Ludwig van Beethoven: revolutionary composer

Issue: 169

Sabby Sagall

December 2020 marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven, one of Europe’s greatest composers, a musician of a revolutionary era who revolutionised music.1 Why should socialists be interested? The answer is twofold. Firstly, the need for music and the ability to produce and enjoy it, is an essential element in human nature: every human society known to our history has produced some characteristic musical style.

Secondly, the confinement of classical musical education to the children of the elite and the middle class, and the termination of musical education or the reduced opportunity for under-privileged children to enjoy many kinds of “art-music”, is an expression of profound deprivation, rooted in capitalist alienation, exploitation and oppression.

Thirdly, art is not merely a “mirror” of the world, but a practical intervention into it. Music, like the other arts, tells us truths about the world through its impact on our emotional life. As the Russian revolutionary and art theorist Leon Trotsky put it, art helps us orient ourselves in the world. Yet it also does more than that. The music of Beethoven, for example, did not merely reflect revolutionary Europe and North America in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but helped to shape that world.

Importantly, there is a certain homology or structural correspondence between society and music. For example, the 18th century classical style’s bass line has become the treble line’s equal partner in melodic development; the French Revolution’s values of “liberty, equality and fraternity” seem to liberate the bass from its role of service to the upper instruments, a process already evident in Johann Sebastian Bach’s late baroque style.2

Beethoven had famously dedicated his Third or “Eroica” Symphony to Napoleon, whom he believed to be a great revolutionary, democratic leader. However, when Napoleon declared himself Emperor of the French in 1804, Beethoven, republican and democrat that he was, scratched out the dedication, writing, “Now he too will trample on the rights of man!” Beethoven is the classical composer whose work immediately conjures up both political and musical revolutionary ideas. He was strongly attracted to the ideals and values of the Enlightenment and scorned traditional authority and social rank. He admired the British system of government and its two-party system, which he saw as democratic.3 The influence of French revolutionary music on, for example, his Fifth Symphony, has been frequently remarked on. In general, he seems to have had republican sympathies. According to musical historian John Clubbe, “Beethoven’s ideal for Austrian society would have been a republic.” He adds, “Admittedly, Beethoven did regard republics as the best solution.” Clubbe also quotes a letter to Theodora Johanna Vocke in Nuremberg, dated 22 May 1793. There, Beethoven writes, in a clear indication of his opposition to the Austrian monarchy, “Love liberty above all else”.4 Also relevant is his “Wellingtons Sieg” (Wellington’s Victory), which celebrates the British victory over the French at Vitoria in 1813, as is his use of “God Save the King” and “Rule Britannia” as themes for variations; all these perhaps testify to his admiration for the British parliamentary system.5 Despite his later conservatism, he seemed convinced, early on, of the revolution’s ideals. The musicologist Hugo Leichtentritt concluded that “spiritually, he is a son of the French Revolution”.6

Unlike Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Beethoven refused to be ranked as a servant to noble families, considering himself socially their equal, and spiritually their superior by dint of his genius. He was once walking in a park in the Bohemian city of Teplice with the great German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe when the imperial family approached; Goethe bowed respectfully, infuriating Beethoven who stormed off in the opposite direction.7 Of course, Beethoven had to be careful as censorship was becoming increasingly harsh, and he depended on his aristocratic patrons.8 As a young man in Vienna, studying with Haydn, he was already aware of his artistic capabilities, showing a lack of respect for the established powers. He had “a proud demeanour, and a self-assertiveness that shocked the modest Haydn”, who dubbed him the “Turkish pasha”.9 He became the darling of the Viennese nobility, a factor in his later political conservatism.

Beethoven was born in 1770 into a family of musicians in Bonn, a small town of 10,000 inhabitants, the capital of the Archbishopric of Cologne until 1794 when French revolutionary forces occupied the city. The world he was born into was that of a Germany of scattered principalities dominated by a powerful Prussian state, to be united only in 1871. In contrast to England and France, Germany did not experience a bourgeois revolution—a social transformation resulting in the bourgeoisie winning political power. Its absence can be ascribed to several factors: the defeat of the peasants’ revolts in 1524-5 and the devastation caused by the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48), which destroyed the cities economically and politically. Friedrich Engels remarks that “the peasants, plebeians and ruined burghers were reduced to a state of Irish misery” by these events.10 The decline of the cities also resulted from the conquest of the Americas and the shifting focus of international trade from Central Europe and the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. These factors resulted in an economically and politically weak bourgeois class, strengthening the princes, who no longer faced a challenge to their position as great feudal landowners. The powerlessness of the German bourgeoisie and their exclusion from politics, induced a passivity which affected the entire cultural life of the period.

In Austria and Germany, the Thirty Years’ War had bequeathed a legacy of destruction and chaos, as well as the dominance of a foreign power—France. Germany, especially Prussia, had been further impoverished by the Seven Years’ War (1756-63). Moreover, after the death of Bach in 1750, the Saxony and Thuringia regions of Germany, having been the cradle of Protestant church music, went into decline. Berlin did become a centre of music due to the sponsorship of Prussia’s King Frederick II “the Great”, but he favoured Italian and French music over German work.

From feudalism to capitalism

Feudal society was based on local production and consumption. Economic and political power was decentralised and vested in the landowning nobility who exploited the peasantry, compelling them to surrender either part of their labour or their produce. Nevertheless, improved production and the growth of trade stimulated urban development. Decentralised political structures meant that towns that developed as commercial centres could achieve relative independence from the feudal lords. The town became the centre of economic activity for a new class, the bourgeoisie, ancestor of today’s capitalist class. With this came new political structures and ideas, so that as the bourgeoisie’s economic power grew, so did its social and political weight.11

These changes produced a modified form of feudal rule and the growth of centralised absolute monarchies. “Economic and social life had begun to outgrow the local horizons of feudalism. This laid the basis for the development of bigger, more unified ‘national’ economies and states”.12 Absolutism expressed this transformation, with kings acting to curb the independent power of local feudal lords and build a unified, centralised state.

In France, the economic rise of the bourgeoisie and the market steadily undermined the power of the monarchy and the nobility, developments which culminated in the great French Revolution of 1789. The rise of the bourgeoisie and the decline or overthrow of the feudal aristocracy found expression in many areas of social endeavour such as music and the arts, but also in science and in people’s economic and political lives. The 17th and 18th centuries in Europe witnessed a historically unprecedented growth of scientific enquiry, the fruits of which were an enormous expansion of knowledge and its application to the economic development of society. By 1760, that process had changed many ordinary people from agricultural labourers into machine-builders and mechanical workers whose individual productive capacity had been multiplied many times over.13

In Austria and Germany, the old regimes survived, but the power of the aristocracy gradually eroded. Reforming Austrian emperor Joseph II, following in the footsteps of his mother Empress Maria Theresa, attempted to abolish serfdom but fell foul of the entrenched power of the nobility. His Patent of Toleration of 1781, a good example of “enlightened despotism”, granted religious freedom of worship to Lutherans, Calvinists and Serbian Orthodox Christians. Despite opposition from the papacy, this was followed a year later by the Edict of Tolerance, which extended religious freedom to Jews. Joseph II was partially motivated by economic considerations—the emigration of Austria’s Protestant population would have led to a slump. Nevertheless, these measures were still pushed back upon by the Esterházy family, patrons of Joseph Haydn. Their palace, an attempt to recreate the glory of France’s “Sun King”, Louis XIV, in Austria, was “an oasis, even a mirage, in a desert of misery, depending on serfdom for its existence”.14 Ultimately, the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 prompted Joseph to reverse his reforms.

Neverthelesss, on a European scale, the days of the feudal landlords and Catholicism’s ideological dominance were numbered. The feudal system and ideology were gradually undermined by the rising bourgeois class, whose mercantile and industrial system was proving to be economically superior. The waning of the old regimes, the setting of the feudal sun and the rise of the star of the bourgeoisie, could be seen even in imperial Austria. There, freemasonry—at that time, a genuinely progressive movement rather than a businessman’s mutual aid society—upheld the ideals of the Enlightenment and the power of reason and science to reshape society according to the values of the French Revolution: liberty, equality, fraternity.15

The European political context

Between 1796 and 1815, Europe had been devastated by the French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. From the Atlantic seaboard to Moscow, ideological conflicts had been transformed into national military clashes. The banner proclaiming “liberty, fraternity, equality” had been bloodied by The Terror of 1793-4, and with Napoleon as military leader, France embarked on a campaign that turned defence of the revolution into a cover for achieving European domination. However shocking the excesses of the infant French Republic’s guillotine may have been (some 16,594 were executed), they were dwarfed by the carnage of the wars between 1796 and 1815, which killed some two and a half a million soldiers and one million civilians.16

After Napoleon’s defeat, the Congress of Vienna sat for around a year with four key victorious nations represented—Britain, Russia, Prussia and Austria—together with the vanquished France, which was officially present only as an observer. The main concern of the principal governments was to return to the traditional “balance of power”, which they believed would deter any state or alliance of states from attempts at domination.

The allies displayed great leniency towards France, restoring the Bourbon dynasty and France’s 1792 boundaries (larger than those of 1789). These measures were dictated by the need to keep France’s state strong enough to resist possible future revolutionary upheavals. Negotiating with France’s arch-diplomat, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, no reparations were demanded, on the understanding that France would support Austria and Britain and help to prevent Russia from expanding westwards and linking up with Prussia.17 However, measures were taken to prevent renewed aggression by France.

The heart of the strategy of the great powers that united under this “congress system” was intervention and restoration. Under the leadership of Austrian chancellor Prince Klemens von Metternich, the alliance that became known as the “Concert of Europe” planned to intervene in any country threatened by liberal or bourgeois nationalist ideologies of the kind that had kindled the French Jacobins. However, despite these Herculean efforts to prevent a second French revolution or a “catastrophic” spread of revolution on the French model, they were battling against the tide. “Rarely has the incapacity of governments to hold up the course of history been more conclusively demonstrated than in the generation after 1815”.18 Throughout Europe, the revolutionary atmosphere was endemic and combustible, as likely to be ignited by a spontaneous spark as by deliberate agitation. The Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm notes:

The political systems reimposed on Europe were profoundly and, in a period of rapid social change, increasingly inadequate for the political conditions of the continent. The economic and social discontents were so acute as to make a series of outbreaks virtually inevitable.19

Moreover, as Richard Evans adds, “Napoleon had stimulated among educated elites the belief that freedom from oppression could only be achieved on the basis of national self-determination”.20

The model of 1789 gave the discontent a focus, helping to transform unrest into revolution and, most crucially, linking European countries in a current of subversion. Political opposition in Europe was confined to small groups of the well-off or the educated. Members of the labouring poor who were consciously “left wing” accepted the classical demands of middle-class revolution, though perhaps in its radical-democratic rather than its moderate version.21

A crop of revolutionary initiatives, beginning in Southern Italy after 1806 and spreading north and across the Mediterranean after 1815, came to a climax in 1820-1. This even reached Russia, where the liberal Decembrists mounted a revolt in 1825. These attempts at insurrection failed everywhere—apart from Greece, where the 1821 uprising against the Ottoman Empire inspired a generation of European liberals and nationalists, including the poet Lord Byron.22 In 1822, Beethoven wrote a new overture and a chorus, “The Consecration of the House”, for the play “The Ruins of Athens”, which dramatised the destruction of Greece’s capital by an occupying power.

The rise and dominance of Vienna

In the final part of the 18th century Vienna emerged as the musical capital of Europe. It became the home of the new art of the symphony and the sonata, and of Italian-style opera. Could these new forms not have succeeded equally well in the other great musical centres—Naples, Rome, London, Paris, Mannheim, Dresden and Berlin? First-class artists lived in all these cities, as did wealthy patrons of the arts. However, Vienna possessed particular social and cultural conditions that made it especially fertile soil for the emergence of great music. It became known as superior to any other city for the growth of instrumental, chamber and orchestral music.

Italy had dominated the operatic scene to the point that orchestral or chamber music never attained a similar importance. Austria was different—a country brimming with musical talent, with an atmosphere that had been saturated in music for centuries. Every noble family, not only in Vienna, had a private orchestra and even a private opera company in their castle. There was an abundance of good orchestral musicians, with every butler and manservant expected to double up as an instrumental musician. Every small town had its music master who laid on orchestral music for every occasion: parties, weddings, funerals. The great noble families rivalled one another in the musicianship of their private orchestras. Leichtentritt describes the close relationship between the aristocracy and musicians: “In summer, they lived in the country in their magnificent castles, with music as a daily pleasure. In winter, they moved to their Vienna palaces, always taking their musicians with them”.23

By the late 18th century, Vienna had also become a major economic and political hub. It was no doubt a small city by 21st century standards and yet highly sophisticated and cosmopolitan. The city was permeated by intense musical activity. Daniel Snowman explains that “Vienna was expanding rapidly… Voluntary associations sprouted up all over—reading groups, choral societies, the Masonic lodges”.24 In the early 19th century, Vienna’s musical life was enriched by small, semi-private performances in the homes of the well-off bourgeoisie as well as in the aristocratic mansions.

Italian styles dominated the Viennese musical scene in the latter half of the 18th century. However, Vienna was gradually able to throw off the Italian influence in favour of a German style. This was characterised by a solid harmonic and “contrapuntal” texture. It also played the role of mediator between the Italian and French styles, reconciling them in a higher unity through a deliberate fusion.25 Vienna’s achievement was facilitated by the intensity of its musical life, the genius of its composers and by Italian economic and political decline.26 In 1792, the 22 year old Beethoven left Bonn and settled in Vienna.

A central feature of the classical style developed by Haydn and Mozart is an atmosphere of dramatic tension created by abrupt shifts in melody and rhythm, an uneven rhythmic flow with frequent changes of tempo. This reflects the unceasing change, the growing unevenness and unpredictability of economic and political life in a Europe that was emerging from the dark ages, less and less subject to the control of church and monarchy. The unprecedented social change in Europe in the period leading up to the French Revolution resulted from the growing economic and social power of the bourgeois class, its intensifying challenge to the power of absolute monarchy, feudal aristocracy and the Vatican. This does not mean that classical music was determined by these social changes, but they did create a new framework that helped to shape the new style. Composers internalised, as we all do, the social institutions around them, albeit unconsciously. Society was not directly reflected in music but mediated though the composers’ activity.

Also important were 18th century instrumental developments, the great increase in the size of the orchestra and the invention of the clarinet in 1700 and the piano in 1709. Hammer action gave the piano a brilliant and powerful tone, but of even greater importance was the pedal, which enabled sound to be extended. This was a device unknown in previous types of keyboard instrument, giving the piano its capacity to express colour, atmosphere, light and shade.

Beethoven’s classical style

Beethoven’s career is generally divided into early, middle and late periods. According to this scheme, his early period lasts until roughly 1802 and the middle period until 1811-12, with the late period beginning around 1817.

Early Beethoven

In the early period, Beethoven’s work bears the strong imprint of Haydn and Mozart. However, he began to explore new directions, gradually expanding the scope and ambition of his work. Between 1800 and 1803, he came to be regarded as one of the leading members of the generation of young composers who followed Haydn and Mozart. With his first six string quartets composed between 1798 and 1800, and the First and Second Symphonies first performed in 1800 and 1803, Beethoven established his early reputation. His versatility was also revealed in his piano compositions, including his first two piano concertos and a dozen early piano sonatas.

The piano trios that comprise Beethoven’s opus 1, and even more the string trios of opus 3, are remarkably daring, but Haydn would have recognised their affinity with his own music. However, the piano sonatas of opus 2 inhabit a new world. In the first, Sonata Number 1 in F Minor, Beethoven differs from Haydn, and even more from Mozart. The last movement subjects the melodic element to a ferocious dynamic treatment.27

The second, Sonata Number 2 in A Major, is subtly subversive. According to the classical convention, the exposition of a sonata was meant to establish the basic tonalities of tonic and dominant associated with the first and second themes. Yet here, extreme modulations, normally reserved for the climax of the development section, occur in the exposition. The effect is startling, a musical counterpart to Beethoven’s flouting of social etiquette—his rudeness to duchesses and his throwing crockery around.28 Beethoven’s artistic and social rebellion were rooted in his personality, which in turn was shaped by the social upheavals unfolding across Europe.

It is also significant that the most characteristic music of Beethoven’s youth are his piano sonatas; for him, the piano was here a dynamic as much as a melodic instrument. This is especially evident with Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Number 13 in C Minor, the “Pathetique” (1798), which is described as a “call to arms” with a tempestuous first movement that follows a slow introduction.29 The Pathetique surpasses any of his previous compositions in strength of character, depth of emotion, level of originality, and ingenuity of thematic and tonal development. Both emotionally and technically, Beethoven was, as the musicologist Barry Cooper says, “pushing the bounds of classical convention well beyond their previous limits”.30 Though rooted in the Enlightenment, Beethoven seems to point forwards towards romanticism.

Middle Beethoven

Beethoven’s middle, also known as the “heroic”, period—roughly 1802 to 1814—began shortly after the onset of a personal crisis that was sparked by his growing awareness of encroaching deafness. This period saw many large-scale works that express heroism and struggle. Examples include the Third to the Eighth Symphonies, the last three piano concertos (including the heroic Fifth Concerto), the Triple Concerto, String Quartets Numbers 7-11, several piano sonatas such as the “Waldstein” and “Appassionata”, the “Kreutzer” Violin Sonata and his only opera, “Fidelio”. Beethoven seemed to be pitting himself against the dark forces of a malevolent fate.31

Beethoven’s first two symphonies, although anticipating his later technique, are based on classical principles but do not attain the level of Haydn’s and Mozart’s greatest works. They are significant largely as the music of a revolutionary genius composing within the established tradition. But the Third, “Eroica” Symphony (1803) represents a new chapter in music, the first movement opening with two “hammerblows”. The opening theme enters: an arpeggio that sounds like a challenge and climaxes in conflict. The symphony has many difficulties for instrumentalists, such as hemiola and modulations to strange keys “that would catch players unawares at the first attempt, as well as tricky and rapid figuration that would require careful practice”.32 The power of the whole orchestra is displayed in a fortissimo F-major chord, with the second (E) added to the F. The strings modulate to E minor and to the first development theme that is introduced on the oboes. The work was published in 1806 and, in a swipe at Emperor Napoleon, he dedicated it to “the memory of a great man”.

Beethoven had long been attracted to the idea of heroism—his “heroic” ballet “Prometheus” (1801) was an early example. The importance of the Greek mythological figure is that he challenged the gods, offering humankind the gift of fire and thus the potential to control their own destiny. Beethoven’s hero is “the man of strife who is the architect of a new world”.33 Yet Beethoven himself is also a hero of the symphony in his solitary battle—revealed in his “Heiligenstadt Testament”—to pit his genius against his affliction.34 Beethoven’s deafness is perhaps the greatest tragedy in the history of European art; the way he not only overcame it, but harnessed it to his creativity, is arguably the greatest miracle in the history of European art. Indeed, he believed that the battles for Europe’s and his own salvation were closely intertwined.

In Beethoven’s sole opera “Fidelio” (1803), Florestan, wrongfully imprisoned by the wicked jailer Pizzaro, is rescued by his wife Leonora who has disguised herself as a boy (Fidelio) and obtained a job as Pizarro’s assistant. The “Prisoners’ Chorus” is a magnificent hymn to freedom. Beethoven was attracted to this theme for three reasons. Firstly, he had always hated all forms of despotism and arbitrary power. Secondly, he could empathise with Florestan’s isolation, which reflect his own felt isolation, caused by his deafness. Thirdly, Leonora’s heroism, risking death to save her husband, conjured up the kind of woman he had long hoped to find. “Fidelio” contains much music of the heroic kind.35 The Marxist philosopher and musicologist Theodor Adorno observed the opera’s invocation of the French Revolution, which “is not depicted but re-enacted as in a ritual”.36 As Clubbe suggests, it can thus be interpreted as “celebrating the anniversary of the Bastille”.37

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in C Minor is the natural successor to the “Eroica” because it develops still further the technique of “thematic transformation”, a key feature of the classical style.38 The first movement begins by stating a distinctive four-note “short-short-short-long” motif twice. Referred to as the “Schicksals-Motiv” (theme of detiny), it is one of the most famous motifs in Western music. There is an assertion of the will in the “Eroica” which required a great expansion in the dimensions of the classical symphony. In the Fifth, Beethoven concentrates and intensifies his power. There are aggressive patterns of tempo and rhythm and contrasts of tonality, making it a vehement conflict piece that reflects Beethoven’s struggle to overcome a dogged destiny and a hostile world. Moreover, Beethoven’s orchestral arrangement was unprecedented: no composer had used trombones in the way he did in the finale. Beethoven also added a contrabassoon and piccolo for the movement, thus creating “a sense of climactic power that was quite overwhelming”.39

On completing the Fifth, Beethoven wrote its companion piece, the Sixth or “Pastoral” Symphony. This is one of his few explicitly programmatic works, “a perfect musical representation of the countryside and the feelings associated with it”.40 It is a harbinger of the romantics’ preoccupation with nature. Both the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies display Beethoven’s ability to create the dramatic tension mentioned earlier. Moreover, the listener is forced to appreciate his extraordinary melodic gift, prominent throughout his music, the primacy of melody being another central feature of the classical style.

The year 1809 falls close to the end of Beethoven’s middle period, and might thus be expected to witness consolidation rather than innovation. However, this year marked a turning-point in his life. He completed the Fifth Piano Concerto in E Flat—the “Emperor”—early that year, having composed six symphonies and five concertos over the previous decade. In the remaining 18 years of his life, such large-scale orchestral works all but disappeared. He wrote only three more symphonies, one of which was also a choral work. His “heroic” period ended around 1811-12 as he embarked on smaller forms, notably lieder, and on settings of (mostly British) folk-songs.41 Beethoven’s powerful Seventh Symphony (1811-12) arguably marks the transition between the middle and late periods. The fourth movement consists of a relentlessly repeated rhythmic pattern, unlike anything in the classical symphonic tradition. It expresses his rage, perhaps, at the war-torn state of Europe, and it is the bridge taking Beethoven to the glory of his final works.

Late Beethoven

The late period—roughly 1817 to 1827—contains works of an unprecedented intellectual and emotional depth, a formal and thematic innovativeness, and a profundity of personal expression.

For about five years (1812-17), Beethoven composed fewer works. He nevertheless produced important pieces such as the Eighth Symphony and a massive cantata, “Der Glorreiche Augenblick” (The Glorious Moment). But his late period was marked by radically different music, finding initial expression in the “Hammerklavier” (Pianoforte) Sonata. Written in 1817 and 1818, this is a work that enables us “to cross the threshold into Beethoven’s reborn world”.42 The piece contains four movements, a structure often used by Beethoven and imitated by contemporaries such as Franz Schubert, in contrast to the usual three movements of Haydn and Mozart sonatas. The first movement is one of Beethoven’s most titanic conflict pieces, with assertive metre and modulation.

The final three sonatas, especially Sonata 32 in C Minor (1821-22), represent the climax of what Beethoven strove for in the Hammerklavier Sonata. Beethoven worked out the plan for these three sonatas during the summer of 1820 while he worked on his “Missa Solemnis” (Solemn Mass), or Mass in D Major, in which the “late” Beethoven attains his most monumental expression. He repeatedly described it as his “greatest work”, even after completing the lauded Ninth Symphony.43 It is a work of great sophistication and profundity in which the music operates on several levels, “ranging from…directness of expression…to amazing technical complexity in the fugue”.44

The “Missa Solemnis” is generally considered one of Beethoven’s supreme achievements, and together with Bach’s “Mass in B Minor” one of the most profound mass settings. It is a choral composition that sets the eucharistic liturgy to music of the “common practice period”, that is, the era between the formation of the tonal system around 1680 until its dissolution around 1900. It was dedicated to Archduke Rudolph of Austria, Beethoven’s principal patron, pupil and friend. The mass illustrates Beethoven’s characteristic disregard for the performer; in several places, it is technically and physically exacting, with many sudden changes of dynamics, metre and tempo. There is no choral and no orchestral writing, earlier or later, that shows a more thrilling sense of the individual colour of every chord. Adorno describes it as characterised by:

Certain archaicising moments of harmony—church modes—rather than by the advanced compositional daring of the “Große Fuge”… Altogether it reveals a sensuous aspect quite opposed to the intellectualised late style, an inclintion to splendidness and tonal monumentality…usually lacking in that late style.45

The massive fugues at the end of the “Gloria” and “Credo” have the mark of Beethoven’s late period but absent are the sustained exploration of themes through development and also his simultaneous interest in the theme and variations form.

Adorno also suggests in his typically enigmatic style that Beethoven had become mistrustful of:

The unity of subjectivity and objectivity, the roundness of symphonic successes…of everything that gave authenticity up to now of the works of his middle period… At this moment, he transcended the bourgeois spirit whose highest musical manifestation was his own work.46

Adorno seems to be suggesting that the Missa Solemnis with its “modal archaicism” looks beyond the “bourgeois spirit”, which had ceased to be revolutionary but still contained within itself the seed of its own transcendance. The Missa Solemnis perhaps looks both backwards and forward—back to an idealised, harmonious, pre-capitalist community and forward, beyond the bourgeois world with its materialism and individualism, to a society based on solidarity.

It is uncertain whether Beethoven himself was a practising Catholic. His secretary Anton Schindler suggested that he inclined to Deism, which rejects revelation, asserting that reason and observation of the natural world are sufficient to establish the existence of a supreme being. Beethoven was also interested in Eastern religions, especially Hinduism and Egyptian polytheism. Nevertheless, the Missa Solemnis’s upward surges and downward leaps seem to deny a connection between man and God, instead suggesting a desire to create heaven on earth. The Mass is perhaps contradictory: a theological work with a secular dimension.

The string quartet is the most quintessential medium of Beethoven’s late years, as the piano was of his youth and the symphony orchestra of his middle period. Earlier, he had not devoted much attention to the quartet which, “as a concourse of equal-voiced instruments, did not naturally lend itself to his dynamic style”.47 Nevertheless, his three middle-period “Rasumovsky” quartets are undoubtedly major works.

The cycle of late quartets begins with Number 12 in E Flat Major and ends with Number 16 in F Major. Arguably, the most comprehensive and certainly the most complicated of Beethoven’s last works is the C sharp minor quartet, Number 14, which he also believed to be among his greatest works.48

The Große Fuge (Great Fugue) in B Flat was originally composed as the finale of a quartet. However, the audience found it so impenetrable and bewildering that he wrote a new finale, and the Große Fuge was published as a separate work. There is a brief introduction, marked “Overtura”, which is followed by three main sections. The fugue theme, first heard in the “Overtura”, reappears rhythmically altered in each of the three sections. Cooper explains that “the overall impression is one of overwhelming size and power—a Mount Everest among quartet movements”.49 Stravinsky described it as “an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever”.50

A key feature of Beethoven’s late style is his retention of “out of date formulas” and the success with which he rehabilitated them through a technique that was uniquely his. This is exemplified, for example, throughout the Hammerklavier Sonata and most strikingly at the end of the development of its opening movement.51 Beethoven returned, in his final phase, to his early stylistic technique, launching an amazing expansion of that style beginning with the Hammerklavier Sonata, revolutionising modulation and traditional harmony.52

Beethoven’s world was clearly no longer that of Haydn and Mozart. However, he continued to use the stylistic conventions that he had learned as a child even as he expanded them beyond recognition, aware of their energy and the depth of their expressive power. So much of Beethoven seems incompatible with 18th century style that it is difficult to see how much of his greatest work synthesises late 18th century ideals.53 He maintained his belief in the basic power of the dominant; even when using mediants within the sonata form, he prepared them with a strong dominant introduction, even though younger contemporaries preferred chromatic shifts. He preserved the classical balance between dominant and subdominant—a “dead letter” to subsequent generations—and never discarded the long final section in the tonic leading to the final resolution. Arguably, his greatest achievement was understanding the latent potential of the contemporary tonal language and greatly enlarging its expressive capacity.54 Beethoven’s paradox is that, although steeped in the classical tradition, he inaugurated a new era. Basing himself on the rational tonal system, whose climax found expression in Haydn and Mozart, he developed it as the musical foundation of a possible new world inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution.

The movements of the Ninth Symphony are not in the traditional order. He does begin with an allegro, albeit a weighty one, but puts the scherzo before the slow movement. From the opening rumbles of the first movement, Beethoven takes us through the frantic conflict of the scherzo, then on to the sublime, prayer-like lyricism of the slow movement. He then concluding with the joyful explosion and triumphant vision of the finale. The exultant finale, with its four vocal soloists and chorus, which break all musical conventions, uses the text of Friedrich Schiller’s 1785 poem, “Ode to Joy”. Beethoven had discovered this poem in his youth and been intoxicated with its romantic vision of liberty and fraternity. Sachs vividly describes the flow of the Ninth Symphony from the vantage point of the finale:

We have survived the first movement’s brutality and despair, participated in the second’s harsh struggle and been purified by the third’s glowing acceptance of life as it is. What Beethoven wants us now to experience with the fourth movement is all-embracing joy. For this is the moment in the work in which Beethoven most unequivocally declares his aim of helping to liberate mankind through art.55

The Ninth Symphony is one of the crowning achievements of European culture. Its premiere involved the largest orchestra ever assembled by Beethoven.56

Social and political influences

The most characteristic works of Beethoven’s middle period—the Third (“Eroica”) and Fifth symphonies and the “Emperor” Piano Concerto—express the urge to change the world. The Eroica’s assertion of the will described above; the Fifth’s famous opening four notes, “knocking on the door of history”; the Emperor Concerto’s heroic exhortation and the way the soloist opens with a cadenza followed by a propulsive, thrusting opening theme: all seem to communicate a longing to sweep away the old order and usher in the new.57 These works reflect the profound influence on Beethoven of the French Revolution and its democratic, republican ideals. Haydn and Mozart had not been politically engaged, at least at a formal or conscious level. Yet as the musical embodiment of the ideals of the French Revolution, Beethoven reaches the heights of our potential for self-liberation and solidarity. Adorno wrote that “the din of the bourgeois revolution rumbles in Beethoven”.58

One possible explanation for the decline in Beethoven’s creativity during the so-called “fallow” years of 1812-16 might therefore be disappointment in the failure of the French Revolution. The revolution failed to result in liberation for humanity as a whole. Although the French bourgeoisie had inscribed on their banner “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”, they meant it only for themselves. Having won political power, they chose to consolidate it. The mantle of the struggle to extend the boundaries of freedom and democracy beyond the limits laid down by the bourgeoisie fell onto the shoulders of other social forces.

Nevertheless, the French Revolution retained a powerful influence on Beethoven. The late works—his late quartets and piano sonatas, the “Missa Solemnis” and the Ninth Symphony—combine sadness and anger at the failure of humanity to break free from the shackles of oppression with optimism that future generations would achieve this, perhaps driven by the fresh wave of revolutionary outbursts. As we saw, the key stylistic features of these works—for example, preserving the classical balance between dominant and subdominant, not discarding the last section in the tonic leading to the final resolution—express the late classical style reworked into a new, revolutionary idiom. As US writer and musician Charles Rosen explains:

Beethoven’s originality reveals itself most often not by frustrating the conventions that he learned as a child, but by magnifying them beyond the experience or expectations of any of his contemporaries… At the end of his life, he was alone in continuing a late 18th century style that he so transformed into the sensibility of a new age that he seemed to have reinvented it.59

Beethoven in his late works expresses, doubtless unconsciously, his anger and sorrow at the burden re-imposed on Europe by Napoleon’s defeat and the victorious monarchies. Yet these works also reassert his faith in the capacity of future generations to rise up against servitude. The third, slow movement of the Ninth Symphony embodies a tragic lyricism that mourns the failure of the French Revolution to fulfil its promise of liberation. However, the fourth, choral movement reasserts a belief in humanity’s long-term capacity to usher in such a world. As Sachs explains, “Beethoven…wanted to help light the way for humanity; he wanted human beings to realise their high ethical potential… The uniquely expressive power of the Ninth Symphony…is one of the most striking products of human beings’ attempts to continue the struggle.” Moreover, for Beethoven, it is not only heroes but also “common people” who are included among the “all men” in Schiller’s poem who one day “will be brothers”.60

Central to Beethoven’s existence was the longing “to help mankind raise itself out of the muck of ignorance and pain”.61 In his final decade, this moral imperative became increasingly pressing, linked as it was to his “strange and acute personal misery.” It elevated Beethoven “to levels of abstract expression and of rarefied, distilled emotion that no one else in the history of Western music has reached”.62 He had a unique ability to channel his most intimate experience into sounds that also expressed his powerful drive to transform humanity’s condition.

Beethoven, like Haydn and Mozart, was dependent on the Viennese nobility. However, unlike his predecessors, he also pitted himself against them—not just in his music but in his ideas too. The English musicologist Wilfrid Mellers writes, “Haydn and Mozart were incipiently revolutionary composers, but Beethoven is overtly so”.63 Beethoven was the first great composer who consciously desired to build a new and different world, and he saw music as a means to that end.


In one of those strange historical coincidences, two German cultural giants—Beethoven and G W F Hegel—were born in the same year. Hegel was writing at the time when Beethoven composed his Ninth Symphony, arguing that “philosophy has the universal for its object, and, in so far as we think, we are universal ourselves”.64 Hegel saw his work as the culmination of Western philosophy, as humanity’s realisation of its possibilities, its achievement of self-consciousness, the fulfilment of the “absolute idea”.

Adorno drew a parallel between Beethoven and Hegel, saying that “his music expressed the same experiences which inspired Hegel’s concept of the ‘world spirit’”.65 There is a sense in which Beethoven is Hegel’s musical counterpart. If Hegel represents a high point of bourgeois philosophy, Beethoven marks the culmination of the line of development that begins with the invention of tonality around 1680, mainly through Arcangelo Corelli’s work, and journeys through the late baroque and classical eras. Perhaps the dialectic is present within his own work: the early period being the thesis, the middle period the antithesis and the late period absorbing and synthesising elements of both.66 His music expresses one of the peaks of bourgeois artistic creativity but also looks forward to a different society. In a world torn apart by racism, economic crisis, climate change and pandemic, Beethoven’s music inspires us to fight for a society based on solidarity.

Sabby Sagall is the author of Final Solutions: Human Nature, Capitalism and Genocide (Pluto, 2013) and of the forthcoming Music and Capitalism: Melody, Harmony and Rhythm in the Modern World.

1 I would like to thank the following people who read this article and gave me valuable comments: Bob Carter, Joseph Choonara, Barry Cooper, Martin Empson, Tom Hickey, Rob Hoveman, John Rose, Paul Abrahams, Luca Salice, Alison Sealey and Hilary Westlake.

2 The historical development of classical music is typically broken up into a number of distinct periods: the baroque (1600-1750), classical (1750-1820) and romantic (1810-1910) eras.

3 Cooper, 2013, p70.

4 Clubbe, 2019, pp50, 66.

5 Cooper, 2013, pp70-1.

6 Leichtentritt, 1957, p183.

7 Suchet, 2012, pp226-227.

8 Clubbe, 2019, p50.

9 Leichtentritt, 1957, p183.

10 Engels, 1969, p126. Engels was writing at the time of the Great Hunger, a period of mass starvation and disease inflicted on Ireland by British colonial policy in the 1840s.

11 McGarr, 1991, p97.

12 McGarr, 1991, p97.

13 Downs, 1992, p111.

14 Mellers, 1957, p7.

15 Arblaster, 1992, p37.

16 Sachs, 2010, p62.

17 Sachs, 2010, p64.

18 Hobsbawm, 1962, p137.

19 Hobsbawm, 1962, p141.

20 Evans, 2017, p82.

21 Hobsbawm, 1962, p143.

22 Hobsbawm, 1962, pp144-145, 173.

23 Leichtentritt, 1957, p173.

24 Snowman, 2009, p91.

25 Bukofzer, 1947, p260.

26 Hindley, 1971, p237.

27 Mellers, 1957, p56.

28 Mellers, 1957, p57.

29 Mellers, 1957, p58.

30 Cooper, 2013, p48.

31 Mellers, 1957, p61.

32 Cooper, 2013, p71.

33 Mellers, 1957, p64.

34 The Heiligenstadt testament is a letter penned by Beethoven to his brothers in 1802 in which he despairs at his loss of hearing.

35 Cooper, 2013, p73.

36 Adorno, 1998, p164.

37 Clubbe, 2019, p319.

38 Mellers, 1957, p64.

39 Cooper, 2013, p77.

40 Cooper, 2013, p78.

41 Cooper, 2013, p91.

42 Mellers, 1957, p70.

43 Cooper, 2013, p119.

44 Cooper, 2013, p121.

45 Adorno, 2002, pp572-3.

46 Adorno, 2002, p580.

47 Mellers, 1957, p75.

48 Mellers, 1957, p76.

49 From Cooper’s introduction to the “Beethoven: Complete String Quartets” recording.

50 Stravinsky and Craft, 1963, p24.

51 Rosen, 1971, p484.

52 Rosen, 1971, p487.

53 Rosen, 1971, pp508-509.

54 Rosen, 1971, p508.

55 Sachs, 2010, p154.

56 Sachs, 2010, p19.

57 Rosen, 1971, p391.

58 Adorno, 1989, p211.

59 Rosen, 1971, p460.

60 Sachs, 2010, pp87, 111, 158.

61 Sachs, 2010, p129.

62 Sachs, 2010, p129.

63 Mellers, 1957, p53.

64 Sachs, 2010, pp129-130.

65 Adorno, 1998, p32.

66 It should, however, be noted that this triadic structure originates in the thought of Johann Gottlieb Fichte; Hegel’s working of the dialectic is more subtle and comprehensive.


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