Ode to ideology
By ROBERT EVERETT‑GREEN
The Globe and Mail
Saturday, June 21, 2003 ‑ Page R8
Your Beethoven is not my Beethoven, especially if you are the anonymous bidder who paid $3.47‑million last month for an autograph copy of the Symphony No. 9. Even if you aren't, your Beethoven may be more democratic, despotic or even more German than mine, because the central fact about Beethoven's current role in Western culture is that he is not one figure, but a multitude.
Politically, he has had more incarnations than Vishnu. Almost every European political movement, conservative or revolutionary, has made him a posthumous party member. Depending on who you might have talked to over the past two centuries, Beethoven was a Marxist, a Nazi, a parliamentary democrat and a monarchist. He celebrated kings, gave hope to the proletariat, and vigorously supported all sides during the Second World War.
No other composer ‑‑ probably no other artist of any kind ‑‑ has reflected so many conflicting views. You might say, echoing Jean‑Paul Sartre, that because there was a Beethoven, we have to go on reinventing him.
Any kind of mythification leaves a trail, and this one is so long and varied that several historians have written book‑length travelogues. The latest is Beethoven's Ninth: A Political History, by Esteban Buch (
In it, one can read about the many ironies of Beethoven appropriation, as reflected in endless partisan uses of a single piece of music. How could so many conflicting ideologues draw from the same well, and somehow leave the water clear for the next in line?
Part of the answer has to do with Beethoven's own muddled politics. His stature as a political symbol has always depended heavily on his biography, the facts of which offer something to support almost every conception of the body politic.
"He was a petit‑bourgeois who lived off the nobility and who scolded the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy equally with his big mouth," wrote Der Spiegel, in the midst of the Beethoven bicentenary in 1970. "He is reputed to have been a revolutionary, but not a very convincing one." This unusually tart summary, from a West German publication, was intended to deflate East German claims that Beethoven was a socialist. But it sums up the willful ambivalence of Beethoven's documented feelings about power and social change.
As a political composer, he was not prolific. He wrote a number of minor works to celebrate battles and royal birthdays, but propagandists customarily brush past these to get at what might be called the Big Five: the Symphonies No. 3, 5 and 9, the opera Fidelio, and the Overture to Egmont.
Music on its own has a notoriously loose connection to ideas about the world, so it may not be surprising that Nazis could hear the heroic Third symphony as a prescient yearning for Hitler, or that the Allies could convert the opening motto of the Fifth into a symbol of Hitler's impending defeat. It's more remarkable that text‑bearing works such as Fidelio and the Ninth could have been embraced equally by fascists and democrats.
The Third Reich was obliged to enlist Beethoven, and even clean up his suspect racial background, because he was already the most conspicuous symbol of Germanic culture. Fidelio was a favourite of Beethoven's socialist exegetes, so the piece had to be Nazified, if only to deny the enemy a refuge.
Practically everyone has had to mythologize the man to take control of the music. Wagner, perhaps the most influential architect of the Beethoven myth, posited both a revolutionary seer of international scope, and a "blood and iron" figure of specifically German cast. As David B. Dennis points out in his 1996 book, Beethoven in German Politics, 1870‑1989, Germans have been fighting over Beethoven in the same terms ever since.
Even the Freemasons, in their covert way, have laid claim to Beethoven, and their case looks even stronger with the publication of Maynard Solomon's Late Beethoven: Music, Thought, Imagination. In two central chapters, Solomon sifts through Beethoven's Masonic contacts and innumerable references to Masonic imagery, concluding that the man was a Mason in all but lodge membership.
The Ode to Joy has since had a career separate from the Ninth, as a hit pop song, as a national anthem for
Excerpting the tune at all has offended some Beethoven buffs, who point out that its musical merit lies in what Beethoven does with it in the symphony. On its own, it's a fairly banal ditty, but so are most anthems. It remains the all‑time hit single of classical music, though Buch concludes that "recognition of the Ode to Joy as a symbol of
Buch's study is at its best when he describes the Eurocrats' uneasy relations with Beethoven, least appealing in the turgid opening chapters about the various monuments raised to the composer since his death. It's not as clear a read as Dennis's account, and takes no notice of the Ninth's fortunes in the New World (surprisingly, since Buch is Argentinian) or in Asia, where performances of Daiku ("The Big Nine") are a year‑end ritual in Japan.
Neither book covers the domestication of Beethoven's image in recent times. Pop‑culture cameos in Charles Schulz's Peanuts cartoons and Classical Kids' Beethoven Lives Upstairs have made the composer seem less oppressively Olympian than he did to Schubert and Schumann.
Buch notes the shadow of Beethoven as it crosses Anthony Burgess's novel A Clockwork Orange, but misses the accuracy with which Burgess, a composer who wrote three symphonies and several concertos, put his finger on the violence in Beethoven's music. All of the "political" pieces have it, which may explain part of their appeal to those who have wanted to fire up multitudes to change the world or beat back the enemy. In the words of Burgess's street‑punk hero, who rapes two girls to a recording of the Ninth, the music "sort of sharpened me up, O my brothers, and made me feel like old Bog himself, ready to make with the old donner and blitzen."
Going a step further, we arrive at the newest and most contentious image of the political Beethoven, as described by feminist musicologist Susan McClary. In her book Feminine Endings: Music, Gender and Sexuality, McClary hears a very male psychosis at work in the Ninth, in which "explosive rage" is the only valid response to the composer's fear that his "thrusting desire" may not be musically sustainable. She quotes with approval poet Adrienne Rich's description of the symphony as the "beating of a bloody fist upon a splintered table."
Is this your Beethoven? It's not mine, though a current of forceful sexuality does seem to run through the work, along with a benign lyricism that could, in some instances, seem like a musical expression of universal sisterhood. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of Beethoven's many political lives is that almost all have some plausibility. He's all that they say he is, and a lot more besides.