Beethoven's 250th Birth Anniversary
Written by: Humphrey McQueen on 16 December 2020
We are printing here an introduction to a longer article by Marxist historian Humphrey McQueen on the classical music composer Ludwig van Beethoven (16 December 1770 – 26 March 1827).
How should Marxist-Leninists respond to the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birthday on December 16?
Marx’s sole comment about music during his forty-year correspondence with Engels came early in 1856:
I am still being more or less persecuted by State haemorrhoids and consequent DULLNESS of spirits. On top of which Pieper has just been playing me some music of the future. [Wagner} It’s horrible and makes one afraid of the ‘future’, including its poetical music.
Otherwise, there are passing references to Gounod and Offenbach which indicate some acquaintance but are without evaluation. This neglect is registered in a collection of essays Music and Marx (2002) which has not a word about his musical preferences.
Marx’s silence on music contrasts with his youthful interest in the visual arts as shown in Margaret Rose’s Marx’s Lost Aesthetic (1984), and in literature throughout his life, traced by S.S. Prawer, Marx and World Literature (1985).
Maxim Gorki recalled that, in 1908, Lenin worried least that Beethoven’s Appassionata piano sonata affect him so deeply that it would make him forget that, in order to create a world in which all could enjoy the ‘beauty’ of the sonata, it would be necessary to ‘bang people over the head.’
There are several angles from which to consider that anecdote, even if we can accept Gorki’s story at face value.
Beyond dispute is that Lenin is not dismissing Beethoven’s music but is denouncing a world disorder which still falls between the vast majority of humankind and the enjoyment of the creativities of which our species is capable. There’s no suggestion that a piece for solo piano is in itself counter-revolutionary.
Rather, music provides an opiate in the positive sense that Marx says of religion - and not how his view is almost always misrepresented:
Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and also the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
To abolish religion as the illusory happiness of the people is to demand their real happiness. The demand to give up illusions about the existing state of affairs is the demand to give up a state of affairs which needs illusions. The criticism of religion is therefore in embryo the criticism of the vale of tears, the halo of which is religion. (1844)
Not all the conditions that ‘make religion necessary’ can be abolished. Not all are social or economic. Some reside in the human condition since the universe is indifferent to us. Those we love die. Those we love do not always love us. We human beings shall always need consolations. Music, poetry, friends, foods offer comforts, cushioning the pain making it possible for us to go on.
To return to Gorki’s reminiscence of his fellow Bolshevik. First, ‘beauty’ is not the first word that comes to my mind after the Appassionata. ‘Protean’, ‘conflicted’ and ‘thrilling’ are how I am inclined to describe it after repeated listenings to prepare this commentary. ‘Impassioned’ rather than ‘passionate’ would be my translation of ‘appassionata’.
Secondly, how often might Lenin have heard any music? Recorded sound had been around from the late 1880s but the first commercial gramophone went on sale in 1906. This 21-minute sonata needed six sides on shellac platters.
Above all, whose heads did Lenin think he had to bang while he was Gorki’s guest on Capri? One was Gorki’s other guest, the scientist, Alexander Bogdanov, a prime target in Lenin’s Materialism and Empirico-Criticism (1908). Lenin had to remind ‘shame-faced materialists’ of the world outside their heads. (Bogdanov was a life-long revolutionary who, in 1928, gave his life for the people by conducting medical experiments on himself.)
The next three segments approach Lenin’s dispute with Bogdanov: exactly how we can know the world?
We shall look into the class relations in which Beethoven made his living; specify the politics of the ‘Ode to Joy’ in the Choral symphony, and range over the demands we should be making around music as an essential for education.
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