Beethoven’s instrumental music opens to us the realm of the monstrous and immeasurable,” wrote ETA Hoffmann in his 1810 review of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The work “wields the lever of fear, awe, horror, and pain”, and can “transport the listener through ever growing climaxes into the spiritual realm of the infinite”. The Fifth, Hoffmann declares, “awakens that eternal longing that is the essence of the romantic”.
Although this may read more like a melodramatic emotional exorcism than a review, contemporary criticism of the composer often shares Hoffmann’s rapturous language. Jan Swafford’s 2014 biography is grandly titled Anguish and Triumph. Writing in the Telegraph in 2016, the critic Ivan Hewett asserted that Beethoven is “the perfection of the romantic artist-hero”.
That Beethoven – whose 250th anniversary is being celebrated this year – overcame all odds to become the greatest composer who has ever lived, and began a new musical era in the process, is a story that has been told so many times it is hard to add to it – or, for that matter, refute it. But it is a reductive narrative: the essence of what Carl Dahlhaus dubbed in 1989 “the Beethoven myth”. Beethoven’s work redefined the boundaries of musical form: resisting the genre conventions of his day, his contemporaries sometimes found him modern to the point of dislike. Now, to see his work merely as an expression of the conventions of another genre – romantic heroism – risks undermining its complexities. We laud Beethoven for breaking out of one box, and yet with 250 years of hindsight we would like nothing better than to put him in another.
Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn in December 1770. His father and grandfather were musicians, and Beethoven was taught at home to play the keyboard from an early age. Early records indicate he had prodigious talent: “He would surely become a second Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart,” wrote Christian Gottlob Neefe in 1783. Four years later Albert Hahn wrote in his biography of Mozart that after hearing Beethoven play, Mozart himself had said to friends: “Keep your eyes on him; some day he will give the world something to talk about.”
Beethoven moved to Vienna, the musical centre of Europe, in 1792, and by 1795 had acquired royal patronage. He studied under Joseph Haydn (a relationship often described as thorny, as Haydn’s exemplary classicism and Beethoven’s form-breaking romanticism clashed, though it is unclear if this was actually the case), but was sought after largely as a performer. His expressive abilities are acknowledged in descriptions of his playing in these early years. Ignaz von Seyfried wrote that in these performances “the spirit would soar aloft, triumphing over transitory terrestrial sufferings” – but retrospective accounts such as these, written in 1832, five years after Beethoven’s death, must be approached with caution.
In any case, Beethoven’s concert career was cut short in what would become the best-known story in music history: he was going deaf. KM Knittel writes in her 2001 essay “The Construction of Beethoven” that deafness “underlies the entire Beethoven myth”. As well as forming the basis for his introversion, it imbues his work with pathos. And though it is widely accepted as the reason he could no longer perform freely, and so threw himself into composing, Beethoven’s deafness makes his creative achievements all the more remarkable. (“A musician sans ears!” wrote Richard Wagner in his essay “Beethoven” in 1870 – “Can one conceive an eyeless painter?”)
Beethoven’s loss of hearing also marks the start of what has been defined as his “middle” or “heroic” period. His first written acknowledgement of his deafness came in a letter to a close friend, Franz Gerhard Wehler, in 1801: “For almost two years, I have ceased to attend any social functions, just because I find it impossible to say to people: I am deaf… in my profession it is a terrible handicap.” The following year he moved to the town of Heiligenstadt, on medical advice. Here he wrote what is known as the “Heiligenstadt Testament”, a desperately sad letter to his brothers that was never sent and only discovered after his death. In it, he confesses his deafness caused him to consider suicide, writing: “it was only my art that held me back”. This is poignant – but Beethoven’s life was not always defined by struggle or sadness. He was hugely successful, and confident in his abilities. When a critic disliked his 1813 piece “Wellington’s Victory”, he annotated the review with the comment: “What I shit is better than anything you could think up.” As a performer, he would reduce everyone in the room to tears and (according to his pupil Carl Czerny) collapse with laughter as a result.
When Beethoven returned to Vienna in 1802, then, it was with renewed force and purpose. In 1803 he began work on his Third Symphony, Eroica, a work of unprecedented scale (at the 1805 premiere, the performance lasted an hour). It is described in Maynard Solomon’s 2002 biography as “a portrait of the artist as hero, stricken by deafness, withdrawn from mankind, conquering his impulses to suicide, struggling against fate, hoping to find ‘but one day of pure joy’”. It is now recognised as the first romantic symphony: a turning point in music history. At the time, reviews were mixed, with a critic in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung noting that shortening it would see it “improved immeasurably”.
Crucially, the Eroica moves towards a triumphant ending – a key characteristic of his middle period’s heroic style. The symphony’s jubilant conclusion represents more than an overcoming of personal woes: it is an overthrowing of authority, a victory of the masses. Beethoven, a republican, dedicated the symphony to Napoleon Bonaparte. (In a somewhat unheroic moment of indecision, Beethoven retracted the dedication, fearing for his royal sponsorship, before eventually reinstating it.)
In his 2019 biography, The Relentless Revolutionary, John Clubbe attributes Beet- hoven’s “complex greatness” to his revolutionary spirit, which he traces to his admiration of Napoleon. Writing in the Socialist Worker in 2003, Gareth Jenkins similarly considers the Third’s boundary-breaking a musical echo of the French Revolution.
Though there is some evidence of his political engagement, this definition of the composer risks erasing work that does not conform to type. The heroic narrative is so compelling, so neat, that Beethoven’s attempts to say something else have sometimes been swept aside.
In this middle period, he wrote some of his most celebrated work: the Fifth Symphony; his only opera, Fidelio; the Violin Concerto and the Egmont Overture – all of which follow the heroic style. But he also wrote his Sixth Symphony, the Pastoral, in 1808, which is soft and lyrical. As KM Knittel points out, this piece almost seems to subvert the grand archetypes of the Fifth deliberately – and as such is often categorised as out of character, rather than as evidence for Beethoven’s range.
The Fifth, celebrated for its dramatic opening, is shrouded in mythology. Beethoven’s notoriously unreliable bio-grapher Anton Schindler wrote that the composer described its first notes as “fate knocking at the door” – though there’s no proof that Beethoven ever said such a thing.
In 1808, Beethoven gave one of his final public performances before his hearing completely deteriorated. His last, said to be given on a piano he did not realise was out of tune, was in 1814; the 1810s were blighted by poor health and family troubles.
Beethoven’s output in his final years is usually interpreted as his most serious and complex. The late string quartets are often considered to be his greatest work, but perhaps none was more influential than the Ninth Symphony, completed in 1824, three years before his death. The Ninth is, again, based on conflict and resolution, striving for a jubilant ending. The final movement is an epic accumulation; a choral setting of Friedrich Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy”. Its force, and the presence of a choir in a symphony, shocked listeners.
For one critic, the final movement was sometimes “exceedingly imposing and effective” but its “Szforzandos, Crescendos, Accelerandos, and many other Os” would “call up from their peaceful graves… Handel and Mozart, to witness and deplore the obstreperous roarings of modern frenzy in their art”.
Today, the Ninth is canonical, recognised by even the least musically inclined, but to Beethoven’s contemporaries it was a “modern frenzy” of excess. This is why it evokes – as Alex Ross put it in the New Yorker in 2014 – “the aura of history unfolding before our ears”.
In the early 19th century there was, of course, an emerging German national consciousness. Beethoven, with his intricate, cohesive works that represented unity – and whose assertive, heroic structures symbolised a kind of masculine dominance – seemed to embody the national spirit.
He had followed on from two other German masters – Haydn and Mozart – but had no obvious successor. When he died in 1827, the chain of Austro-German musical greatness was exposed as vulnerable. The symphony was a form now under intense scrutiny. Beethoven’s music became so popular that it continued to feature on concert programmes alongside contemporary works – it is often said that Beethoven’s legacy created the musical canon. His works are echoed by many of the composers that came after him, and in the 19th century Beethoven’s ideas were frequently reframed by a new musical context. With accolades such as these, perhaps it is no wonder his identity can be hard to find beneath layers of exaltation and myth.
In mid-June this year, Beethoven was trending on Twitter. In the wake of the worldwide Black Lives Matter movement following the death of George Floyd on 25 May, there was a resurgence of the theory that Beethoven might have been black.
The evidence is intriguing. Beethoven’s “dark” or “brown” skin was frequently observed; as a child, he was known as “the Spaniard”. An acquaintance described his “blackish-brown complexion”; while Czerny noted his “coal-black hair and beard”, which “made the lower part of his already brown face still darker”. In Carl Linnaeus’s 18th-century taxonomy of race, “coal-black hair” was a defining African feature. Beethoven’s parents were both Flemish and there is no substantial evidence of African ancestry. But some suggest Beethoven’s mother, or a more distant ancestor, could have had an undisclosed affair.
Today, 250 years after Beethoven’s birth, there are still more layers to add to his story. “For thinkers in the 19th century,” the musicologist KM Knittel writes in “The Construction of Beethoven”, “Beethoven and the myth were one and the same.” Is it realistic to think they will ever be separated? Possibly not. But is it this interpretative tug-of-war that keeps Beethoven’s music so relevant and necessary?
This article appears in the 22 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special