Romanticism and Beethoven: Part Two

Emperor Napoleon

Napoleon made himself “Emperor” in 1804, losing the admiration of a generation of Europe’s intellectuals and artists.

In the last entry, I discussed romanticism from a bird’s-eye view, using some sweeping definitions. But I did my best at the same time to suggest the nature of the achievement of the early years of a flesh-and-blood composer, Ludwig van Beethoven, in the late eighteenth century and at the very beginning of the nineteenth.

Heroism and Its Disappointments

In this entry, I will move the story both forward in time and downward in terms of the level of abstraction, discussing in chronological order four of Beethoven’s masterpieces: his Third, Fifth, Sixth, and Ninth Symphonies.

We may begin by observing that Beethoven suffered a personal crisis in 1802, as he realized what the buzzing and ringing sounds in his ears meant. He wrote to his brothers, “I would have ended my life – it was only my art that held me back.” His art reflected the commitment of one that, by that very commitment, has saved his own life. His art also became enmeshed with the politics of the day.

Notoriously, the Third symphony – first performed in 1805 – was originally conceived as a tribute to Napoleon Bonaparte, whom Beethoven saw as the personal bearer of the ideals of the French Revolution, the man whose mission it was to spread those ideals to the rest of Europe. He changed his mind about Napoleon, but the symphony came to be known as the Eroica (“Heroic” in Italian), because although Beethoven decided that “Emperor” Napoleon himself was no longer a hero, he thought heroism itself still worthy of celebration. You can listen to the first movement of this symphony here.

“The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy.”

Beethoven’s Fifth, first performed in Vienna in 1808, begins with a notorious four-note motif, three short notes and a fourth, longer, lower. If you are ever about to be thrown out of a spaceship by a nasty alien guard, out into the certain death of empty space, and you decide that to save your life you must persuade the alien that there is something of value in human culture, you might start by humming this famous motif: then ask the Vogon whether this stirs anything in him. So proposes Douglas Adams, anyway, in “The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy.”

A word more about politics, though. Had Ludwig learned his lesson by this time? Had he decided that, since Napoleon had disappointed him, he would no longer dedicate his works to the powers and principalities of this world? Alas, no. The fifth symphony is dedicated to Prince J.F.M. Lobkowitz and Count Rasumovsky. Who are they? From our point of view, nobodies, though of the Bavarian and Russian nobility, respectively.

The Romantics and Nature

Beethoven’s Sixth (The Pastoral) consists of what some have called a set of only loosely connected tonal poems. Yet others find a unifying theme in nature. According to Joanne Schneider, author of “The Age of Romanticism” (2007), the inspiration for the Sixth came as Beethoven “wandered in the woods near Vienna where the sights and sounds of nature gave him a special insight about himself.” Under the instruction of his score, the orchestra re-creates natural sound effects, notably the bubbling of a brook and the chirping of birds.

The face of God?

Nature worship was one of the hallmarks of romanticism, which generated, for example, a recovery of interest in the philosophy of Benedict Spinoza, precisely because Spinoza identified nature with God and God with nature.

Nature worship came to be part of a package, in the 19th century mind, with the will to separate one’s self from society. The romantic “loner” just wants to be out in the woods. This is how some people think of Beethoven.

It is also, we should say, not how he ever thought of himself. He wrote of himself that he had “a passionate lively temperament, keenly susceptible to the charm of Society,” but that he was forced to live a solitary life because “it was impossible for me to say to people, ‘Speak louder – Shout – I am deaf!’”

The Ninth (The Choral) was first performed in 1824. By this time, Beethoven’s deafness was total. Yet his symphony challenged and changed the whole format of a symphony, something the classicists had thought they had standardized. Beethoven introduced solo voices and a chorus, and made the whole daringly lengthy.

According to some authorities, the length of Beethoven’s Ninth (74 minutes) dictated the length of a compact disc, when Philips standardized that audio format in 1979, one hundred and fifty five years later.

Pop Culture

Throughout this two-part discussion of Beethoven, we have made reference to popular culture of the mid to late 20th century, where Beethoven often makes an appearance as the consummate musician. Aside from Peanuts, and aside from Hitchhiker’s Guide, examples of this use are common.

The twentieth-century movie industry did not pass Beethoven by. An Austrian film named Eroica appeared in 1949. Disney did a biopic about Beethoven, The Magnificent Rebel (1962), first released as a two-parter on the Disney TV show but later sent to theatres. In the 1990s, there was Immortal Beloved, a speculative account of Beethoven’s personal life starring Gary Oldman and Jeroen Krabbé.

But perhaps the single most notorious invocation of Beethoven in 20th century popular art arose in the book and movie A Clockwork Orange. It is Beethoven’s Ninth that the experimenters play to Alex, the young thug protagonist, as part of their aversion therapy. They are unaware at first of the fact that “Ludwig van” has a special significance to Alex, but when they do make that discovery they decide (in a “whatever works” spirit) to continue using the music as a sound track for the violent films they are showing him.

Enjoy the humble homage, here, my droogs.

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