• Print
  • TWEET

Beethoven Beyond Classicism

Ludwig van Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven; drawing by David Levine

1.

One autumn evening in 1821 or 1822 the artist Blasius Höfel was sitting with some friends at a tavern in Wiener Neu- stadt, a town near Vienna. Suddenly a local policeman appeared and announced that “we have arrested somebody who will give us no peace. He keeps on yelling that he is Beethoven; but he’s a ragamuffin, has no hat, an old coat,…nothing to identify him.”

Wandering out alone on a long walk, Beethoven had lost his way and was peering into houses to find help, whereupon some residents had called the police, who locked him up. In the middle of the night, when the prisoner kept on insisting that he was Beethoven, the police called in the local music director, a certain Herzog, who identified the pathetic vagrant and took him home. The next day, dressed in some of Herzog’s clothes, he was sent back to Baden “in the magisterial state-coach.”1

Almost stone-deaf, immersed in his inner world, surrounded by a small band of associates that included his nephew Karl (whose guardianship he took on in 1820 after a fierce legal battle with his sister-in-law, Johanna), widely regarded as half-mad, Beethoven in his last years lived in Vienna in isolation, communicating with his cronies and visitors by means of his conversation books, that is, open pads on which others wrote comments and he answered aloud. Occasionally visited by musicians, sycophants, and others, he was wholly engaged in composing the works that revealed a profoundly new and significant “late style,” expressed in different ways in the last five piano sonatas, the bagatelles, the “Diabelli” Variations, the Missa Solemnis, the Ninth Symphony, and the last quartets.

The “late style” and its aesthetic underpinning is the central subject of Maynard Solomon’s new book, Late Beethoven: Music, Thought, Imagination, in which the author, a master of Beethoven scholarship and of biography, offers reflections on a variety of topics united by the premise that the late works, in their singularity, were not purely products of Beethoven’s musical imagination but that they also grew from a “striking metamorphosis” in Beethoven’s wider patterns of thought beginning around 1810. In Solomon’s view, this process of change “eventually amounted to a sweeping realignment of his understanding of nature, divinity, and human purpose, constituting a sea change in Beethoven’s system of beliefs.”

He finds this change recorded primarily in Beethoven’s letters, conversation books, and especially in the Tagebuch, a personal diary that Beethoven kept from 1812 to 1818. Solomon’s aim is to stimulate inquiry into “the connections—at least, the analogies—between Beethoven’s thought and his later works.”

That a well-defined “late style” emerged in Beethoven’s major works from about 1815 to his death in 1827 is indeed incontestable; that it arose in conjunction with a change in Beethoven’s “system of beliefs” is a new view of Beethoven’s artistic development that will be much discussed. This view is radical in two ways. First, in construing Beethoven’s aphorisms and diary entries not simply as the private ruminations of an aging and sick composer but as evidence for Beethoven as a thinker engaged in building a wide-ranging new approach—intellectual, moral, and aesthetic—that might sustain the musical transformations of his late works. Second, Solomon’s thesis differs from accepted views of Beethoven’s development by locating the beginnings of this late worldview as early as around 1810 rather than after 1814.

Eighteen-ten is the year of the incidental music for Goethe’s Egmont and of the powerful String Quartet Opus 95 in F Minor. But they are between one and four years earlier than the “Archduke” Trio (1811), the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies (1812), the G-Major Sonata for Piano and Violin, Opus 96 (1813), and the extensive revision of Leonore (1805–1806) as Fidelio (1814). In other words, what has been generally taken as the twilight zone of Beethoven’s second period (roughly 1809 to 1814) is now seen to begin the “sea change” that opens the third. Solomon is cautious about the connections between philosophy and works of art, but the essays in this book deal not only with chronologically late compositions such as the “Diabelli” Variations and the Ninth Symphony but also with the Violin Sonata Opus 96 and the Seventh Symphony, works that have traditionally been seen as acts of stylistic completion rather than initiation.

What did Beethoven read? His favorite writers, he said, were Homer, Plutarch, Ossian, Klopstock, Schiller, Goethe, and Shakespeare in the Schlegel translation. But the Tagebuch of 1812–1818 shows his interest in a much wider range of authors, from Ovid and Pliny to Calderon and Vittorio Alfieri. As he said in a letter of 1809, though he did not pretend to erudition, “from my childhood I have striven to understand what the better and wiser people of every age were driving at in their works.” That he also copied passages from Eastern religious and philosophical writings, including the Bhagavad-Gita, the Vedas, and other texts, was a superb discovery made by Solomon when he brought out the Tagebuch in translation in the 1980s and 1990s.2 A brief sample should be enough to show how suggestive these excerpts are for the character of Beethoven’s mind and thought in these years. It is the beginning of the Veda-like “Hymn to Narayena,” by Sir William Jones, which Beethoven read in a German translation by Johann Friedrich Kleuker (1797):

Spirit of Spirits, who, through ev’ry part
Of space expanded and of endless time,
Beyond the stretch of lab’ring thought sublime,
Badst uproar into beauteous order start.
Before Heaven was, Thou art….

Beethoven’s choices of texts for song settings show a solid acquaintance with German poetry from the mid-eighteenth century through Goethe and down to the young Romantics. Most telling in this respect are the six poems that make up his song cycle An die ferne Geliebte (“To the Distant Beloved”), apparently written for his exclusive use in 1816 by Alois Jeitteles, a young Jewish medical student in Vienna who was then striving for a literary career. In these poems a young poet sits on a hill in the “blue land of clouds” and suffers the absence of his beloved, urging her at the end to “take, then, these songs that I, beloved, sang to you…./Sing them of evenings to the quiet sound of the lute.”

This great song cycle, so different in its ease of expression and straightforward melodic style from Beethoven’s craggy instrumental works of this time (e.g., the Piano Sonatas Opus 101 and 106, the two Cello Sonatas of Opus 102), shows him in a rare moment of complete acceptance of the lyrical side of the Romantic sensibility that was then starting to take hold.3 Solomon regards the song cycle as one component of his view of Beethoven in his later years as an essentially forward-looking artist broadly tinged by Romanticism. And he fills out the portrait by linking the “Distant Beloved” of the 1816 song cycle to Beethoven’s agonized, emotionally charged letter of 1812 to the Immortal Beloved, a central biographical document which Solomon discussed in his 1977 biography more cogently than anyone before or since.4

Despite the breadth of Solomon’s vision, his purpose is clearly not to survey the late works but to interpret them in the context of Beethoven’s deepening cast of mind. He discusses only four works in depth: the G Major Sonata for Violin and Piano, Opus 96, the Seventh and Ninth Symphonies, and the “Diabelli” Variations (on which there are two essays). He reads the Sonata for Violin and Piano as Beethoven’s application of pastoral language and imagery to a work of chamber music, not explicitly as in the Sixth Symphony but implicitly, as in the Piano Sonata in D major, Opus 28, which was only labeled “Sonata Pastorale” years after Beethoven’s death. Though I think the interpretation of the sonata as pastoral works better for the first movement than the other three, it does bring into relief the feeling of idyllic intimacy and elegance aroused by the sonata’s special effects of sonority, from the opening violin figure with trill (which Solomon hears as an “opening birdsong”) through the streaming voices of the three instruments in high register (the violin plus both hands of the piano) in the first large paragraph of the movement. And Solomon also shows that pastoral images had been applied to this sonata by earlier writers.

For the Seventh Symphony Solomon derives from early critics (in this case Beethoven’s pupil Carl Czerny) the idea that all four movements are based on classical poetic meters (e.g., the dactyl as the ruling figure in the allegro first movement, followed by other Greek meters and combinations of meters in the other three movements). Though this hypothesis may easily slide off the rails if pushed too far, Solomon keeps it on track with an extended discussion of the manifest primacy of obsessive rhythmic figures in the Seventh, a feature even more obvious here than in Beethoven’s other symphonies, and he avoids ascribing to Beethoven intentions to “represent the genres, moods, and ceremonies” associated with these meters in antiquity. Still, he reminds us that Beethoven’s evocations of classical imagery extend to some of the meanings of the term “heroic,” as in the title of the Sinfonia Eroica, as he had come to understand these meanings in reading Plutarch, for him a vital source of knowledge both of heroes of the past and of how one might be a hero in the present.5

For me the key essay in Late Beethoven is “Beyond Classicism.” Here Solomon grapples with the longstanding question of whether Beethoven should be seen as belonging primarily to the Classic era or the Romantic. That his roots lay in the formal and expressive world of the late eighteenth century is an obvious truism; but his early development was shaped more specifically by exposure to Bach, by knowledge of Haydn, and, I believe, above all, by the influence of Mozart. He had, after all, been raised in Bonn to be a “second Mozart,” as his teacher Neefe declared in 1783 when Beethoven was twelve years old, and two years later his early piano quartets show him taking on that role with originality and enthusiasm.

It can’t be a coincidence that Beethoven wrote to his pupil the Archduke Rudolph, in 1819, these remarkable words: “In the world of art, as indeed in the whole of creation, freedom and progress are the main objectives.”6 His later works, as they unfolded, vastly transformed the inherited classical tradition, not only by expanding the emotional range of all instrumental music but, in his final phase, by making his music transcendental. One can argue, in fact, that in the last piano sonatas and quartets he has left behind classicism, Romanticism, and all other categories, for a world of his own making.

Throughout his life Beethoven was reproached by contemporaries for the bizarre and difficult features of many of his works, early, middle, and late. Such criticisms were made not only by professional reviewers, who could be expected to be conservative, but by such observers as Goethe, Hegel, and Grillparzer. Solomon quotes a remark made by Goethe when the young Mendelssohn played the Fifth Symphony on the piano for him: “It is stupendous, absolutely mad. It makes me almost fear that the house will collapse. And supposing the whole of mankind played it at once!”

For Solomon, alongside Romanticism stands Freemasonry, developed here in two connected essays. In “The Masonic Thread,” Solomon explores Beethoven’s links to the Masonic movement, internationally established in his lifetime as a ritualistic fraternal society professing noble ideals. That he himself was a member is unproven, but it is certain that many of his friends, associates, and patrons were. In “The Masonic Imagination,” Solomon restudies many runic and stoical entries in the Tagebuch to show their connection to Masonic myths and rituals, among them the “journey” that the Masonic candidate must undertake in order to pass through darkness to the light. These essays illuminate a side of Beethoven’s experience hardly known before, and they immediately prompt associations with The Magic Flute, the most Masonic of all operas and a work that Beethoven knew from beginning to end.

To Solomon’s exegesis I would add the suggestion that Beethoven’s Masonic leanings might have given him still another pathway toward becoming, even in his mature years, a “second Mozart,” for him in another way a life-long journey. Solomon mentions a remark by Donald Tovey that the overture “The Consecration of the House” (1822) might contain some Masonic motifs. I think it’s possible that Beethoven went further still in this direction, and that a number of his works in the preferred Masonic key of E-flat major echo in varied ways the three symbolic rising chords that begin the overture to The Magic Flute.

2.

From the high plane of Solomon’s essays we move to another dimension of late Beethoven in the new book by Esteban Buch, translated from the French. It’s surprising to find that a book called Beethoven’s Ninth turns out to be exclusively about the “Ode to Joy,” Beethoven’s famous setting of Schiller’s poem “An die Freude” that became the centerpiece of the finale. If ever a melody has taken on a complete life of its own, this is one. Yet Beethoven himself set the stage for history’s separation of the Ninth Symphony into two entities, one of which is the whole symphony, the other its finale alone.

When he decided to end the symphony not with an instrumental finale (which he seriously considered for a while) but with what amounted to a cantata for solo voices, chorus, and full orchestra, he saw that he would have to find a way to link the purely instrumental first three movements with the vocal setting of the ode in the finale. His solution was to begin the finale in dissonant chaos, then to recall snatches of the first three movements, then cast each of these aside with expressive recitatives in cellos and basses. All of this allowed Beethoven to “discover” the ode melody within the finale and present it in full orchestral panoply. Then he could proceed to reject the whole instrumental version itself and at last have human voices break in upon the world of the symphony for the first time, giving utterance to Schiller’s ode as a communal song, a subject for a vast finale with variations.

In any case, Buch’s book is really about the ode, not the symphony. What emerges is a “political history,” beginning with earlier popular melodies that took on national significance. “God Save the King” in 1745 in Britain seems actually to have been the first national hymn; in 1792 the French found a stirring counterpart in Rouget de Lisle’s “La Marseillaise,” written as a military marching song. And in 1796 Haydn supplied the embattled Austrian empire with the “Emperor’s Hymn,” “God Save Emperor Franz.” Buch goes on from here to explore the ode and its fate as a political anthem from the 1820s on. His narrative is colorful and interesting as it progresses through the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries, culminating with the “Ode to Joy,” in an arrangement by Herbert von Karajan, as anthem of the European Union. Along the way the tune was hijacked by far less worthy entrepreneurs, including the Nazis (though not without difficulty owing to its theme of universal brotherhood); just as paradoxically it was adapted by Ian Smith and his racist apartheid regime in Rhodesia in the 1970s.

Like some other histories of how works were received, Buch’s account does not raise, let alone resolve, the question whether the object of his inquiry manages to maintain a meaningful identity throughout its checkered history of uses and abuses, or whether its identity, meaning, and values shift according to the changing circumstances of its adaptations over time. Nor does he seem to consider such questions significant. At the beginning of the book, the author links the adoption of the ode as a European anthem to a “long historical trend connecting the idea of Beethoven to that of Europe as a single entity.” Two pages later he claims that “the work’s reception has also been influenced by the fact that, as time continues to elapse, the person and music of Beethoven become increasingly distant.” By the end of the book, he reads the career of the “Ode to Joy” as “a fable on the moral value of Western art.” Since it’s been used just as much by tyrants and “incarnations of Evil” as by men of good will, he simply “leaves wide open the question of what leads such clearly immoral persons to lay claim to the moral validity of the same aesthetic experience.”

But is it really the “same aesthetic experience?” I doubt it. For Buch the ode is a political symbol, like a flag or motto, to be used by any group seeking status by associating itself with what sounds high and mighty, namely the virtues expressed by its text and the solemn character of its melody. In the broader history of music there are many examples of melodies being used in this way, though Buch does not go into them—one famous instance is Luther’s adoption of Gregorian chants or secular songs as bases for some of his best chorale melodies; and some of these melodies have histories much longer than that of the “Ode to Joy.”

The weakness of Buch’s approach, despite its many facts about historical byways, is that it lacks any room for consideration of the potential musical significance of the subject—Beethoven’s musical setting of the poem. Buch quotes the melody (all twenty-four measures of it) at the opening of the book, but without any text. Thereafter, since he shuns all discussion of the melody’s characteristic form of organization (that would, he thinks, be old-fashioned “formalism”), the book contains nothing of real interest about the melody’s source of strength and cogency as a musical entity, whether taken as a whole or in its details. Nor does he make more than passing reference to Beethoven’s careful thinking about the text that he was setting to music, even though such thinking is clearly reflected in his setting. Thus, for example, the off-beat accents (syncopations) on the fourth beats of measures 12 and 20 have little or no meaning without our knowing that these are the points at which the opening melodic phrase returns and that precisely here the word “Al-le” is given an off-beat accent, to intensify its meaning: “Alle Menschen werden Brüder” (“All men shall be brothers”).

When Beethoven came to write the Ninth Symphony in the years after Waterloo, much of Europe had recently fallen under the domination of the post-Napoleonic regimes of the Restoration, and Austria was under the tight control of its chancellor, Metternich. Broadly speaking, during the composer’s lifetime there had been three major betrayals of democratic ideals: first, in the Terror that followed the French Revolution; second, by Napoleon, whose self-proclamation as emperor in 1804 caused Beethoven to angrily withdraw the dedication of the Eroica; and, third, from 1815 on, after Napoleon’s defeat, with the return of harsh political repression. I read the composition of the Ninth in the early 1820s as Beethoven’s effort to revive a lost idealism, not by writing a simple choral anthem based on Schiller’s ode but by composing a grand, innovative artwork that could use the symphony, the most public of genres, as a powerful structure to express his vision of human brotherhood, with the ode as climactic endpoint of a vast musical process.

It would be nice to think that at least some part of what Beethoven intended might still matter. Tucked away at the beginning of the book is a brief comment from the political philosopher Agnes Heller, who is quoted as saying that the use of the “Ode to Joy” as a European anthem represents the “death of the Ninth Symphony.” Ms. Heller deserves cheers. The two entities—that is, the fully formed symphony as a whole and the simplified ode excised from its finale—are entirely different creatures, and the dangers of letting one stand in for the other are all too fully reflected by the strategies of political opportunism recorded in Beethoven’s Ninth: A Political History.

  1. 1

    Thayer’s Life of Beethoven, edited by Elliot Forbes (Princeton University Press, 1964), pp. 777–778. 

  2. 2

    For the complete Tagebuch in the original German and in English translation see Maynard Solomon, “Beethoven’s Tagebuch of 1812–1818,” in Beethoven Studies 3, edited by Alan Tyson (Cambridge University Press, 1982), pp. 193–288, and also in Solomon, Beethoven Studies (Harvard University Press, 1988), pp. 233–295. 

  3. 3

    On the song cycle see Joseph Kerman, “An die ferne Geliebte,” in Beethoven Studies, edited by Alan Tyson (Norton, 1973), pp. 123–157. 

  4. 4

    This letter, found among Beethoven’s private papers at his death in 1827, may or may not have been delivered to its unnamed recipient; if it was delivered it may have been returned. Solomon believes it was addressed to Antonie Brentano, one of the several aristocratic Viennese women who befriended him. That Beethoven kept it all his life is an indication of its importance to him. For the original text see the recently published complete edition of Beethoven’s correspondence: Ludwig van Beethoven, Briefwechsel Gesamtausgabe (Munich: Henle, 1996), Vol. 2, No. 582; for an English translation and the reasoning behind Solomon’s proposed identification of the recipient as Antonie Brentano, see his Beethoven (Schirmer, 1977), pp. 158–189; second edition (Schirmer, 1998), pp. 207–246. 

  5. 5

    On the Eroica and ways of understanding the neoclassic associations of its title in Beethoven’s age, see my Beethoven: The Music and the Life (Norton, 2003), pp. 211–214. 

  6. 6

    The Letters of Beethoven, edited by Emily Anderson (Macmillan, 1961), Vol. 2, p. 822, No. 955 (July 29, 1819), translation revised.