Like the great French revolutionaries, Beethoven was convinced that he was writing for posterity. When (as frequently happened) musicians complained that they could not play his music because it was too difficult, he used to answer: "Don't worry, this is music for the future."
Beethoven's revolution in music was not understood by many of his contemporaries. They regarded this music as bizarre, hair-brained, even crazy. It jolted the philistines out of their comfortable reveries. Audiences resented it precisely because it compelled them to think what the music was about. Instead of pleasant and easy tunes, Beethoven confronted the listener with meaningful themes, with ideas conveyed in music. This tremendous innovation later became the basis of all Romantic music, culminating in the Leitmotifs of Wagner's vast musical dramas. The basis of all subsequent developments is Beethoven.
Of course, there is no shortage of great lyrical moments in Beethoven, as in the Sixth (Pastorale) symphony and the third movement of the Ninth. Even in the fiercest of battles there are moments of lull, but the lull never lasts long and is only the prelude to new periods of struggle. Such is the real significance of the slow movements in Beethoven. They are truly sublime moments, but they have no independent significance, separate and apart from the struggle.
Beethoven's themes mean something. Of course, this is not superficial programme music. The nearest thing to a descriptive programme is the Sixth Symphony, the Pastorale, where each movement is prefaced by a note that conveys a particular mood or setting ("Pleasant feelings on arriving in the countryside"; "By the brook"; "Shephards' merrymaking and storm" etc.). But this is an exception. The meaning of these themes is more abstract and general. Yet the implications are clear.
The Fifth symphony
A revolutionary spirit moves every bar of Beethoven's symphonies, especially the Fifth. The celebrated opening bars of this work () have been compared to Fate knocking at the door. These hammer blows are perhaps the most striking opening of any musical work in history. The conductor Nikolaus Harnancourt, whose recorded cycle of the Beethoven symphonies has been widely acclaimed, has said of this symphony: "This is not music; it is political agitation. It is saying to us: the world we have is no good. Let us change it! Let's go!" Another famous conductor and musicologist, John Elliot Gardener, has discovered that all the main themes in this symphony are based on French revolutionary songs.
This is the first symphony to trace in a systematic manner the progress from the minor to the major key. Although this transition had been done before, the irresistible development from minor to major, its dialectical development, has no precedents. Like the revolution itself, the struggle that unfolds in the development of Beethoven's Fifth passes through a whole series of phases: from a tremendous forward thrust that sweeps all before it to moments of indecision and despair, leading up to the last movement with its glorious blaze of triumph.
The central message of Beethoven's Fifth is struggle and triumph over all the odds. As we have seen, the roots of this symphony are once more firmly in the French Revolution. Yet its message does not depend on this, or any other association. It can communicate itself to many people in different circumstances. But the message is always the same: it is necessary to fight! Never surrender! In the end we will surely win!
The Germans who listened to it in Beethoven's lifetime derived inspiration to fight against the French occupiers of their native land. During the Second World War, the opening bars of the Fifth (which by coincidence are the musical equivalent of the Morse code signal for "V" - meaning victory) were used to rally the French people to fight the German occupiers. Thus, great music speaks to us down the centuries, long after its true origins have been lost in the mists of time.
Beethoven was a revolutionary in every sense of the word. The kind of music he wrote had never been heard before. Prior to this, music was mainly an aristocratic affair. Josef Haydn (whose father was a simple wheelwright) worked for the Esterhazy family for over thirty years. His music was designed mainly to please his aristocratic audiences. It is great music, without doubt, but also undemanding. Beethoven’s symphonies are another world.
Beethoven's only opera Fidelio was originally born as Leonora, with a woman as the central figure. Leonora was written in 1805 when the victorious French army had entered Vienna. On the first night most of the audience was made up of French officers and their ladies. Like the Eroica, it also has clear revolutionary overtones, especially in the famous prisoners' chorus. The political prisoners who slowly emerge from the darkness of their dungeon into the light of day sing a moving chorus: "Oh what joy to breathe free air..." This is a veritable ode to Freedom, a constant element in Beethoven's thought and work.
Likewise, the incidental music to the play Egmont, based on the events of the revolt of the Netherlands against Spanish rule, has an explicit revolutionary message. The historical Egmont was a Flemish nobleman in the 16th century, that terrible period when the Netherlands languished under the heel of Spanish despotism. A gifted and courageous soldier, Egmont fought on the Spanish side in the wars of Charles V, and was even made governor of Flanders by the Spanish. But despite his services to the Spanish Crown, he fell under suspicion and was beheaded in Brussels on June 5, 1568.
Beethoven learned the story of Egmont from the tragedy of that name written by Goethe in 1788, one year before the French Revolution. Here the man whose statue now stands in Brussels is presented as a hero of the war of national liberation of the Netherlands against the Spanish oppressors. Beethoven set Goethe’s play to music. He saw Egmont as a symbol of the revolutionary struggle against tyranny at all times and in every country. By placing the action in the 16th century, he could avoid the accusation of subversion, but subversive it was.
Today only the famous Egmont Overture is well known. This is a pity because Beethoven’s Incidental Music to Egmont contains other marvellous material. Egmont’s final speech, as he goes calmly to his death, is a veritable denunciation of tyranny and a courageous call to the people to revolt and, if necessary, to give their lives to the cause of freedom. It ends with the following lines:
Forward, good people! The goddess
of victory leads you. And as the sea
breaks through your dikes, so
crush, tear down tyranny's
ramparts, and sweep them,
drowning, from the ground
which they usurp.
Listen, listen! How often this sound
would call me to step out eagerly
towards the field of battle and
victory! How lightheartedly did
the comrades stride on their
perilous way! I too will step
from this dungeon towards an honourable
death: I die for the freedom which I
have lived and fought for, and to which I
now offer myself up as sorrowful victim.
Yes, rally them all!
Close your ranks, you do not
frighten me. I am used to
standing betwixt spears, and,
beset by imminent death,
to feel my courageous life blood
coursing twice as quickly through my veins.
Friends, pluck up courage! Behind you
are your parents, your wives, your children.
But these people are driven on by their ruler's
empty words, not by their own inclination.
Friends, defend what is yours! and
fall gladly to save those you love most,
and follow as I lead.
These words are followed by the Victory Symphony, which ends the work in a blaze of fire (listen). But how can one end a tragedy on such a note? How can one speak of victory when the leader of the rebellion has been executed? This little detail tells us all we need to know about Beethoven’s outlook. Here we have a stubborn and incorrigible optimist, a man who refuses to admit defeat, a man with a boundless confidence in the future of humanity. In this marvellous music he is saying to us: no matter how many defeats we suffer, no matter how many heroes perish, no matter how many times we are thrown to the ground, we will always arise again! You can never defeat us! For you can never conquer our minds and souls. This music expresses the undying spirit of revolution.
The long dark night
Beethoven’s revolutionary optimism was about to experience its most serious test. Despite the fact that Napoleon had restored all the outward forms of the Ancien Regime, the fear and loathing for Napoleonic France in monarchist Europe was no less than before. The crowned heads of Europe feared the revolution even in the degenerate, twisted form of Bonapartism, just as later they feared and hated Stalin’s bureaucratic caricature of October. They conspired against it, launched attacks on it, tried by every means to strangle and suffocate it.
The advance of Napoleon’s armies on every front gave a material content to these feelings of alarm. The reactionary monarchist regimes of Europe, led by England with its limitless supplies of gold, exerted every nerve and sinew to confront the threat from France. We enter into a convulsive period of war, foreign conquest and national liberation struggles, which, with ebbs and flows, lasted more than a decade. Napoleon’s Grande Armée conquered almost the whole of Continental Europe before finally suffering a serious defeat in the frozen wastes of Russia in 1812. Weakened by this heavy blow, Napoleon was finally defeated by an Anglo-Prussian force on the muddy fields of Waterloo.
For Beethoven the year 1815 was marked by two disasters: one on the world stage, the other of a personal character: the defeat of France at Waterloo and the death of the composer’s beloved brother Kasper. Deeply affected by the loss of his brother, Beethoven insisted on taking charge of the upbringing of his son, Karl. This led to a long and bitter wrangle with Karl’s mother over custody.
The period after 1815 was one of black reaction. Monarchist-feudal counter-revolution triumphed all along the line. The Congress of Vienna (1814-15) reinstated the rule of the Bourbons in France. Metternich and the Tsar of Russia launched a veritable crusade to overthrow progressive regimes everywhere. Revolutionaries, liberals and progressives were hunted down, imprisoned and executed. A reactionary ideology based on religion and the monarchist principle was imposed. Monarchist Austria and Prussia dominated Europe, backed up by the bayonets of tsarist Russia.
It is true that the war against France contained elements of a war of national liberation in countries like Germany. But the outcome was entirely reactionary. The clearest case of this was Spain. Foreign rule was overthrown by a national movement, the main component of which was the "dark masses" - a downtrodden and illiterate peasantry, under the influence of a fanatical and reactionary clergy. Under the reign of Fernando VII, reaction reigned in Spain, where the experiment with a liberal constitution was crushed underfoot.
The magnificent, tortured paintings of Goya’s last years reflect the essence of this turbulent period. Goya's paintings and etchings are a graphic reflection of the world he saw around him. Like the music of Beethoven, these paintings are more than art. They are a political statement. They are an angry protest against the prevailing spirit of reaction and obscurantism. As if to underline his protest, Goya chose the road of voluntary self-exile from the repressive regime of the traitor king Fernando VII, his old protector. Goya was not alone in his hatred of the Spanish monarch - Beethoven refused to send him his works.
By 1814 - the date of the Congress of Vienna - Beethoven was at the pinnacle of his career. But the gathering reaction throughout Europe which buried the hopes of a generation had a dampening effect on Beethoven's spirit. In 1812, when Napoleon’s army was halted at the gates of Moscow, Beethoven was working on his Seventh and Eighth symphonies. Then, after 1815, silence. He wrote no more symphonies for almost a decade, when he wrote his last, and greatest symphony.
The final defeat of what remained of the French Revolution buried all hopes and suffocated the creative drive. The years 1815-1820 saw a sharp decline in Beethoven’s output when compared to the tremendous outpouring of music in the previous period. Only six works of note were produced in as many years. They include the song cycle An der fernte Geliebte (To the distant loved one), the last sonatas for cello and piano, the opus 101 piano sonatas and the great Hammerklavier sonata, a work full of inner contradictions and discord, possibly reflecting the discord in his personal life.
He was now profoundly deaf. We read heartbreaking stories of his struggle to hear something of his own compositions. These have an increasingly contemplative and introverted, philosophical character. The slow movement of the Hammerklavier sonata, for instance, is openly tragic, reflecting a sense of acceptance. Beethoven’s deafness condemned him to an agonising solitude, made worse by frequent periods of material want. He became ever more introverted, moody and suspicious, which only served to isolate him still more from other people.
After the death of his brother he developed an obsession with his nephew Karl and became convinced that he should be in charge of the boy’s upbringing. He used all his influence to get custody over his nephew and then denied Karl’s mother access to her son. Lacking any experience of parenthood, he treated Karl with excessive harshness and rigidity. This eventually led Karl to attempt suicide – a devastating blow for Beethoven. Later they became reconciled, but the whole business led only to great unhappiness and pain for everyone concerned.
What was the reason for this strange obsession? Despite his passionate nature, Beethoven never succeeded in forming a satisfactory relationship with a woman and had no children of his own. All his emotions were poured into his music. This was to the eternal benefit of humanity, but it undoubtedly left a void in Beethoven’s personal life. No longer a young man, deaf, lonely and facing the shipwreck of all his hopes, he was desperately seeking to fill the void in his soul.
Thwarted in the political sphere, Beethoven threw himself into what he imagined was the family life he had never had. This kind of situation is well known to revolutionaries. Whereas in times of revolutionary upsurge, personal and family matters seem to pale into insignificance, in periods of reaction, such things assume a far greater significance, inducing some people to drop out of the movement and to seek refuge in the bosom of the family.
It is true that this affair does not show Beethoven in the best light, and some small-minded people have tried to use the Karl episode to blacken Beethoven’s name. Such accusations bring to mind Hegel’s remark that no man is a hero to his valet, who sees all the faults of his personal life, his eccentricities and vices. But as Hegel comments, the valet may criticise these failings. His range of vision does not see any further than such trivial matters and that explains why he will only ever be a valet and not a great man. For all his failings (and failings are inevitable to all humans), Beethoven was one of the greatest men who ever lived.
Despite everything, in this long, dark night of reaction, Beethoven never lost faith in the future of humanity and in the revolution. It has now become commonplace to refer to his great humanitarianism. This is correct as far as it goes but it does not go far enough. It places Beethoven on the same level as parsons, pacifists and well-meaning old ladies who dedicate their spare time to “worthy causes”. That is to say, it places a giant on the same level as a pygmy.
Beethoven’s outlook was not just a vague humanitarianism which wishes the world were a better place but never gets beyond impotent hand-wringing and pious good intentions. Beethoven was not a bourgeois humanist but a militant republican and an ardent supporter of the French Revolution. He was not prepared to surrender to the prevailing reaction or to compromise with the status quo. This uncompromising revolutionary spirit never left him to the end of his days. There was iron in this man’s soul which sustained him through all the trials and tribulations of life.
His deafness lasted for the last nine years of his life. One by one he had lost his most trusted friends and was utterly alone. In this desperate solitude, Beethoven was reduced to communicating to people in writing. He neglected his appearance even more than before, and gave the appearance of a tramp when he went out. Yet even in such tragic circumstances, he was working on his greatest masterpieces.
Like Goya in his black period, he was now composing not for the public but for himself, finding expression for his innermost thoughts. The music of his last years is the product of the maturity of old age. It is not beautiful music but very profound. It transcends Romanticism and points the way forward to the tortured world of our own times.
Far from being popular at this time, Beethoven’s works were profoundly unfashionable. They were against the spirit of the times. In times of reaction, the public does not want profound ideas. Thus, after the defeat of the Paris Commune, the frivolous light operettas of Offenbach were all the rage. The bourgeoisie of Paris did not want to be reminded of storm and stress but to drink champagne and watch the antics of pretty chorus girls. The merry but superficial tunes of Offenbach reflected this spirit perfectly.
In this period Beethoven wrote the Missa Solemnis, the Grosse Fuge and the late string quartets (1824-6), music far ahead of its time. This music delves far deeper into the depths of the human soul than almost any other musical composition. Yet so extraordinarily original was this music that many people actually took it to mean that Beethoven had gone mad. Beethoven paid absolutely no attention to all this. He cared nothing for public opinion and was never discreet in expressing his views. This was dangerous. Only his status as a famous composer kept him out of prison.
We should bear in mind that at this time Austria was one of the main centres of European reaction. Not only politics but also cultural life was suffocated. The emperor’s police spies were on every street corner. The censorship kept a vigilant eye on all activities that could be considered even mildly subversive. Under such circumstances, the respectable Viennese bourgeois did not want to listen to music intended to rouse them to struggle for a better world. They preferred to have their ears gently tickled by the comic operas of Rossini – the composer of the hour. By contrast, Beethoven’s great Missa Solemnis was a flop.
The torment in the great man’s soul found its reflection in that strange composition known as the Grosse Fuge. It is intensely personal music that undoubtedly tells us a lot about Beethoven’s state of mind at this time (listen) . Here we are in the presence of a world of conflict, dissonance and unresolved contradictions. It was not what the public wanted to hear.
The Ninth symphony
Beethoven had long been considering the idea of a choral symphony, and took as his text from Schiller's Ode to Joy, which he had known since 1792. In fact, Schiller had originally considered an Ode to Freedom (Freiheit), but because of the enormous pressure of the reactionary forces, he changed the word to Joy (Freude). However, for Beethoven and his generation the message was quite clear. This was an Ode to Freedom.
The first sketch for the Ninth symphony dates back to 1816, one year after the battle of Waterloo. It was finished seven years later, in 1822-24, after the Philharmonic Society of London had offered the sum of 50 pounds for two symphonies. Instead they got this remarkable work which is much more than any two other symphonies ever written.
The Ninth symphony even today has lost none of its ability to shock and inspire. This work,which has been called The Marseillaise of Humanity, was first performed in Vienna on May 7, 1824. In the midst of universal reaction, this music expresses the voice of revolutionary optimism. It is the voice of a man who refuses to admit defeat, whose head remains unbowed in adversity.
Its long first movement arises gradually out of nebulous chords, so indistinct that they seem to emerge out of darkness, like the primaeval chaos that was supposed to precede Creation. It is like a man saying: “Yes, we have passed through a dark night when all seemed hopeless, but the human spirit is capable of emerging triumphant from the darkest night.”
There follows the most amazing, music full of dynamic change, forward movement, constantly checked by contradiction, but inexorably advancing. It is like the first movement of the Fifth, but on an infinitely bigger scale. Like the Fifth, this is violent music, and it is revolutionary violence that tolerates no opposition, but sweeps everything before it. It denotes struggle that succeeds against incredible odds, leading to ultimate triumph.
Such music had never been heard before. It was something entirely new and revolutionary. It is impossible today to comprehend the impact it must have made on the audience. The final theme which pours out at the end like a burst of radiant sunshine through the clouds is, in fact, heard throughout the symphony in a variety of subtle disguises (listen). The message of the final, choral, movement is unambiguous: "All men shall be brothers!" This is Beethoven's final message to humanity. It is a message of hope - and defiance.
Beethoven, old, dishevelled, unkempt and completely deaf, conducted the symphony. He was unable even to keep time correctly, waving his arms furiously in the air, even after the orchestra had stopped playing. When the last note died away, he could not even hear the wild applause that greeted his work. The great man stood facing the orchestra for a few moments. Then the contralto Karoline Unger gently took him by the shoulders and turned him round to face the public. Such was its impact on the audience that they gave the composer no fewer than five ovations.
So great was the tumult that the Vienna police – ever on the lookout for manifestations of dangerous public demonstrations – finally had to intervene to stop it. After all, three ovations was considered the limit even for the emperor. Would such a demonstration of enthusiasm not be considered an offence to His Majesty? The instinctive reaction of the police was not mistaken. There is indeed something profoundly subversive in the Ninth, from the first bar to the last.
The Ninth symphony was a success, but it made no money. Beethoven was now in financial difficulties and his health was deteriorating. He caught pneumonia and had to undergo an operation. The wound became infected and his last days were spent in agony.
Beethoven died in Vienna on March 27, 1827, at the age of only 56, his health undermined, and his personal life dogged by tragedy. Goya, who was also deaf, died in the same year. 25,000 people turned out for his funeral - a fact which shows the extent to which his genius had been recognised in his lifetime. Yet he remains alive today, as vibrant and relevant as ever. As was the man, so was his music. In his music we feel we have the whole man. We feel that we have known and loved him all our lives.
Beethoven's greatness consists in the fact that in his music the individual is at one with the universal. This is music which constantly suggests a struggle to overcome all obstacles and rise to a higher state. His music was revolutionary because in its searing intensity, it cast light on aspects of the human condition never before expressed in music. It was truth expressed in music.
The Ninth symphony was Beethoven’s last word – a fearless challenge to the apparently triumphant reaction that seemed to be all-powerful after the defeat of the French armies in 1815. That apparently final victory of the forces of reaction led to a wave of dispondancy and defeatism that suffocated the hopes of the generation that looked for salvation to the French Revolution. Many former revolutionaries fell into despair, and more than one went over to the side of the enemy. It is a very familiar picture to our own generation, with uncanny parallels to the situation that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Then also it seemed that Europe lay prostrate at the feet of royalist reaction. Who could stand against such a power as the united monarchical powers of Europe, with the might of the Russian Tsar behind every throne and police spies on every street corner? Despotism and religious obscurantism were triumphant. Everywhere there was silence as of the grave. And yet, in the midst of this terrible desolation, a brave man raised his voice and gave the world a message of hope. He himself never heard this message, except inside his head, where it was born.
But the defeat of France and the re-imposition of the Bourbons could not prevent the rise of capitalism and the bourgeoisie, nor halt the tide of revolution, which broke out again and again: in 1830, 1848, 1871. The system of production which had triumphed in England now began to penetrate other European countries. Industry, the power loom, the railways, the steamship, were the motor forces of universal and irresistible change.
The ideas of the French Revolution – the ideas of liberty, equality, fraternity, and the rights of man – continued to grip the imagination of the new generation. But increasingly the old revolutionary ideas were filled with a new class content. The rise of capitalism meant the development of industry and the working class – the bearer of a new idea and a new stage in human history – socialism.
The music of Beethoven was the starting point for a new school of music, Romanticism, which was inextricably linked to Revolution. In April 1849, in the heat of revolution in Germany, the young composer Richard Wagner conducted Beethoven’s Ninth symphony in Dresden. In the audience was the Russian anarchist, Bakunin, whose ideas influenced Wagner in his youth. Enthused by the music, Bakunin told Wagner that if there was anything worth saving from the ruins of the old world, this score would be it.
Just ninety years after the death of Beethoven the Russian Tsar was himself overthrown by the working class. The October Revolution was to play a role similar to that of the French Revolution. It inspired generations of men and women with a vision of a new and better world. True, the Russian Revolution degenerated, under conditions of frightful backwardness, into a monstrous caricature that Trotsky, using an historical analogy with the French Revolution, characterised as proletarian Bonapartism. And just as Napoleon’s dictatorship undermined the French Revolution and led to the restoration of the Bourbons, so the Stalinist bureaucratic dictatorship in Russia has led to the restoration of capitalism.
Today, in a world dominated by the forces of triumphant reaction, we face a similar situation to that faced by Beethoven and his generation after 1815. Now, as then, many former revolutionaries have abandoned the struggle. We will not join the camp of the cynics and sceptics, but prefer to follow the example of Ludwig van Beethoven. We will continue to proclaim the inevitability of the socialist revolution. And history will prove us right.
Those who predict the end of history have been proved wrong many times. History is not so easy to stop! Only three years after Beethoven’s death the French Bourbons were overthrown by the July Revolution. This was followed by revolutions all over Europe in 1848-9. Then there was the Paris Commune of 1871, the first genuine workers’ revolution in history, which paved the way for the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.
Therefore, we see no reason for pessimism. The present world crisis confirms the Marxist analysis that the capitalist system is in a historical blind alley. We confidently predict that the collapse of the Soviet Union, far from being the end of history, is only the prelude to its first act. The second act will be the overthrow of capitalism in one country or another, which will prepare the way for a new revolutionary wave on a scale never before seen in history.
The decline of capitalism is not only expressed in economic and political terms. The impasse of the system is reflected not only in the stagnation of the productive forces but also in a general stagnation of culture. Yet, as always happens in history, beneath the surface new forces are struggling to be born. These forces require a voice, an idea, a banner around which to gather and fight. That will come in time, and when it does it will not only come in the shape of political programmes. It will find its expression in music and art, in novels and poetry, in the theatre and cinema. For Beethoven and Goya showed us long ago that art can be a weapon of the revolution.
Like the great French revolutionaries – Robespierre, Danton, Marat and Saint-Juste – Beethoven was convinced that he was writing for posterity. When (as frequently happened) musicians complained that they could not play his music because it was too difficult, he used to answer: "Don't worry, this is music for the future." We can say the same about the ideas of socialism. They represent the future, while the discredited ideas of the bourgeoisie represent the past. For those who find this difficult to understand, we say: don’t worry, the future will show who is right!
In the future, when men and women look back on the history of revolutions and the repeated attempts to create a genuinely human society based on true freedom, equality and fraternity, they will remember the man who, using for his medium music that he could not hear, fought for a better tomorrow that he would never see. They will relive the great battles of the past and they will understand the language of Beethoven: the universal language of the fight for the establishment of a world fit for free men and women to live in.
First of May, 2006
- Beethoven: man, composer and revolutionary - Part one (May 19, 2006)
- Figaro and the French Revolution by Alan Woods (May 2001)
- Art and the Class Struggle by Alan Woods (July 2001)
- Marxism and art. Introduction to Trotsky's writings on Art and Culture by Alan Woods (December 2000)