Humanism at the core of Beethoven’s music

After more than two centuries, Beethoven’s music hasn’t aged because what troubled him still troubles us

December 26, 2020 03:15 pm | Updated 03:15 pm IST

Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven

Must he stay or should he leave? Wilhelm Furtwangler, who many consider the greatest conductor ever, agonised over a decision on which he felt much depended.

After seizing power in 1933, the Nazis had begun censoring art and artistes, while promoting their toadies. It would have been easy to simply leave Nazi Germany, as many musicians had done. Furtwangler, though, saw the Berlin orchestra, which he led, as torchbearer of the Austro-German canon of Western classical music: Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Brahms, Bruckner — and Beethoven. Leaving Germany would not only seem like capitulation, it would give the Nazis a free hand to pursue their depraved vision of German music. Moreover, the gifted conductors who mattered, Walter, Klemperer and Kleiber, had emigrated. Only the amenable Karajan and Bohm remained. Furtwangler, therefore, felt compelled to stay. While his other motives and actions are disputed, that the man suffered for his art is not.

This history bears retelling for it takes us to the core of Beethoven’s music: the human spirit struggling towards an ideal. From the anguish of the war years, Furtwangler emerged to enrich our experience of music, especially Beethoven’s, with influential readings of his works.

The three phases

Beethoven belonged to the Romantic Age, which swept Europe in the late 18th century. The German Idealist philosophers gave the period its intellectual heft. Immanuel Kant’s marveling of ‘the starry heavens above; the moral law within’ profoundly influenced Beethoven

Scholars organise Beethoven’s work into three periods: early, middle, and late. His early compositions, up to age 32, are mostly conventional; it was as a virtuoso performer that he supported himself. Things suddenly changed. Beethoven’s hearing began deteriorating alarmingly. This realisation drove him to the brink of suicide. But his resolve to live for and through his art prevailed. In the Beethoven Museum in Bonn, the tragedy and the triumph coexist. The ear trumpets he used — the larger as his hearing weakened — poignantly stand beside manuscript copies of the seminal music he wrote.

In the next decade, called the middle or ‘heroic’ period, Beethoven drew from his own defiance of suffering. Daring personal expressions of vitality, zeal, freedom, liberation, peace, and justice suffuse his music. And when the conventional genres he inherited could not hold his musical thoughts, he rebelled, improvised, and changed them forever. Especially illustrative are the opera, Fidelio, and Symphonies Three, Five and Seven.

In the opera, the brave protagonist, Leonore, rescues her husband, a political prisoner. The work’s central theme is fidelity to person and ideal, which Furtwangler describes as an appeal to human conscience. As with his other compositions, Beethoven’s only opera is particularly resonant in times when freedom and human dignity are threatened.

Symphony Three, the Eroica, was inspired by the republican ideals of Napoleon. (When the despot crowned himself emperor, however, Beethoven furiously scratched out the dedication.) Many, like conductor John Eliot Gardner, believe the French Revolution inspired Symphony Five. Its spirit echoes throughout, which resistance fighters in occupied countries in WWII supposedly identified with. The piece is also the most radical assertion of humankind in contemporary music. In the famous four opening notes, I hear the human person, sovereign and sacrosanct, majestically standing her ground.

A different world, and probably the happiest, most devil-may-care of Beethoven’s works is Symphony Seven. It is not a profound examination of life but a celebration of it.

In the late period, at the height of his creative powers, Beethoven composed what is recognised as his finest music: Symphony Nine, the Mass (Missa Solemnis), and the last string quartets. The artistic concerns remain the same, the themes recur, and the genres evolve. There’s a pristine quality, besides, which sets these compositions apart. The critic, Bernard Jacobson, says Beethoven’s late style, particularly in the quartets, ‘can seem at the same time unprecedentedly complex and unprecedentedly simple’.

Symphonies Three to Eight are all acclaimed. It is Nine, however, that changed the genre forever. It was the first time a symphonic idea was vocalised. The length of the piece too made it exceptional. Symphonies were not the epics they are today: Haydn’s shortest is about 17 minutes; Mozart’s 40th is about 25. Depending on the tempo, the Ninth can go beyond 75 minutes. Its length vastly increased possibilities for the structure and complexity of the art form. Similarly, in the Mass, Beethoven stretches its artistic potential — as opposed to liturgical usability — to such an extent that the genre’s secularisation was inevitable by composers who followed.

The late string quartets (Op. 127 to Op. 135) provide a glimpse of Beethoven’s last artistic testaments on a variety of concerns. Contemporary reaction was no different than it is today: hushed awe. ‘After this, what is left for us to write?’, asked Schubert, specifically referring to Op. 131, considered Beethoven’s zenith.

It narrates a sad tale, which lightens, but turns disconsolate again. Perhaps it is an examination of the nature of human existence. In its structure, thematic variations, dynamics, harmonisation, and every technical aspect that keeps performers and musicologists enthralled (and most of us groping in the dark), Beethoven’s improvisations here influenced the development of the genre.

Engaging meaningfully

Great art is a refining and sublimation of the intensely personal. In Beethoven’s music there’s no mistaking his social, moral and spiritual vision. In the Choral symphony, as if to snuff out all future quibbling about where he stood, he spells it out in Schiller’s verse. Yet, after two centuries, his music hasn’t aged because what troubled him still troubles us — concerns of equality, justice, freedom, fraternity and peace.

How do we engage with this art meaningfully except by internalising its pain and catharsis? In anniversary concerts and seminars, Beethoven is only fleetingly encountered. To experience him, we must make time to truly enter the ground of our own being. There, in silence, we will recognise his promptings and awaken to his art. Only then will his legacy renew itself for the world.

The writer is consultant, World Bank Group.

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