Beethoven’s music would become the score for the Romantic era, as many of its champions loved how it conveyed the story of the individual, free man. Oddly enough, however, Beethoven was anything but a Romantic, nor was he a revolutionist or a democrat.
There are many things that have been said about Beethoven and his music by expert biographers, classical music aficionados, and trained musicians who know the composer and his music well. His scores have been studied closely as an attempt to peer into the mind of a genius; close manuscript analyses have revealed the contents of his letters; and contextual historical and political accounts of the times in which he lived exist for those who seek to better understand the circumstances under which Beethoven came to become himself.
Where might this leave the dilettante just looking for a place to start with a man as great as Ludwig van Beethoven? The abundance of information on his life, method, and influences can make listening to the music of a man of his stature seem a daunting task. We often assume, and wrongly, that understanding artistic complexity and learning to enjoy it requires meticulous study of said artist. Alternately, sometimes we are told that, when approaching the work of a genius for the first time, “less is more”: There is no need to know too much about the artist’s biography or the techniques and knowledge required to accomplish his art; we need only to enter headfirst into their world and the beauty of their work should shine forth unobstructed, their genius easily discernable by our untrained eyes, ears, or minds. But those of us who are not classical music connoisseurs—or connoisseurs in any artistic medium, for that matter—should especially demur to this notion, for it encourages a great disservice to man’s intellect that comes in the form of cultural ignorance.
Art needs a level of knowledge to be appreciated, understood, and, above all, felt. This claim, however, is not support for a haughty form of knowledge; rather, it expresses the need for the audience’s effort to obtain at least conversational understanding of the artform they want to explore. Just as we cannot appreciate the level of complexity of Einstein’s work without some knowledge of physics and mathematics and their challenges during his day, so is it difficult to listen to Beethoven and gain a true appreciation for his music without some knowledge of his ideas and inspirations. This information, however important, should always supplement the inherent value of good art that is its emotion. Artistic talent is not mechanical, rather emotional, so no mechanical knowledge of Beethoven’s compositional method will render a greater appreciation for his music than the man who listens to his Symphony No. 5 and feels moved. There is a balance that the audience member needs to strike, then, between cultural knowledge (contrary to cultural ignorance) and pure enjoyment of art.
Enjoyment requires recognizing talent, which does not mean judging or comparing it, but learning to discern for ourselves a set of criteria that we consider important for good art. These criteria, moreover, need to be tied to something more than our subjective preference—they must contain elements and convey emotions the value of which we can explain and express. I like to approach Beethoven’s music (and all art in general) with this idea in mind, as it makes the process of experiencing masterly art more natural. Upon a first listen or two, one can then pick up a book, so to speak, that will provide greater insight into an artist.
In Beethoven’s case, the book Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph by Jan Swafford does a good job demonstrating the techniques behind his musical genius as well as providing necessary background information about Beethoven’s personal life. These elements are helpful (I’d even say necessary) when learning to listen to his music; to hear the changes of emotion, the variation in motifs despite their continuation throughout the pieces, and to consider what those motifs and their different forms mean—what they are trying to express—in the span of something as long as a symphony. Learning to listen to music means learning to understand what Beethoven called das Thema in his music: the theme that carries the emotion of the piece along throughout its changes.
To take an example, I’ll spend some time in this essay reflecting on Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, since its history is quite fascinating. Listen to it first, if you have the time. Then, read this quick introduction to the background story of the symphony (if you don’t know it already) and you’ll realize that knowing one or two things about Beethoven and his music drastically changes your appreciation of it.
I will begin this essay on appreciating Beethoven and his third symphony, counterintuitive as it may seem, with a painting analysis. But first, a story. In his book, Mr. Swafford tells the tale of how Beethoven met Willibrord Joseph Mähler, a singer, poet, and portrait painter, in 1803. Mähler’s hometown was also Beethoven’s mother’s hometown, and so it pleased the famous composer to make the acquaintance of another artist from his neighborhood. Mähler asked Beethoven to play something on the piano—as one would when meeting the great composer—and he kindly obliged. Beethoven played variations of his third symphony, which he continued to improvise for two hours.
Regarding what it was like witnessing Beethoven play, Mähler recorded that “there was not a measure which was faulty, or which did not sound original.” Impressed, Mähler convinced the otherwise irascible composer to let him paint a portrait of him in the near future. Mähler’s portrait is an interpretation of Beethoven as “the life of a musician.” Still, at a first glance we would hardly recognize the allusions in the painting without an explanation. Mr. Swafford explains,
In his left hand this icon holds a lyre, symbol of a musician in general and of Apollo the singer in particular. The right hand is extended and splayed in a peculiar way, which the painter described ‘as if, in a moment of musical enthusiasm, he was beating time.’ He also noted Beethoven’s blunt, square hand. For his portrait Beethoven is neatly and fashionably dressed, his hair cut in the French neo-Roman style. The face is impassive, the eyes piercing. This too is well observed: others noted that in public Beethoven’s face was often reserved and blank, his feelings visible mainly in the flash of his small brown eyes. In private, over a glass of wine, he might become jolly and teasing. In both public and private he rose easily to fury.
Another element that can go unrecognized about the painting regards the background. On the left of the painting, behind Beethoven’s hand, is a temple of Apollo, as Mähler himself explained. On the right of the painting one can see a forest, with a bare tree merging from a cluster of leaves and branches. These contrasting backgrounds, although they might seem a natural, arbitrary background, are deliberate and contrasting elements meant to describe Beethoven. How do we know this? Take a look at the sky: the light changes from left to right, from light to dark. The light is shining on the Apollo temple to symbolize the Classical past, including antiquity and the 18th century. The forest side, however, is dark and gray; a symbol for the wild, mysterious, and untamed. Philosophically, the temple represents the form of exalted reason that came with restraint and human knowledge: Rationality. The bare tree amidst a gray forest represents that notion of Romanticism that is often combined with sublime nature: Irrationality.
Beethoven stands in between: a bridge between the Classical and the Romantic. In the 19th century when he began to create his own path musically, Beethoven became a balance between these two contrasting worldviews. He made them work harmoniously in his music. Mähler was not only aware of Beethoven the musical genius, but he was also “a keen observer of his subject as a man and as an incipient icon and myth.” And it seems Beethoven appreciated his keen eye, for Mähler’s painting of Beethoven became his favorite portrait of himself, which “he kept with him alongside the portrait of his grandfather: two musicians in ideal and in action.”
This concept of Beethoven as an artist working within the Classical and the Romantic is a notion worth keeping in mind when listening to Symphony No. 3. As his music was “intensely personal,” later Romantic generations of the 19th century saw his music as “a revelation of the individual consciousness and personality: the individual as hero, fundamental to the Romantic vision of the world.” When Beethoven was growing up, Kant’s writings were circulating, and so the young composer was influenced by his ideas of freedom: That freedom is what allows us to become complete human beings, and that free individuals need to think and reason for themselves in order to self-actualize. These are the qualities that Kant considered “the essence of Enlightenment” which also influenced the Classical, rational, 18th century worldview.
But the Enlightenment view of the 18th century, intellectual history shows, is also the age in which Scholastic authority—the appeal of the Classical philosophers—is questioned and rejected for empirical self-knowledge. Kant also said that “the world as it is perceived and interpreted by each person is all that is possible for human beings to know. The self is essentially the world.” Mähler’s painting unconsciously shows the slope down which Kant’s own philosophy leads: From light to dark, Enlightenment to Romantic obscurity through an irrational raising of the Self. But what does this say about Beethoven? And about his music?
When he set out to write his great symphony, Beethoven intended to dedicate it to the most famous of all Frenchmen, Napoleon Bonaparte. At the time that Beethoven was writing his third symphony, Napoleon was a popular figure in the news, and Beethoven regarded the Corsican hero highly for his (alleged) efforts to reform society in the name of equality for the working classes. Mr. Swafford noted that with the original “Bonaparte Symphony,” as he would call it in its early stages, Beethoven wanted to “evoke the character and story of a conqueror and the moral dimension of what the French were creating across Europe.” Napoleon was creating a new society, with new moral principles; this, Beethoven considered a valiant effort.
One can only imagine Beethoven’s disappointment when he discovered that Napoleon named himself Emperor in 1804. A close friend, Ferdinand Ries, recalled that the composer furiously cried out, “So he too is nothing more than an ordinary man! Now he also will trample all human rights underfoot, and only pander to his own ambition. He will place himself above everyone else and become a tyrant!” In his anger, he “snatched up the title page of the symphony, ripped it in two, and threw it to the floor.” The piece transformed into Eroica. The new subtitle signaled a tribute to a broad concept of heroism; the ideal that he had once been embodied, albeit for a short time, in Napoleon.
The bigger elements that inspired Symphony No. 3—heroism and the idea of a hero as an archetype—retain their integrity even after Napoleon betrayed them. Mr. Swafford explained that a work as big as a symphony was not just “a dramatic and emotional narrative” for Beethoven, but also “a moral and ethical one” If Napoleon was not fit to donne das Thema of the score, someone, someday could, if only they might hear it. We are human, after all, and what is art but a medium to exalt man to the highest expectations? Like the archetypal Hero in the Eroica, man’s heroic journey is one where the self “is continually in flux, continually becoming.”
This historical and philosophical background in mind changes how we might hear Symphony No. 3. It is a human struggle for a form of heroic altruism, social reform, that history has proved hardly attainable; yet we envision it time and time again. This is the sound we can hear all along Beethoven’s measures. Mr. Swafford described Beethoven’s musical process as a “kind of rational discourse on stated themes, a wordless rhetoric like an oration, or like a sermon founded on its verse of scripture.” I find this description as accurate as it is beautiful.
Listening to Symphony No. 3 as Beethoven’s instrumental conversation on these themes of heroism, perseverance, strife, and idealism bring the piece to life. Mr. Swafford puts it well when he writes that Beethoven, disenchanted with Napoleon but still influenced by the French revolutionary spirit and what it stood for, decided to “become one of the heroes of his own stories” by completing his third symphony with that same aura. The French Revolution, after all, demonstrated to Beethoven that “a free society was one that allows a Napoleon and a Beethoven to rise as far as their natural gifts can take them.” This, in part, encapsulates the Romantic spirit: Come what may, perfection a long-gone fantasy, we must try and dare to dream.
Beethoven’s music would become the score for the Romantic era, as many of its champions loved how it conveyed the story of the individual, free man. Oddly enough, Beethoven was anything but a Romantic. Romanticism rejected the ability of reason to refine man and societies into perfection. Instead, they “exalted the passionate, the unattainable, the unimaginable, the sublime, the great and terrible.” Nor was he a revolutionist or a democrat. If anything, Beethoven was a republican “who came of age in the revolutionary 1780s, all for fraternité and liberté, not remotely for égalité.” Mr. Swafford also puts it nicely in his analysis of Beethoven when he concludes that the sense of “humanistic individualism” that came through in his music could either be a deliberate, artistic choice or “simply Beethoven being Beethoven, an individual to the point of solipsism.” Whatever the answer, it speaks to the greatness of his music that it was able to resonate with the spirit of advocates of a movement to which Beethoven was personally opposed. Whatever our opinions of Romanticism and the Classical past, we can empathize with the sentiments that Beethoven expresses in Symphony No. 3. This ability to bring out emotions so different from our own is the sign of a master; the ability of the audience to connect with his art on such a deep level is the sign of something greater that connects us all, soul to soul. Such is the point of art, after all.
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 Jan Swafford, Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, (Boston: 2014), p. 835.
 Ibid., p. 836.
 Ibid., p. 837
 Swafford, Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, p. 838.
 Ibid., pp. 829-830.
Ibid., p. 759.
 Swafford, Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, p. 866
 Ibid., p. 755.
 Ibid., pp. 829-830.
 Ibid., p. 755.
 Ibid., p. 820
 Ibid., p. 829.
 Ibid., p. 830.
 Ibid., p. 831.
 Ibid., p. 832
The featured image of Ludwig van Beethoven was painted by Joseph Mähler in 1804/1805, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.