Beethoven combined a breadth of contemplative serenity and a concentrated loftiness of thought, a yearning for a place utterly pure and free of this vale of tears, a vale in which he functioned so erratically and from which he eventually completely withdrew. He was a man who eventually tamed his self-serving musical passions, pierced the veil of earthly life, and heard and transcribed the music of the spheres.
The Imaginative Conservative, in celebrating the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, is celebrating the birth of a revolutionary. At first glance, this might appear to be a somewhat unseemly endeavor for conservatives, but I suspect this may have something to do with the many flattering myths about Beethoven and his music that have been passed down to pianists, classical musicians in general, and the classical music-loving public since his death in 1827.
There is no denying the timeless, soaring magnificence of so much of Beethoven’s music, but I would like to attempt to clarify—without tarnishing, if possible—that magnificence, by indulging in a little de-mythologizing from a pianist’s point of view. I’ll start with a couple of anecdotes: the first personal, the second historical.
Anecdote #1. Many years ago, soon after I had commenced my DMA in Piano Performance at our local Conservatory, I had a discussion with my teacher about why he rarely programmed Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas. His reply startled me. He said that he didn’t care for most of the thematic ideas therein, because he thought they were not first-rate, even bombastic. What? Heresy! And from the chair of a large piano department at a prestigious institution!
I was startled because at that point I still considered the “Thirty-Two” to be a towering edifice of the piano repertoire, a perspective drummed into my head by both my childhood teacher and the faculty at a previous Conservatory. However, having left the music profession in 1991, returning to playing as a hobby ten years ago, I now understand my old teacher’s assessment. I will return to that assessment shortly.
Anecdote #2. Beethoven left Bonn for Vienna in 1792, no doubt with visions of patron Count Waldstein’s farewell prophecy, written in Beethoven’s journal, dancing in his head (“You will receive the spirit of Mozart from the hands of Haydn.”). His preference was to study with Mozart, for whom he had played in 1787, but Mozart had died in 1791. Beethoven’s Mozart-less Plan B, therefore, was to study with Haydn.
But Count Waldstein’s fanciful flattery deserves some scrutiny. First, it clearly helped to transform an already self-assured personality into one possessed by a messianic mission: to be the noble torch-bearer of Mozart’s legacy, the sole new occupant of a musical Mt. Olympus. Second, it raises several questions: first, what exactly is the spirit of Mozart? Second, how was Haydn going to transmit this mysterious spirit? Third, what about the implication that Haydn didn’t have this spirit, but knew how to transmit it? Fourth, was the “spirit” of Haydn inferior to Mozart’s?
But it wasn’t long before the fiery student encountered a problem: his new teacher was quite disturbed by his early works. But why? Could it have something to do with my old teacher’s unconventional assessment?
It could indeed.
Before exploring the common thread between Anecdotes 1 and 2, it would be helpful to inquire why I have called Beethoven a “revolutionary.” Beethoven burst on the scene in the midst of the third battering ram deployed against the old order of Christendom. The first was the revolts of Luther and Henry VIII, splitting Christendom in three, and quickly subdividing, on the Protestant side, into many more sects. The second, ongoing from about 1760, was the Industrial Revolution, fueled by fractional reserve banking (mastered by the Rothschilds), which, as Max Weber explained, was built on the Protestant ethic of capitalism. That is, worldly success became the sign of eternal salvation, rather than spiritual success through suffering, being in a state of Sacrament-assisted grace and the cultivation of the virtues. The third, of course, was the barbaric bloodbath of the French Revolution, still gathering momentum in 1792: a brutal Masonic attack against the Catholic Church and the French Crown, where failure to embrace the ruse of “liberte, egalite, fraternite” literally meant losing your head.
Actually, heads had been lost spiritually long before they were chopped off physically. They were lost in a loss of faith, charity, humility, obedience, manners, gentility —in short, a loss of the center which had created, animated and held Western Civilization together for so many centuries. William Butler Yeats described this loss poignantly in 1919 (about 130 years late!) in The Second Coming:
“…Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity…”
If there was a “spirit” of Mozart—and Haydn—it was precisely that their art was centered in the ordered “ceremony of innocence.” Their music, so genteel, intricate and artfully crafted, was created in the service of three classes: the aristocracy (Haydn was a “house officer” —i.e. servant —in Prince Esterhazy’s household for 30 years), the Catholic hierarchy, and the rapidly growing middle class, the “bourgeoisie.” That is, the Viennese classical style took its place and flourished in the old order, serving by affirming, enriching and ennobling (as well as entertaining) it, even as it made way for the middle class, even as it was decaying. In fact, one might say that the music of Haydn and Mozart is the last and greatest musical testament of a civilization about to face the culmination of its destruction.
But what was Beethoven’s center, and who was served by his music? His center was himself and his heroic creative powers, and his music testified to and served an abstract “art” – nothing and no one else, not even his benefactors. As Paul Henry Lang put it, in Music in Western Civilization:
This humble son of a menial musician discarded the wig and raised his head as the first modern artist who felt himself the equal of princes, profoundly convinced of the dignity of man and fanatically believing in freedom.
Allow me to introduce you, then, to Beethoven the revolutionary in four aspects: his personality, his ideals, his conception of “art,” and his music.
A Revolutionary Personality.
Beethoven’s correspondence, as well as anecdotes about him by his contemporaries, reveals him to be a social misfit: an arrogant, churlish, impulsive, reclusive fellow (Goethe euphemistically called him an “untamed personality”) who could turn on patrons, friends both male and female, critics and publishers with a variety of mean insults, and only occasional apologies afterwards. His progressive deafness exacerbated his anti-social behavior, and it often plunged him into overwrought despair. He scornfully dismissed contemporary composers (with the exception of Schubert) as “scribblers,” even though his early style had more in common with “scribblers” such as Hummel, Weber and Clementi than with the mature works of Haydn and Mozart.
While this type of personality is not revolutionary in itself, it would have ruined him in an earlier, more civilized and refined age. His abrasiveness was tolerated and overlooked because his music had such dramatic power, because he was correctly perceived as a great genius, and because the new “age of the individual” was taking shape. Beethoven’s personality, the perfect vehicle for his uncompromising individualism, served revolution well. No servant of humans he—only a servant of an abstract ideal.
The horrifying absurdity of a “universal brotherhood”—achieved, enforced and celebrated through mass beheadings—apparently never crossed Beethoven’s mind. Nor was he bothered by the incongruity of the alleged birth, as he put it, of a new Christian epoch, a birth which featured a full-scale murderous and ruthless attack on the Catholic Church, her clergy, religious and houses of worship, and which threatened her very existence. No, intoxicated with republican “freedom,” he was convinced that the old order was best done away with, and even criticized Goethe for clinging to the old courtly manners and atmosphere. The reader may perhaps pardon my cynicism for speculating that Beethoven’s republican ideals were merely an expedient mask for his overweening conceit. But I won’t beg your pardon for pointing out that it was nothing more than an exercise in rainbow-chasing to think he could receive Mozart’s spirit, when his personality and his messianic pursuit of an abstract art were a complete rejection of that spirit.
Abstract, Revolutionary Art.
Yes, Beethoven’s conception of “art” was a Platonic abstract—an abstract which he alone, as he seemed to think, could bring to life. His correspondence is replete with references to himself as “a real artist,” the noble creator of “works of art,” a man of artistic “destiny.” His letter to the publishers B. Schotts Sohne in 1824 states:
Apollo and the Muses will not yet allow me to be handed over to the bony Reaper, for I am still so much in their debt, and before I depart to the Elysian Fields I must leave behind me what the spirit [sic] has endowed me with and orders me to complete.
Strange words from a Catholic (what “spirit” was giving him orders?), but not strange at all for a man who lived in an imaginary narcissistic world of an abstract brotherly love for humanity, expressed in his art, but who, again in Goethe’s words, “[was] not mistaken in finding the world detestable, but who certainly does not make it more enjoyable…” What shall we call an abstract love for humanity, juxtaposed with an abhorrence for actual humans? Certainly neither brotherhood nor charity; more likely, self-deception. And what shall we call the messianic pursuit of an abstract art, divorced from the service of flesh and blood musicians, audiences and benefactors? Divorced, in fact, from reality?
Finally, let’s consider a broader definition of “revolutionary.” Beethoven was at first caught between a rock and a hard place. The rock was the necessity of imitating the universally popular Viennese style, his imitation of which, with notable exceptions like the playful First Piano Concerto, are usually stilted, as though grasping an ornate, delicate teacup with a paw. The hard place was trying to find his own style. His Piano Sonatas, especially the early works but even extending into his middle and late periods, were revolutionary in a conventional sense because his chest-beating republican hormones were in full and ominous play, particularly in the first movements. They are frequently characterized by a menacing, elemental, even brutal quality, and a bombastic moralizing tone utterly alien to the Classical style, even in its Sturm und Drang period. I believe Haydn was disturbed by more than their tone, however, since Beethoven had stripped the Classical style to bare essentials: terse melodies dwelling on the basic notes of diatonic chords, largely deprived of the graceful non-harmonic flourishes and gestures in which Haydn and Mozart had gloried; harmonic rhythms slowed to long stretches of one or two chords; counterpoint so bare as to sound almost clumsy; hammered triple upbeats and pounding repeated chords, from the Piano Sonata Op. 2 No. 1 even to the “Waldstein,” “Appassionata,” and “Hammerklavier” Sonatas, and clunky accompaniments. This approach was consistent with Beethoven’s abilities as a mesmerizing pianist, but it was hardly an expression of the “ceremony of innocence.”
Yet there is another aspect of his Sonatas which appears at first here and there (the Adagio Cantabile of the overplayed “Pathetique” Sonata, op. 13; the hymn-like Andante con Variazione, op. 26—both in A flat), and later comes to full flower (Opus 109 and 110), that is even more revolutionary. It is for me what is the most inspiring about him: a breadth of contemplative serenity and concentrated loftiness of thought, a yearning for a place utterly pure and free of this vale of tears, a vale in which he functioned so erratically and from which he eventually completely withdrew. That is why I have headed this article with the “Flammarion Woodcut”: it represents this other Beethoven, a man who eventually tamed his self-serving musical passions, pierced the veil of earthly life, and heard and transcribed the music of the spheres. It was an inner revolution of a contemplative genius.
This essay is part of a series commemorating the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven.
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The image of The Flammarion engraving is a wood engraving by an unknown artist that first appeared in Camille Flammarion’s L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire (1888). The image depicts a man crawling under the edge of the sky, depicted as if it were a solid hemisphere, to look at the mysterious Empyrean beyond. The caption translates to “A medieval missionary tells that he has found the point where heaven and Earth meet…” The image is in the public domain and appears here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. The image of Beethoven, uploaded by user https://www.sammlung.pinakothek.de/en/bookmark/artwork/wq4jZjZm4W, is an oil on canvas, after Waldmüller, by Carl Wagner (1796-1867) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.