Fate, Rebellion, And Humanity: Beethoven Behind His Music

The Viennese loved Beethoven in the early 1800s, for reasons slightly different from our own.

Du-du-du-duhhhm. Fate strikes as a bolt of lightning, a cacophony that offends the senses. The motif calls and answers, from the highest strings to the lowest, then all together at once. Further and further pressed down to your seat, you’re met with the torrent with no choice but to be washed away. One of the most iconic openings in classical music spawned from the mind of a musical and political revolutionary, Beethoven.

Ludwig van Beethoven was born around 1770 in Germany, but spent most of his life as composer in Vienna, Austria. At the time in Vienna, music was thriving as the greatest source of people’s entertainment. Beethoven was entrenched in this very world from a young age. Under his father, who was a musician himself, he was pushed through a rigorous education that often involved the father’s alcoholism and bullying. Soon, talent shone through his studies, and he was quickly introduced to important names in music, including one of the most successful composers at the time, Haydn, who would later become his tutor. Through his patron, he was now also connected to three Princes throughout the Austro-Hungarian aristocracy. This and many other relations meant that when Beethoven arrived at Vienna, scarcely past twenty years old, he was met with quite a smooth access to the city’s wealthy patronage network.

Beethoven street art
Image by Richard Mcall from Pixabay

The Viennese upper-class were fierce advocates for musical “greatness.” They found in Beethoven, as they had in Mozart and Haydn, the grand essence of music that they craved. At the turn of the 19th century, the Viennese elite were slowly losing their grip. The middle class was rising, both in population and in wealth, and aristocrats were struggling to differentiate themselves from them. While the type of concerts one attended was a major marker of social status, more and more “commoners” now had the money to attend, and even sponsor, those private concerts that had before been reserved for the numbered elite. When Beethoven showed up as a rising star, the Viennese aristocracy jumped on the opportunity: here was somebody new that could be their next “hot” composer. By sponsoring Beethoven, you were showcasing to the public that not only did you have money—everybody seemed to have money all of a sudden—but that you spent it on the right talent, on true taste.

With the hoard of resources Beethoven was granted, which an aspiring composer could only dream of—a lineup of teachers, musicians, and a private string quartet and orchestra entirely at his disposal—he didn’t need to waste time looking around for wealthy patrons or to stick to familiar compositions that people already liked. He dove deep, risked strange new harmonies, and evolved into the “genius” that we now know dearly.

Beethoven platz Vienna
Beethovenplatz Monument Vienna. Credit: wien.info

Indeed, Beethoven is now famous for having pioneered the Romanticism movement in music. Before his time, Romanticism was restricted to literature, in which writers all over Europe were grappling with new ways to express emotion and the human experience. Beethoven absorbed this very idea into sound, which is evident through the evolution of his symphonies. He starts out by writing symphonies not unlike Haydn’s and Mozart’s in its Classical style, such as in its predictable harmony progressions and solid, unwavering rhythm. In his later works, he takes countless steps at a time into the unknown, breaking conventions of how a symphony must sound like, stretching and breaking rhythm, involving passion instead of perfection. In his famous Ninth Symphony (“Ode to Joy”), he was the first to include the human voice into a symphonic work.

For somebody so successfully entangled with the aristocracy, Beethoven hated hierarchy with a passion. It was uncommon, if not entirely looked down upon, to be a radical in Vienna at the time, but Beethoven was fearlessly invested in civil struggles. He greatly sympathized with the French Revolution, and had initially dedicated his Third Symphony to Napoleon (he angrily scratched out the dedication when he learned that Napoleon was going to be crowned king, and did not turn out as the socialist that Beethoven had idolized.) While Viennese society was reserved in their political expressions, Beethoven gladly prodded their minds, both through his revolutionary music as well as his relations: He famously had the nerve to say to a Prince, who was one of his most generous donors, “Prince, what you are, you are by circumstance and birth; what I am, I am through myself. There are, and always will be, thousands of princes; but there is only one Beethoven.”

Beethoven art sculptures
Image by Valdas Miskinis from Pixabay

Even now, however, scholars disagree over how much of Beethoven’s behavior was actually radical. Although Beethoven was very much aware of the political climate around him, he was also situated right in the middle of the aristocracy that he supposedly hated. His “genius” relied on the social connections, sponsorships, and education that he was so easily granted—the Viennese elite just so happened to need him to legitimize their social standing. We would not know of Beethoven today if the aristocracy didn’t hold as much power back then, or weren’t so desperate to hold on to their power through Beethoven.

We have reason to think that Beethoven’s music, in fact, wasn’t so political as we were first inclined to think. There exists a “political slipperiness” between the objective experience of political events and the Romantic idea of human emotion and ambiguity, which Beethoven himself had kickstarted in his music. Expressing aesthetics, that is, how somebody feels something, is inherently apolitical. Beethoven’s entire musical ideology rested on what is felt inside somebody’s mind, not what should or shouldn’t be in the real world.

The beginning notes of Beethoven’s Fifth—da-da-da-duuuum–is a dramatic, as well as a political, opening. Luigi Cherubini, a composer whom Beethoven admired, used this very four-note rhythm in Hymne au Panthéon. Not only here, but this musical pattern appeared everywhere among Revolutionaries, not least the anthem for the Revolution, “La Marseillaise.” As you listen on, however, and as this fearsome motif overlaps, overcomes, and mounts on top of the last one, falling into an inevitable “volcanic eruption”—you’re terrified, struck dumb. The low, grumbling callings of fate, flashes of lightning, a kind of terror that only a force of nature could conceivably carry. Far from inspired to revolt against it, your thoughts are empty. You succumb to music as you succumb to a storm.

In reality, Beethoven’s Fifth (nor any of his other works) “did not spill over into the streets, but instead remained contained in the concert venue.” Historian Rhys Jones critiques that Beethoven’s music was just that: music, an appreciation of beautiful sounds. It did not inspire action, nor was it intended to. Suffering from an ear infection that sank him into deafness over many painful years, Beethoven knew just as well as anyone how it was to succumb to fate, to be powerless against forces bigger than yourself.

After all, his Fifth Symphony was not an anthem. It was not an attack against fate but a submission to it. It was not how you could start things, but how things would eventually end. It was not a battle cry, but a lament.

Lyon Nishizawa

Contributor

Lyon is a lifelong traveler, who looks at each destination as her next classroom and playground. She is fascinated by the stories, music, and languages of the world. Her parents are Japanese, but she spent her childhood in multiple cultures and identifies as a third culture kid.

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