Beethoven's 250th Birth Anniversary
Written by: Humphrey McQueen on 20 December 2020
II No echo chamber
Around 1950, the Communist Party of Australia reprinted How Music Expresses Ideas by Sidney Finkelstein. Inevitably for a Leftie, he gave a chapter to Beethoven, headed ‘“Pure Music” and Social Conflict,’ with the sub-heading ‘The democratic spirit in Beethoven’s symphonies.’
This second segment considers the assumptions in the book’s title and the chapter heading. The next segment seeks to connect ‘Pure Music’ and social conflict with the ‘democratic spirit’ of Beethoven’s day before having something to say ‘The Ode to Joy.’
The first step is to endorse Finkelstein’s choice of ‘Expresses’ with its emphasis on the act of remaking. Too often we are told that ‘art reflects society’ as if artists and audiences were passive receptacles for both creativity and every sensuous human activity.
Beethoven’s compositions did not ‘reflect’ the revolutionary forces striding across Europe – the political, the commercial and the scientific. It is somewhat truer to say elements in his music expressed those forces. Even putting the connection that way is too one-dimensional. Better to say that extra-musical upheavals helped to make possible new ways of reproducing and appreciating sound. Beethoven’s own pianoforte sounded more like a harp than like the concert grands to which we have become accustomed.
Lenin was right to remind Bogdanov that there are physical, biological and social worlds outside his head. Moreover, our understanding of those worlds can never be one of direct and immediate apprehension. For example, the sounds from the Appassionata register in areas of our brains through mixes of those three domains. The sounds emanate from striking the piano strings, reach our ears via sound waves but once inside our heads those noises are subject to multiple processes. For instance, they encounter aural memories – perhaps of other performances of the sonata so that we begin to rate them, liking Gerard Willems more than Friedrich Gulda.
In addition, how we respond to sound is acquired and transmitted socially. For hundreds of years, most Western music was confined to what we now think of as the white keys on a piano. The black notes appeared from 1400. Later again came flats and sharps. A time traveller from the year 1020 would flee from the noise that Lenin thought beautiful.
All art forms develop by moving beyond established modes of expression. Nonetheless, they remain ‘path dependent.’ Hence, Beethoven could not have composed the Appassionata without 300 years codification of counterpoint and 150 years for harmony to play with. Nor could he retreat into the modes that were the only ones available before 1400. At most, those practices offered him opportunities to add exotic touches.
All those materials were available to all composers of his era: Gluck, three of Bach’s sons, Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, and Weber. True, those generations now sound much the same to us in so far as they do not sound like either Wilhelm Dufay, born before 1400, or Peggy Glanville-Hicks, born in 1912. However, one does not have to be a musicologist to tell a Beethoven piano sonata from one of Schubert’s should one turn the radio on the middle of a performance. A few bars is usually enough to betray their fingerprints.
To adapt a line from Sartre about poets: Beethoven is a bourgeois composer but not all bourgeois composers are Beethoven. His near contemporaries were great bourgeois composers but each was so after his own fashion and was shaped through the particulars of his era and location. In investigating Beethoven, the task before historical materialists is to get as close as we can to seeing exactly how that applies in each case.
The second point is to remind ourselves that dialectical materialists have to grapple with exactly how each of the arts might express ideas. That task means that we also have to ponder exactly how do ‘ideas’ - in any medium - express our social practices, the actualities of life?
This present assay attempts no more than an introductory survey of the fields across which those exact linkages will have to be traced, offering illustrations at best.
To declare that this or that form of composition expresses the ideas of this or that class is all too easy. As historical materialists we must always seek to identify their exact time and precise place if we are to reach an understanding of the manner in which they can affect us. For Marxists, those expressions are neither eternal, nor natural, nor universal. Change is the sole constant, though its pace varies.
In what sense can Beethoven be considered a revolutionary? However we might judge him as a uncle or evaluate his politics is beside the point about his being a revolutionary in music. We remember him only because he composed music. In that realm, his place as a revolutionary is uncontestable.
To give a few instances. He was the first major composer never to write for a keyboard other than the piano. His Fourth concerto defied convention by opening with five bars of unaccompanied piano. His symphonies moved away from the structure of fast-slow-fast movements before the ninth added a choral movement. His fourteenth string quartet has seven movements without a break across nearly forty minutes. He broke out of the Classicism of his teacher, Joseph Haydn, and produced a musical language for Romanticism, which reverberated for 100 years, nourishing creativities into twentieth-century.
As much as Beethoven was esteemed in his lifetime, many music lovers thought he had gone mad as well as deaf. Being deaf was a horrible burden but not a disabling one. Like any skilled musician, he could look at a score and hear the notes in his head. He put down Rossini’s The Barber of Seville with the remark: ‘That won’t affect my reputation.’
Did deafness let him venture further into ‘pure music,’ allowing him to feel less constrained by memories of the human voice and noises from the rest of nature? The atmospherics of his Pastoral symphony are not sound effects.
That Beethoven was a musical genius did not mean that he could write out his scores as if he were taking dictation from the Archangel Gabriel. His sketchbooks show how much effort went into rewriting every piece. He composed three Lenora overtures before settling on the one we know from Fidelio. Historical materialists know that we learn by doing just as we become what we do.
A scientist, says Marx, unlike other architects, ‘builds not only castles in the air, but may construct separate habitable storeys of the building before laying the foundation stone.’ The same is true for artists of every kind who find solutions as they raise new problems.
Paying the piper
Beethoven worked in the midst of the new relations emerging between artists and patrons. Publishers, theatrical impresarios now rivaled royal households. England had got there out of the rise of merchant capital throughout the 1600s, and its dominance throughout the 1700s. Handel came over to London in the Hanoverian baggage train in 1715 but within a decade had set up as musical entrepreneur, mounting operas and then oratorios for a paying public. Haydn had been trapped on the Esterhazy Estate for much of his life until he made two highly profitable trips to London in the 1790s. Mozart escaped from the Episcopal Court in Salzburg, but when on tour in Italy remained at the beck and call of the local palaces.
Beethoven had no shortage of aristocratic patrons and commissions but was never long in their employ. He lived off his piano playing, staging concerts of his works, and by the sale of his scores. He was self-employed in a way that Mozart perhaps dreamed. Schubert was also without a court position, but earned little money, and never heard many of his larger scale works.
Words, words, words
Since the bulk of Beethoven’s works are ‘pure music’, he presents most of us with a tougher nut than does a world-historical author like Goethe.
Words are traps for non-players. Had Beethoven’s opera Fidelio had been lost and the ‘Ode to Joy’ movement of his Ninth Symphony never completed, how many enthusiasts for his democratic spirit would be able to make their case from the notes alone?
For Marx, as for Lenin, science is the penetration of appearance in search of the inner laws of motion. Marx’s demonstration of value as labour-time depends on his honing his critical analysis of political economy. Just as microscopes took scientists inside the cell, Marx got beneath the surfaces of profit to show how exploitation took place despite an equal exchange of wages for the sale of timed units of our capacity to add value. We need to learn how to follow that lead into every area.
One scholar contrasts the single line of musical development in Haydn quartets with competing lines in those of Beethoven. Dare we conclude that the former convey the placid world of the Esterhazy court while the latter express the revolutionary wars? Whether right or wrong, all judgements about composers have to be anchored to their music and not deduced from words or contexts.
One cannot help but suspect that some of the abuse heaped on the co-founder of the Frankfurt School of Cultural Marxism, Theodor Adorno, for his patrician disdain of popular music comes from critics who envy his mastery of musical analysis, as shown throughout his books on Mahler, Schoenberg versus Stravinsky, Wagner and film music.
No surprise that most Marxist commentary on the arts is about literature. Reading and writing are the social practices which critics share with its creators, even if the latter operate at a different level. The techniques for putting words together are accessible to many of us in ways which those of sculpture and the symphony are not. We must take care not to treat a score as if it were a stanza. Most of us can read the words but too few of us can ‘hear’ the notes.
III The ‘spirit’ of proto-capitalism
This third segment considers Social Conflict in terms of the ‘democratic spirit’ of Beethoven’s day.
It goes without saying that the ‘democratic spirit’ in Beethoven’s lifetime was at best one of a bourgeois democracy – in other words, a mix of mostly open class dictatorship with elements of covert dictatorship. Two instances make the case: one of the first laws from the French Revolutionaries was to criminalize trade unions and strikes, bans which lasted into the 1860s. Two years after the British Reform Act of 1832 (which extended the franchise to but one adult male in eight), the Tolpuddle martyrs are transported for swearing an illegal oath to stand truly by each other in resisting further cuts to their miserable wages.
Everything was worse in Germany. A hundred years later, the satirist, Kurt Tucholsky, quipped: ‘Because of inclement weather, the German revolution took place in music.’ Across Beethoven’s lifetime, the twenty-three principalities and kingdoms were still dismantling the serfdom that the Absolute monarchs had imposed after the population declines of the Thirty-Years War till 1648.
Germany had nothing like the revolutions in England, the U.S. of A. or France until 1848-9, but were sold out by the liberals, as Marx and Engels report for the Neue Rheinische Zeitung until it is shut down in May 1849. Engels then writes The Peasant War in Germany (1850) to remind Germans that they do have a revolutionary tradition but that, ‘We shall see the classes and fractions of classes which everywhere betrayed 1848 and 1849 in the role of traitors, though on a lower level of development, already in 1525.’
The Enlightenment in the German principalities never had to deal with home-grown turmoils like those in France. Instead, German liberals could welcome their after-effects from a safe distance but not participate in the upheavals that made those changes possible. They did become subject to some of their outcomes with the Napoleonic invasion. Freedom was their desired condition but only if it were the gift from those in charge. By the 1820s, Hegel was supporting the King of Prussia to protect fellow liberals from the Pietists.
If Marx mocks the French revolutionaries of 1848 for donning the robes of the Revolutionaries of the 1790s, the Germans of the 1790s were enthralled to Classical Greece, as Georg Lukacs details in Goethe and his Age (1947). Beethoven’s ‘The Creatures of Prometheus’ overture is a nod to that past but also a nod to defiance of the gods.
Manning the barricades
Beethoven was never anything like the political revolutionary that Wagner had been on the Dresden barricades in 1849, which kept him a political exile for most of his life. Nor did Beethoven strive to make his compositions inspire German unification with even a fraction of the commitment that Verdi did for Italy. Most of his libretti are coded attacks on the Austrians, the Popes or the French – and were often censored.
Yet Beethoven held strong views of the political world. In 1810, he provides incidental music to a revival of Goethe’s drama Egmont about freedom of speech and religious belief in the Netherlands against Spanish repression.
We keep being told that Beethoven tore out his dedication of the third symphony to Napoleon once he crowned himself emperor in 1803. His Wellington’s Victory symphony (1813) celebrated the French defeat at Vittoria during the Peninsula Wars. In his one attempt at an opera, Fidelio (1805), the political prisoner is saved by the daring of his wife but set free by the arrival of the good duke, not by a revolt of the other prisoners.
How exactly should historical materialists connect a thinker to one class or strata rather than to another? Bourgeois sociologists accumulate data on multi-factorial personality characteristics and socio-cultural experiences. Marx cuts through to the content of the thought itself in relation to the needs of this or that class or stratum. He could thereby explain why authors can serve a social class whose interests and manner of living they themselves oppose, even despise:
Just as little must one imagine that the democratic representatives are indeed all shopkeepers or enthusiastic supporters of shopkeepers. In their education and individual position they may be as far apart from them as heaven from earth. What makes them representatives of the petty bourgeoisie is the fact that in their minds they do not get beyond the limits which the latter do not get beyond in life, that they are consequently driven, theoretically, to the same problems and solutions to which material interest and social position drive the latter in practice. This is, in general, the relationship between the political and literary representatives of a class and the class they represent.
In the realm of ideas, the goats are not to be sorted from the sheep merely by uncovering who pays for their hay or from the branding on their hides.
Marx’s treatment is a guide to how we should work towards understanding the relations between Beethoven and the representatives of the social classes for whom he composed. Like the journalist, Beethoven need not like that class collectively. Few of his creations set their needs and aspirations to music.
But with one difference. Marx is dealing with links between a scribbler and the petit-bourgeoisie. Bourgeois intellectuals are to be differentiated from petit-bourgeois ones by the scope and scale of their inquiries. Beethoven is a world-historical genius during the storm and stress of a world-historical bourgeoisie.
We conclude this segment on ‘the democratic spirit’ by locating ‘The Ode to Joy’ (1785) in its changing the political uses of a poem by Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805). In declaring that ‘All men shall be brothers,’ Schiller is far from encompassing all of humankind, or even German-speaking males of his class. Instead, he was rejoicing to have found a handful of like-minded writers in Leipzig to assuage his solitude:
Ay, and who a single other
Soul on earth can call his own;
But let him who ne’er achieved it
Steal away in tears alone.
Those sentiments appealed to Beethoven as deafness limited his society to a few intimates, and his failure to find a lover. Around the time he contemplated suicide, he began a setting of the Ode to Joy, twenty years before the version we know from the Symphony.
The Choral symphony was performed first in Vienna in 1824 under the police state of Count Metternich. In 1900, a worker’s choir gave ‘The Ode’ movement at the unveiling of Max Klinger’s nude statue of Beethoven in Vienna. For the breaching of the Berlin Wall, ‘Joy’ became ‘Freedom’ - Freude into Freiheit. And that revision is how its ‘message’ is widely understood so that Beethoven can be celebrated as a man of the people – which he never was.
One way to believe that the Ode is a celebration of the freedom for humanity is never to read the words which begin:
Joy, thou spark from flame immortal,
Daughter of ‘Elysium’
Fall ye postrate, o ye millions!
Dost thy Maker feel, o World?
Seek him o’er yon stars of heaven,
O’er the stars rise his pavilions!
Buried in this cloying language is a natural theology, close to Deism, and at a comfortable distance from even the pallid liberalism of Goethe.
Beethoven’s music, however, can tell a different story. The themes that will accompany the ‘Ode to Joy’ are heard for more than five minutes before the first syllable is uttered. The soaring of the four soloists over the thrills from the choir encourages us to believe that everything is possible.
Those feelings are as true for Arturo Toscanini with a titanic assembly of players and singers or Frans Bruggen’s leading period instruments and a chamber choir. All sounds possible, as we do from singing The Internationale and Le Marseillaise.
IV Let the people sing!
Beethoven got bad notices during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. His music came under attack as part of the campaign to eradicate the ‘worship of foreign things.’ Foreigners did not fart the sweetest perfumes.
‘The Ode’ was criticised because it denied that class struggle is the key link. All men are not brothers, and will not be brothers until socialism is well on its way into communism. By then, ‘sisters’ will not be absentees.
A committee of Maoist composers could no more create the music of the socialist future than a State Planning Commission can build hospitals out of future bricks. In the latter case, workers have to set up a quarry and others have to construct a brickworks. The Appassionata was one outcome from at least three centuries of music-making in post-Feudal societies. Put crudely, it takes a lot of manure to grow a rose.
After the Culture Commissar Andrei Zhdanov accused leading Soviet composers of Formalism in 1946 and again in 1948, many took refuge in the Czarist-era music to which Russian ears had grown accustomed – folk. Gregorian Chant and the Bolshoi Ballet. They did not advance into the Music of the Glorious Socialist Future.
A Musicians’ Union cannot ‘command’ composers to produce proletarian music on a five-year plan or to grow more proletarian Beethovens.
The Musicians’ Union was run by second-raters inspired by spite and envy. It was also an Old Boys Club. Female opera stars and ballerinas became famous but as late as 1990 the only women in the Leningrad Symphony Orchestra were the harpists. Who can name one woman composer from the Soviet era? Were there none?
The Musicians’ Union was in its element when requiring all its members to provide choruses and film scores to encourage Socialist Reconstruction and to defeat invading armies. For those tasks, it was every hand to the plough. Of course, for those pieces to work they had to draw on what was already popular.
To advance into the unknown of a proletarian culture is another matter. There we need experiments so that we can benefit from fertile error. Shostakovich’s twenty-four ‘Preludes and Fugues’ (1950-1) build from Bach’s forty-eight but weave around the 200 years of inventiveness since his death. They might yet yield clues for socialist composers.
What a shame that Stalin did not intervene in those debates with the good sense that he brought to the arguments over linguistics in a 1951 interview with Pravda.
Stalin opens with a very short question: “Is it true that language is a superstructure on the base?” He sets down the relations between the economic base and the cultural superstructure. He could boast that thirty years of Soviet rule and twenty years of central planning had transformed political and cultural life. But it had not revolutionised Russian grammar which could not be decided by decree. Replacing the Russian language with some new ‘proletarian’ language, Stalin mocked, would be as ridiculous as tearing up the railway lines that had been built under the Czar in order to travel on pure ‘Bolshevik’ tracks. He had some more fun in dismissing the suggestion that language was a means of production: ‘It is not difficult to see that were language capable of producing material wealth, wind-bags would be the richest men on earth.’
Stalin knew that ‘spoken language had helped human beings to emerge from the animal world, unite into communities, develop their faculty to think, organize social production.’ We can say something similar about music across the millennia, from harvest songs to hymns. Indeed, speech patterns determined musical ones until the latter were codified over and again after 400AD.
We can also compare grammar with harmony and counterpoint. Both abstract from concrete instances to provide laws and rules for individual cases. By contrast, melodies are in a state of almost constant replenishment keeping up with the flux of economic and social life.
What can Marxist-Leninists demand even under the rule of capital? Musical education must be integral to education for all children. Equitable funding means that school orchestras cease to be the preserve of tax-funded non-government schools.
By eliminating music and the visual arts, NAPLAN serial child abuse. Singing and playing together is a basis for sharing and becoming socialised, two pillars for successful learning in every subject and throughout life. Hence, it should not be too hard to conceive of a STEM curriculum almost entirely around music.
If every student is to be given a computer why not also clarinet?
Liking what I know
Not everyone who learns to play will be a Beethoven, a Miles Davis or a Deborah Cheetham. Nonetheless, a higher general level of appreciation of all kinds of music will lift the peaks of composition and performance, in part by making audiences better informed. Some 70 per cent of subscribers to classical musical concerts have learnt to play an instrument.
It’s not a matter of teaching everyone to prize Beethoven. Instead, one aim is to end the deprivation under which the majority never get a chance to find out what they think of his works from an awareness of how every kind of music works from the inside.
The professor of music at York, Wilfrid Mellors wrote books about Bach, Beethoven, the Beatles and Percy Grainger. His student, Andy Ford on the ABC’s Music Show brings the same expanse of enthusiasm and seriousness to every kind of music.
Many of us owe our awareness of classical music to the ABC, even in the decades before FM started in 1975. Another source from the late 1950s was the World Record Club and its associated Record Society, a commercial venture from EMI. Its mission was to serve music-lovers remote from record shops by mailing vinyls across the continent on a version of time-payment.
Today, access to recorded sound is almost too readily available, putting no more demands on us than does elevator music. Listening in a concert hall or at home ceases to be ‘Passive’ once we know how the Appassionata and the Choral work from the inside.
On one side there has been a commodification of passive listening and on the other side there has been a shrinkage of participation. Our class has lost the workplace brass and pipe bands which stirred 8-hour, Labour and May Day processions. Trade Union choirs are a tiny handful of the members, and often retirees since fewer wage-slaves yet again have the free time – unless they qualify for the Choir of Hard Knocks.
Creating the conditions for choruses and orchestras of millions strong is how we can make ‘class struggle the key link.’
Beethoven’s 250th has brought forth whines about his being a privileged white male. His being white and a male are absolute truths. But in what sense was he ‘privileged’? One, he did not die before his third birthday, as did his brothers Ludwig and Franz and his sister Maria. Two, his grandfather and father were Court musicians in Bonn. Three, after 1809, he received an annuity from three aristocratic patrons to compose whatever he wanted, whenever and in whatever manner he liked.
By the criteria of his day, Beethoven was born with certain advantages and died with many more. Unlike his patrons, he earned those privileges by hard work. He began music lessons aged four, performed in public at eight and published when he was twelve. We still know his name because he was a genius at composition.
How many of his po-faced detractors could fart Annie Laurie through a keyhole?
In any class-riven society, the chance to compose music is bound to be a privilege.
Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) was a privileged white woman who living off the rents and tithes from the peasants who paid for the convent where she was the Abbyss. Her music has been revived through the efforts of privileged white woman over the last forty years.
Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1739-1799) was a privileged Black male who could become a composer in Paris because his father was a wealthy planter in the West Indies.
Be it noted that neither Hildegard nor Saint-Georges made it into the 1980 edition of the Oxford Companion to Music. We know of them because of feminists and Black Power militants. How many more are to be added to the store of those who had been privileged enough to have opportunities to compose?
Far from mocking genius, we should take our lead from Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard (1751):
Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen.
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast
The little tyrant of his fields withstood;
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell guiltless of his country’s blood.
Part of encouraging musical appreciation is to do all we can to hear voices muted by class, gender and race.
Above all, Marxist-Leninists strive for a world in which the fullest development of individuals can be reached only by enriching our social relations. Then, we shall be on our way to meeting Marx’s call for the ‘development of human potentiality for its own sake, the true realm of freedom.’
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