Germanic musical greatness that would provide ammunition for German nationalist composers such as Richard Wagner. Clubbe reminds us that this was not an accident: Beethoven’s desire to compose great German music had its root in his belief in a free state.

However, Clubbe remains focused on context and historical detail. The further the book deviates from Beethoven’s music the more nebulous his genius becomes. One of the central arguments is that Beethoven’s relationship with Napoleon is the key to understanding him. Beethoven’s admiration turned to resentment when Napoleon declared himself Emperor of France in 1804 – an anti-republican betrayal. The “Eroica” symphony (1802-1804) was initially dedicated to Napoleon but Beethoven retracted it in favour of his then patron, Prince Joseph Franz von Lobkowitz. He subsequently rededicated it to “Bonaparte” before retracting it again, allegedly in a fit of rage on discovering Napoleon’s self-elevation.

The tensions of life in Vienna – a musically progressive but politically repressive city that Beethoven, with his republican passion, found frustrating – are important too. But while this contextual detail provides fuel for speculation about Beethoven’s genius, without musical dissection it cannot shed light on how it actually manifests in the work. In the case of a composer such as Shostakovich, the influence of politics is more direct: his compositional style was actively restricted and guided by what was deemed acceptable by Soviet leaders.

Clubbe’s biography is a thorough account of Beethoven’s inspirations, collaborators, and his turbulent times. It frames his work with political events and makes a compelling argument for their impact on the man. But it does not explain his genius. His body of work is so huge and forbidding – that “complex greatness” – that it makes sense to view it through a lens, whether of his deafness or political views. But in doing so we create our own deafness: we see the man rather than hear the music. 

Beethoven: The Relentless Revolutionary
John Clubbe
WW Norton & Co, 512pp, £30

Emily Bootle is the New Statesman’s editorial assistant.

This article appears in the 16 August 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The age of conspiracy