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Do We Deserve Beethoven?

Beethoven. Drawing by Michel Katzeroff. Illustration by Mike Tully.

You can buy Beethoven in a box. Lots and lots of boxes, or on individual flat discs of various sizes. You can rent him, temporarily and in the moment, through your computer or other streaming device. That is, you can own him, but do you deserve him?

That point that you can own him through a recording on a physical medium may seem obvious, but it has important implications under the surface. Yes, it says right there on the label that you own the recordings of Beethoven's Symphonies 1 – 9 made by the Cleveland Symphony under conductor George Szell (that's the one to get), but you also own a bit of the man himself, some of his memories and thoughts and feelings. You can hear those in the music.

In the age of the pop star, it's obvious that the bulk of the music you hear is going to be about the performer—they're literally telling you what they're thinking and feeling. This wasn't always so, especially in what we now call classical music. The great first Viennese triumvirate of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven worked at the historical edge of impending modernity, the rough divide being that Haydn and Mozart were part of the classical era, while Beethoven, with the premiere of his “Eroica” Symphony No. 3 in 1805, launched musical romanticism. Music that was once about what the composers thought about the notes became music about the composer’s psyche and experiences, expressed through the notes. The personal was the musical.

This is what we love Beethoven for: the force of his personality that is held in each note, his determination, his sense of independence, his tenderness, and the extraordinary imagination he released once deafness overtook him. We love Beethoven the way we love songs that remind us of rough times we went through. Multiply that feeling about a million times, have it encompass the entire struggle of life, have it end up on the mountaintop, and that's Beethoven.

But do we deserve him? In a society that is so focused on objects, things, commodities that even intelligent and well-meaning people I talk with see that as culture, and not the ideas and values that produced those material things, Beethoven is a bauble of the bourgeoisie, something they can put on their shelves believing it demonstrates their good taste and civilized values. That's not loving him, and it's worse than hating him, it’s ignoring him.

Does John Yoo love Beethoven? Does Kirstjen Nielsen, or anyone who has a perfectly settled conscience about torturing people or taking children from their parents and putting them in cages? They belong to the socio-economic class that patronizes symphony and chamber music concerts, that glances occasionally at the culture pages. Odds are they not only have Beethoven on their own shelves but have actually experienced the music in person.

But Beethoven cannot choose his listeners, and so both the Allies and Axis in WWII thought he was on their side. For the Allies, the four-note motif that opens Symphony No. 5 meant V for Victory. But what did the Nazi party functionaries think when they heard Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic play the anti-tyrant Symphony No. 3 (Beethoven was a subversive, spied on by the secret police, and with public disdain for the aristocrats who had earned their privilege due to the merit of being born to the right parents), or when they heard the chorus in Symphony No. 9 sing about brotherhood? And why are the wartime broadcast recordings of those performances so full of poetry, so beautiful and emotionally intense? Those recordings are among the greatest Beethoven one will hear, does this mean fascists deserve Beethoven?

Here F. Scott Fitzgerald applies with this famous passage from his essay “The Crack-Up:” “. . . the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.” His example is invariably left out but it’s what really matters, and its relevance to our current political and social situation speaks for itself. It means that Beethoven can be good in the social sense and that fascists can still deserve him, and that they do in no way diminishes us or the composer.

Reading it, and listening to Beethoven, reminds me that I myself was adamant about optimism being the ethical stance in the fall of 2016, and tells me how trying to maintain that stance has been exhausting. Compounding that has been a struggle with depression that has made it almost impossible to listen to music that has always been important to me. Love is not strong enough a word, this is music that has helped show me the way to ethical and moral thinking, has helped me feel the beauty and satisfaction of pure goodness, has helped me be an empathetic person.

Beethoven, even as difficult as he could be to friends and family, has those qualities at his core. In the objective sense he is one of the great moral and ethical artists in that his music, like Bach’s, presents a set of values by which it will be guided, and implicitly asks to be heard in part  as to how it lives by those same values. Beethoven sets his terms and lives by them. In the expressive sense, there is his opera, Fidelio, in which a woman infiltrates a prison to free her husband, who is a political prisoner, and more generally, there is the artist who is unafraid to show us what he thinks and feels and to be judged on that basis, whether he is showing us how to climb out of despair to find solace, or that beauty in and of itself, with its unbounded generosity toward all those who experience it, is a moral value.

Work still directs me listen to music—it’s a job after all—and in that context I don’t have to let it touch me too deeply. And so I’ve been listening to the recent reissue of Stewart Goodyear’s recordings of the complete Beethoven Piano Sonatas (on the Marquis label), for work, for criticism. First I listened to the three Op. 3 Sonatas, not only because they were Beethoven’s first, but because they are about form and style. They are “light,” and easy for weary ears to experience.

Goodyear plays Beethoven with absolute trust: that is, his tempos and rhythms are steady as granite and he plays the music with absolute transparency because he knows that, by doing so, he delivers Beethoven. He is not interpreting Beethoven, not arguing with the composer, he is bringing the man to life. The extraordinarily gentle and fluid way Goodyear begins the final movement of the wonderful “Waldstein” Sonata is more humanizing than I’ve ever heard in that piece.

I turned to the last sonata, No. 32, Op. 111 in C minor, one of the composer’s favorite keys for sturm und drang. This is the Beethoven I need to hear because it is music that makes his deafness into something transcendent. Fragments of a hyperactive mind turned inward because the outside world can no longer be heard cohere into order that is not only intellectually stunning to witness, but is moving because it shows that chaos is temporary—it does not control us, we control it.

Chaos is not the state of the universe, which exists exactly because it is orderly, nor the permanent state of man. As much as mankind creates chaos, so we can turn that back into the kind of order that frees the mind and soul for generosity and creativity. Over and over again, Beethoven proves Fitzgerald’s concept, and he makes us believe that it is true. Those who need this affirmation, as I increasingly do, are the ones who deserve Beethoven, if only for one moment at a time.


George Grella

George Grella is the Rail’s music editor.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2018

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