There are and will be a thousand princes. There is only one Beethoven!
– Ludvig van Beethoven
CHAPTER AIM: Exploring the history and ideas behind Beethoven’s music
We’re going to travel back in time to the evening of May 7th 1824, and pay a visit to the prestigious Kärntnertor theater in Vienna.
Tonight’s concert has set Viennese tongues wagging: it’s the premiere of Beethoven’s ninth symphony. A must-see event, indeed, for this is the celebrated but aging composer’s first symphony in a decade, and his first public on-stage appearance for longer still.
Rehearsals had been fractious. Beethoven made only one change to the music despite a litany of requests (or should that be complaints?) by performers, anxious for the composer to do something with a score they felt physically impossible to perform. “A tyrant over all the vocal organs” as one of the soloists grumbled about the composer.
Beethoven had control and power over his performances that would have made Bach or Mozart rather jealous. Players and singers would have to perform Beethoven’s 9th symphony exactly how he had written it.
The times were changin’.
A Public Performance
So take your seat at the premier of Beethoven’s ninth, and take a look around.
On the stage, there’s a huge crowd of singers, a ninety-strong chorus. That’s unlike anything you would ever have seen at a Mozart concert, a generation earlier. In fact this is the first time a major composer has used a choir in a symphony.
There are also musicians as well as singers on the stage, and that’s because there’s just not enough room for the huge army of musicians in the orchestra pit. This is the largest orchestra Beethoven has ever assembled, with over 100 members.
Look to your left and right: the audience has noticeably changed since Mozart’s time. There’s a broader swathe of society gathered. Mozart had an audience, but Beethoven has a public. And they’re not just here for the pretty sounds. This public want music with ideas.
And so the theatre is packed, but if you take a look up, you’ll see the imperial box is empty. And that’s significant: Beethoven’s ninth promises music infused with revolutionary fervour.
Beethoven had always possessed something of the spirit of the revolutionary.
Go back another 15 years, to a sunny summer day in 1812. Louis (as Beethoven was known to his friends) is out walking with the writer Johann Goethe, when they encounter a group of nobles.
Goethe stops with a respectful doff of the hat for the aristocratic entourage. Beethoven storms off in angry contrast, later (according to some versions) to heckle his companion with the words ‘They should be bowing to us!’
Whatever the actual facts of the story, it’s easy to see why it’s achieved that mythic ring of truth. For starters, it reveals so much about Beethoven’s personality: socially awkward, moody, deeply sensitive, and stubbornly proud.
But the anecdote also pushes some key nineteenth century buttons, particularly relationships of power and privilege, and the position of the artist in society.
Portrait of an Artist
Beethoven was a pock-faced bundle of energy standing at just 5’3. His quick-temper and sensitivity could make him very tricky to deal with, and these traits were only exacerbated with the onset of deafness that cursed the composer from his late twenties until some point in his late forties, when he became totally deaf.
Beethoven’s personality and feelings – his drive and endeavour as well as those fiery temper and swings of mood – exude from his music in a way that was totally new to his age. It gave his music a more expressive quality than any other composer had attempted. You could feel the man in the sinews of his music.
“Bach shows you what it’s like to be the universe…” Douglas Adams wrote, “…Mozart tells us what it’s like to be human. Beethoven tells you what it’s like to be Beethoven.”
But that sensitivity extends beyond the man himself, through to the issues of his day. Beethoven expresses not just his own personality through his music, but also the personality of his era.
Beethoven is often considered as an aesthetic midpoint, a gateway composer between Classical and Romantic periods () for a reminder on that subject). And in one simple but important regard, Beethoven does signal the change in music about to come: he expresses how he feels – directly and emphatically – in his music.
This is not just about writing emotional music. Beethoven doesn’t just try to make you feel something (joy, surprise, fear, whatever), as the earlier generation of classical composers might have seen their task. Rather Beethoven describes how he himself feels.
Sound is being created for its emotional power, rather than its aural pleasure. That signals the major direction music is going to take in the years after Beethoven’s death.
Strike up the Band
3.28-5.07 Marching band clip
Listen to this particular passage…
The two-step marching rhythm, that oompha-oompha deep brass. That distinctive percussive sound: drum and triangle. And a high piccolo, an instrument not normally associated with a symphony orchestra.
Any contemporary listening to this section of Beethoven’s ninth would immediately recognise the familiar sound of the military band:- that quasi-mythical ordinary folk who had banded together, taking up arms against their oppressors in America, France, and elsewhere.
“Joyful…” the singer proclaims “…like a hero to victory!”
This – instantly to contemporary ears – would be the sound of revolution!
Revolutions cover the entire 250 years this course covers. The question is what kind of revolution?
5.04-6.25 Orchestral Section
We began with the Scientific Revolution, which was in full blossom during Bach’s lifetime (to remind yourself of that story, check out ). And then we move to political revolution, with the seismic events of the French Revolution ().
But another type of revolution was taking place on an island in Northern Europe.
In Great Britain, the wheels of industry had also been turning through the gears, producing an Industrial Revolution (1760-1840) which would end up underpinning the largest empire the planet has ever seen.
Listen to this section playing now. This is music of process and change, energy and drive. This sound – the articulation of rhythm, melody, and harmony by particular combinations of instruments – expresses the age of Beethoven, just as Bach’s music speaks of the Baroque Age a hundred years earlier.
You can almost hear the engines of industry turning inside the music. It speaks of profound transformations in the fabric of society.
Revolution was everywhere. In Great Britain it remained largely industrial, but on mainland Europe, it was very much political.
As the eighteenth century became the nineteenth, political upheavals shook continental Europe. Fundamental issues about human rights and property became inflamed into a series of revolutions that overthrew entire regimes, most obviously in the USA (1776) and France (1789).
France was the touchstone state for these immense political ructions. After the French Revolution of 1789, the New Guard had replaced the Old, who then proceeded to murder one another. Revolutions devour their own children, as the adage from 1793 goes.
Finally in France, the enlightened despot Napoleon, took power, before unleashing a series of revolutionary wars across the globe.
Beethoven (1770-1827) had grown up during the seismic events of the French Revolution, supporting its principals whilst at the same time abhorring its bloodshed. Like many, he hoped for the deliverance of Enlightenment values of freedom, equality, and brotherhood.
The focus for such feelings soon turned to Napoloen Bonaparte.
The Napoleon Symphony
Excerpt from Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony
It is 1804. Beethoven, now in his thirties, is composing his mighty 3rd Symphony. In musical scope, political significance, and sheer noise, Beethoven is about to transform the symphony. He’s going to take the art-form beyond anything heard up to that point.
Beethoven intends to dedicate the revolutionary work to his fellow revolutionary, Napoleon Bonaparte, who remained for the composer a living embodiment of those Enlightenment values in which he still believed.
Napoleon fascinated Beethoven. The ‘Little Corporal’ was plain, short, and from relatively humble background. Beethoven was shorter than Napoleon, and his background was humbler still.
But wasn’t that was the entire point? Napoleon achieved great things through his actions, not his birth. It was the enduring message of the political turmoil at the turn of the nineteenth century, and it was a message Beethoven, the provincial son of a drunkard, felt personally. The Enlightenment had promised to be an equal-opportunities employer.
The ink is barely dry on the completed manuscript of the symphony, when news filters through to Vienna that Napoleon has proclaimed himself Emperor of France. Revolutionaries around the globe were horrified.
“Now he will think himself superior to all men, and become a tyrant!” an incandescent Beethoven is supposed to have yelled, ripping the written dedication to Napoleon from the front page of the manuscript.
Today there is no ‘Bonaparte Symphony’. Rather, Beethoven’s 3rd is known by the less specific ‘Eroica’, or ‘Heroic’. It no longer commemorates the man, but the Heroic itself.
A Tale of Two Sieges
5.04-6.25 Orchestral Section
By the time Beethoven came to write his ninth symphony, his feelings about Napoleon had developed considerably.
Twice, the dictator’s armies had besieged Beethoven’s hometown, Vienna. In 1805, the arrival of french troops in the city ruined the premier of his only opera, Fidelio.
Next time round – in 1809 – the composer had taken to hiding in the cellar with pillows over his ears, terrified of the damage the noise of Napoleon’s cannons might do to his failing ears.
Between bombardments, there was much cursing of the Little Corporal’s name.
Napoleon’s armies of Revolution promised liberty and equality, but they ended up fighting wars that delivered disease, destruction, and millions of dead. History wasn’t turning out the way the Enlightenment had expected. A procession of murderous lunges rather than the steady march to progress.
Napoleon was eventually defeated at the fields of Waterloo in 1815. With his abdication, the Bourbon dynasty returned to the throne. Le plus ça change, as the French would very soon say, le plus c’est la même chose (‘The more things change, the more they stay the same‘).
Beethoven lived through these most turbulent political events and social upheavals. And that notoriously thin skin of his was porous to these forces of history taking shape around him.
Listen to this orchestral passage: as often with Beethoven, this is about the wrestling of order from out of chaos. That is a key theme to Beethoven’s work. And that tells us something important not just of Beethoven’s aesthetics, but of the political yearnings of his soul.
Return of the Status Quo
That was 1804, but let’s return to 1824, and the premier of Beethoven’s ninth symphony at Vienna’s Kärntnertor theater.
The imperial box may be empty, but the forces of Revolution have by now been apparently defeated. Napoleon has been dead for ten years, and the Bourbon Kings rule France once more.
Beethoven had lived in the centre of this political retrenchment. It was Beethoven’s hometown that had hosted the restructuring of Post-Napoleonic Europe – the Congress of Vienna – a decade earlier. An event for which Beethoven himself composed celebratory music.
So what is Beethoven doing, more than a decade after Napoleon’s death, tooting at this revolutionary horn? Is this just a final sentimental blast from an old revolutionary who’s now very grey round the gills?
Beethoven’s ninth is a battle of ideas, not armies. Its business is people, not nations. And its benefits are spiritual, not material.
Freedom, equality, brotherhood: these are all values for which Beethoven’s ninth held – and continues to hold – a standard-bearing torch. Loudest in the symphony is the call for brotherhood – bruder! – the least overtly political of those three revolutionary values. Beethoven is calling for companionship and comradery, for mankind to recognise it is a family, and to knit together.
Within fifty years of the French Revolution, calls for a shared humanity would be drowned out by the ugly heckle of Nationalism.
Strong industrial Nation States were arising to power in Europe. And, as each nation squared proudly against each other, thoughts would turn to what divides rather than unites.
Uprisings would continue to shake Europe – and indeed the rest of the world – from 1789 up to the next big date in the revolutionary calendar, 1848. That was the year of revolutions right across Europe, including Germany where Richard Wagner would join the street fights at the barricades.
And in just a few years, Wagner will be extolling the virtue of German blood, and pointing an accusing finger towards ‘enemies’ like the Jew.
With tragic irony, it seemed all men were not born equal, after all.
If you don’t know any Beethoven, I recommend starting with his symphonies, in particular those with an odd number. Don’t worry about having to take on entire symphonies in a go: it’s perfectly fine just to tackle individual movements, and really take your time, without a need to hurry to understand the whole piece.
The symphonies also offer a fascinating perspective on the history of the times. Here’s a smattering of what’s on offer.
- For the Eroica, his 3rd symphony – check out the 3rd movement. It’s as much in the anticipation as the arrival (perhaps appropriate considering Beethoven’s feelings for Napoleon).
- Then there is the well known opening to his Fifth Symphony. By now (1808), the aspirations of an Enlightenment had darkened considerably with the wars of Napoleon’s armies. There’s a martial clamor to the proceedings. Animation from Smalin, really excellent work. Look for the ‘fate’ motif by watching for the three-brick intervals in the animation.
If you want more of the impact of history in Beethoven’s work, his seventh symphony is a place to explore. It was the very first piece that introduced me to classical music, so I’ve a big place in my heart for it.
- Symphony 7, movement 1. It is Vienna 1812, and the heads of Europe have gathered to organise a post-Napoleonic Europe. Another beautiful animation by Smalin.
- Then of course there is the slow movement of the same symphony. An elergy for the Napoloenic wars?
- The final movement to his Seventh Symphony is a high-octane dynamo of a piece. A celebration in dance, and a whirling dervish of a performance.
- Beethoven also has a gentler side, away from all the political hullabaloo. Here is the final movement of his 6th smphony, ‘The Pastoral’. The sun is out, the countryside looks beautiful, and if you were around Britain in the 80’s, it smells of chocolate. Yum.
- And to finish, the second movement of our own ninth symphony. Again, wonderful animation by Smalin. Look at the beautifully subtle way he has animated the Timpani (drums) for instance.