Dissent - September 25, 2020

“If we listen to Beethoven and do not hear anything of the revolutionary bourgeoisie—not the echo of its slogans, the need to realize them, the cry for that totality in which reason and freedom are to have their warrant—we understand Beethoven no better than does one who cannot follow the purely musical content of his pieces,” wrote Theodor Adorno. Beethoven was so political that, by the end of his life, some of his friends refused to dine with him: either they were bored of his constant politicizing or they feared police spies would overhear him. “You are a revolutionary, a Carbonaro,” a friend of his wrote in his conversation book in 1823, referring to an Italian secret society that had played a role in various national uprisings. Well past the point that it had become (to his contemporaries) anachronistic, Beethoven kept the Enlightenment faith."

... That is, we have forgotten, and no longer seem to hear, the intensely political nature of Beethoven’s music—its subversive, revolutionary, passionately democratic, and freedom-exalting nature.

In the year of the great composer’s 250 birthday, it would be fitting to recapture this essence, to retune our ears to pick up the music’s political and philosophical message. This is especially appropriate in our own time of democratic struggles against a corrupt and decaying ancien régime, with its parallels to the Beethovenian era of revolution, hidebound reaction, and soaring hopes to realize “the rights of man.” Beethoven belongs, heart and soul, to the political left. Centuries after his death, his music still retains the power to transform, transfigure, and revivify, no matter how many political defeats its partisans and spiritual comrades suffer.

We might start with the most famous of Beethovenian motifs: the opening notes of the Fifth Symphony (1808). We’ve all heard the legend that they represent “fate knocking at the door.” The source of this idea is Anton Schindler, Beethoven’s notoriously unreliable secretary. Sir John Eliot Gardiner, world-renowned conductor, has a different interpretation: he detects the influence of Luigi Cherubini’s revolutionary Hymne du Panthéon of 1794. “We swear, sword in hand, to die for the Republic and for the rights of man,” the chorus sings, to the rhythm of da-da-da-duuum. Beethoven was a great admirer of Cherubini, not to mention a devoted republican, so Gardiner’s theory is hardly far-fetched. In the stultifyingly conservative and repressive Vienna of 1808, Beethoven issued a clarion call to revolution in the very opening notes of one of his most revolutionary, Napoleonic symphonies. No wonder conservatives detested his music!

Beethoven was a child of the Enlightenment and remained so his whole life. Late eighteenth-century Bonn, where he was born, was steeped in the most progressive thought of the age: Kant, the philosopher of freedom, was a lively subject of discussion at the university, as was his follower Friedrich Schiller, the poet of freedom, impassioned enemy of tyrants everywhere. The young Beethoven was heavily influenced by Eulogius Schneider, whose lectures he attended. One of the most important of German Jacobins, Schneider was so radical that in 1791 he was kicked out of the liberal University of Bonn, whereupon he joined the Jacobin Club in Strasbourg. (There, he was appointed public prosecutor for the Revolutionary Tribunal, enthusiastically sending aristocrats to the guillotine—until he lost his own head a couple years later.) Schneider’s republicanism stayed with Beethoven, but it was Schiller whom Beethoven worshiped.

Schiller’s poem “An die Freude”—“Ode to Joy”— impressed Beethoven immensely. He planned early on to set it to music and finally did so in the Ninth Symphony. But he was just as enamored of Schiller’s idealistic, heroic plays, such as The Robbers, William Tell, and Don Carlos. Of the latter play, he jotted down his own thoughts as a young man: “To do good whenever one can, to love liberty above all else, never to deny the truth, even though it be before the throne.” Decades later, we find him exclaiming in a letter, “Freedom!!!! What more does one want???” He once wrote in a letter, “From my earliest childhood, my zeal to serve our poor suffering humanity in any way whatsoever by means of my art has made no compromise with any lower motive. . . . I am thoroughly delighted,” he continued, “to have found in you a friend of the oppressed.” The historian Hugo Leichtentritt concludes, “Beethoven was a passionate democrat, a convicted republican, even in his youth; he was, in fact, the first German musician who had strong political interests, ideals, and ambitions.” ...

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