Why we need Beethoven
On the composer's relevance 250 years after his birth
Two-hundred fifty years ago a boy was baptized in the church of St. Remigius in Bonn. It is speculated (and he himself maintained) that he had been born the day before this, but history has not taken notice of his entry into terrestrial as opposed to the promise of eternal life.
It is the relationship between these two — the earthly theater of man's existence as a social and political animal and the ineffable peace of heaven — that provides the material for the great drama of Ludwig van Beethoven's life, and for the art from which the former is inseparable. In both the man and the musician we see the competing imperatives of freedom and tradition, of justice and obedience: how in our youth and folly one can be wholly rejected in favor of the other, how the two can come to be equally appreciated but only in tension with each other, and how, finally, they can be reconciled. In tracing his development, from the polished Viennese classicism to the stormy middle years of Fidelio and the Fifth Symphony to the late juxtaposition between introspective resignation and the public sublime in his greatest miniature masterpieces and the sweeping canvas of the Ninth Symphony, we see a composer transmuting from the raw material of his own feelings a music that spoke with urgency and multivocality to the aspirations and contradictions of the age in which he lived. It is almost unique in the history of art.
We also see Beethoven's relevance. These days we are so accustomed to reading that Western art music, and the works of Beethoven in particular, are racist, sexist, classist, and goodness knows what else that would-be defenders tend to retreat into academic quietism, begging to be left alone with their fossilized object of veneration. The illiterate complaints become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
What a pity. More so than any other composer, Beethoven speaks to us across the waste of centuries, to the noblest ambitions of our species, to courage, to honor, to fraternity, to justice, above all, to love. And he does so in a voice that is utterly singular, as recognizable as the voice of a friend (that noun he would immortalize), and, I daresay, even relevant. Nothing could be more ennobling, more deeply and passionately human, than this music.
When I say that Beethoven is "relevant," I am not writing aspirationally, about conditions that might obtain in a society in which our educational horizons extended beyond technocratic credentialism. In 2018 a production of Fidelio featured the virtual participation of more than a hundred incarcerated singers. To see these men and women singing the same words that greeted the fall of the Nazi regime and the end of communist rule in Europe is to understand, in a way that is as visceral as it is spiritual, the true meaning of freedom:
Oh what joy, in the open airFreely to breathe again!Up here alone is life!The dungeon is a grave.
It is not reports in Reason or The New York Times about the conditions of prisons or poverty that ultimately change hearts and minds. These can only confirm the judgements for which our sensibilities have already been prepared by the freely given love to which Beethoven's music calls us, a love that in Fidelio is shown in all of its dimensions: the infatuated young love of romance, the mature love of husband and wife, the universal charitable love of mankind, and the transcendent reciprocal love between God and His creations.
One reason that Beethoven is relevant today is that like Dickens and Tolstoy he manages effortlessly to bridge the gap between two tendencies, the passionate young radical and the sober conservative. Neither can do without the other, and it is the mind that could conceive of the Eroica still under the youthful influence of the French Revolution and then turn against Bonaparte in disgust that teaches how to feel and to be human. Beethoven is not only aesthetic or sentimental education. He is political.
Beethoven's imagination turned not upon the petty intrigues of Viennese court officials but upon the grand conflicts of Europe in the era that Eric Hobsbawm called "the age of revolution." His would-be friendship with Goethe ended abruptly in 1812 when the author of Faust found himself horrified that the youthful composer refused to perform an elaborate bow before the Empress and her retinue. Their reminiscences of this meeting are instructive:
I met Beethoven in Teplitz. His talent is astounding; unfortunately, however, he is a completely undisciplined personality who is not entirely wrong in finding this world detestable, but who by thinking so makes that world no more pleasant for either himself or others.
The atmosphere of the Court pleases Goethe too much and certainly much more than would become a poet. Let us not talk about the ridiculousness of the virtuosos if poets who should be considered the principal teachers of a nation can forget everything in view of such fallacious glamor.
Decades later it was the middle-aged ex-Jacobin who would regret his rash judgement and write a touching letter to the great poet, one that was never answered.
In religion as in politics, Beethoven was mercurial. In 1802, faced with the prospect of deafness, Beethoven had rejected suicide in the name of art rather than out of obedience to the Christian proscription of self-slaughter. Decades later, with his hearing all but totally vanished, he sneered at the notion of Mass settings as a mere vehicle for man's artistic impulses, insisting that the purpose of composing Church music was "to awaken and permanently instill religious feelings not only into the singers but also into the listeners." He would die during a thunderstorm, having received the last rites.
Bernard Shaw, that fountain of sanity, said: "If you don't begin to be a revolutionist at the age of 20 then at 50 you will be an impossible old fossil." Without Beethoven, I am tempted to say, I might have been an impossible old fossil in my salad days before becoming one of those embarrassing gray-haired revolutionaries. Instead, thanks to him, I am both of these things most of the time.