Today, December 16, is Ludwig van Beethoven‘s 241st birthday. Born in 1770, and no doubt the greatest composer in Western history, Beethoven was also a political revolutionary, at least at heart. A low-German Catholic from Bonn of the Rhineland, he lived during a revolutionary time of European history, and had much to say about it.
Ludwig van Beethoven, 1770-1827
Napoleon Bonaparte was knocking on Europe’s Hapsburg doors in 1804, and, Beethoven’s initial response was to welcome him. Beethoven was from a poverty-stricken family, son of an alcoholic, and resented the social strata which excluded him. As his talents and heroic determination helped him rise in the social world, he was attracted to the idea that all men were equal, and that freedom was the most precious social condition. Napoleon seemed to embody these sentiments. Beethoven particularly hated British royalty (which, of course, had Hapsburg and Hanover royalty floating about in the blood), and welcomed any movement that resisted it. Beethoven admired the American revolutionaries.
However, in 1804, when Napoleon elevated himself as “His Imperial Majesty Napoleon the First, Emperor of the French,” Beethoven was disappointed and outraged. France had, of course, humiliated and crippled the Catholic church in retaliation for the papal abuse of France. That retaliation is known as the French Revolution of 1789. Napoleon by 1804 had the papacy under control, and he was not about be controlled by Rome in any way. But this attitude completely offended Beethoven, who then saw Napoleon as just another tyrant. In a famous scene witnessed by Ferdinand Reis and Count Moritz Lichnowsky, Beethoven seized the title page of his new “Eroica” (heroic) Symphony No. 3, which had been dedicated to Napoleon, and tore it in two, threw it on the floor, and stomped on it.
Beethoven was considered a radical, an eccentric, and emotionally unstable by the average Viennese citizen. Beethoven was that dusky, unkempt, emotional brawler from dirty little Bonn. Beethoven had all sorts of handicaps, as well. Not only was he naturally socially paranoid, but he became deaf, and, according to my research in to the actual “doodlings” on his manuscripts (–research done in 1990 at Hartt School of Music), Beethoven had a motor handicap. He who is universally acknowledged as the arbiter of rhythmically-based compositional structure, had extreme difficulty translating his rhythmic impressions into musical notation. Beethoven was suicidal in 1802, at thirty-two years old.
Perhaps he was an abused child. He was only 15 when his mother died, and he had to assume responsibility for the family (father and siblings) since his alcoholic father was wholly unreliable. Beethoven was swarthy, and often called “Der Spangol” (the Spaniard). He was most definitely isolated from his peers by his incredible talent as a performer and composer. He grew into a most disagreeable man. He was unspeakably rude, even violent, to other people when he thought he was crossed by them. He was plagued by his absent-mindedness in simple, practical things. He was a complete klutz, breaking nearly everything he touched (including many piano strings!), and he was never able to learn the most simple dance steps–so critical in social intercourse with the elites in whose circles his talents thrust him.
Beethoven was agonizingly aware of social status, of class warfare, and was compelled to speak and act–and compose–in honor of the brotherhood of man. His 9th Symphony, the “Choral” symphony, declares Beethoven’s ultimate attitude. All men are brothers. And, of all the emotions available to us, we must choose joy.
He saw that freedom in art was a corollary of freedom in society. To Beethoven, independence as an artist was the equivalent of independence and freedom for the citizen. The common man should throw off oppression and tyranny the same way Beethoven overthrew the conventional concepts of musical government in composition. He most definitely identified himself, however grandiosely, with the revolution of freedom and democracy in his day.
Yet, Beethoven came to appreciate order, convention, and even tradition. In 1819, he wrote to his patron Archduke Rudolph:
Freedom,–progress, is purpose in the art-world as in universal creation, and if we moderns have not the hardihood of our ancestors, refinement of manners has surely accomplished something.
This, written by a man who threw eggs in the face of a waitress when they were not to his taste.
I recall these thoughts about Beethoven, one of the idols of my youth, as I consider my own experience as a composer, and a politically-minded commentator. There are a number of people who feel that my political views interfere and even inhibit my professional success as a composer. Even the former chairman of the Comanche Nation, Wallace Coffey, more than once told me that I could be so much more successful if I would lay off my political views. A number of Jewish friends have pleaded with me to drop the politics, and give people my music. Music transcends political strife, they feel, and music is so much more valuable.
I wonder how often Beethoven heard such advice? I wonder if it ever affected his thinking, or his composing?
I feel that my friends advise me this way simply because they disagree with my political views. What they say may be true in regard to success, to some extent, but is a musician disallowed a political view? Can’t a composer have a political thought? This is a curious challenge. It says something about the nature of music.
In his diary (of 1816) Beethoven wrote, “Follow the advice of others only in the rarest cases.” Who could advise someone like Beethoven? Louis Spohr, a contemporary composer and violinist, described Beethoven as uncouth and repulsive in demeanor, but attributed such lack of “manners” as partly due to his deafness. Who can advise a musical genius who cannot hear his own works?
I would have to say, a man’s personal characteristics, however offensive or attractive, are not the basis of rejecting his thoughts. Perhaps there is a lesson in Ludwig van Beethoven for our modern political environment. Of course, it’s one thing to reject a mans ideas in preference to his music; it is another to reject a man’s music due to his political ideas. Alas, it is yet another thing to equate bad manners with political ideas.
This year promises to be a successful one for me, as a composer. There are major developments. If my political views interfere with any professional musical developments, I shall not be able to compare myself with Ludwig van Beethoven.
George R. Marek, Beethoven: Biography of a Genius (1969)
J. W. N. Sullivan, Beethoven: His Spiritual Development (1927)
Beethoven: Impressions by His Contemporaries, ed. Sonneck (1926)
Beethoven: the man and the artist, ed. Kurst (1905)
Maynard Solomon, Beethoven (1977)
The Beethoven Sketchbooks, ed. Johnson (1985)
J. M. Thompson, Napoleon Bonaparte (1952)