The Political Beethoven

July 20, 2020

by Marc Shulgold

The world changed drastically during Beethoven’s life. There were violent revolutions, the rise and fall of Napoleon, the reshaping of Europe, etc. Creative artists took notice of those changes. Some, in fact, helped spur on society’s new ways of looking at their world.

At the center of cultural life in Vienna stood the colossus figure of Beethoven, who watched intently as things were unfolding, hardly an innocent bystander. So, what was his political thinking?

The seeds of that monumental ode to Mankind and its quest for happiness – the Symphony No. 9 – were actually planted years earlier. Friedrich Schiller’s multi- verse “Ode to Joy” made a huge impression on the young composer, who kept a copy of the poem, vowing to one day set it to music. In 1824, a shortened version ended up as the choral finale to the Ninth, thrilling audiences with its plea for togetherness (“All men shall be brothers,” the chorus sings ecstatically).

Let’s look at an earlier composition – his incidental music to the play Egmont, contributed to an 1810 production. The plot of Johann von Goethe’s 1787 work might seem far removed from Viennese life, yet, on the contrary, the story rang true for theater-goers. It tells of a 16th   century nobleman named Count Egmont, who became a martyr during the Netherlands’ revolt against the occupying Spanish. Why revive the play in 1810? Those in attendance related strongly to its story, having survived the siege of their city by Napoleon the previous May. At the finale of Goethe’s play, the Count addresses his audience directly as he awaits execution, calling on them to fight and, if necessary, to sacrifice their lives. His stirring speech was then followed by Beethoven’s equally inspiring “Victory Symphony.”

Napoleon had already played a major role in the composer’s life. Beethoven embraced the Frenchman’s early promises to modernize the continent, summarized in the Napoleonic Code, which upgraded the legal system and introduced new liberal ideals. In honor of this great man, Beethoven wrote his “Bonaparte” Symphony. When news reached him that his hero had declared himself Emperor, the composer furiously scratched out the dedication on the work’s title page. Instead, his expansive Third Symphony would be re-titled “Eroica” – heroic.

The downfall of Napoleon in 1815 led to the Congress of Vienna, a gathering of Europe’s heads of state, assembled to redraw boundaries, write treaties, establish trade agreements and generally celebrate the end to years of war. As part of the Congress, those revered leaders were entertained by plays, grand balls and music by Beethoven. New choral and instrumental works were unveiled, including his Symphony No. 7.

There were other Beethoven works as well – most of them forgettable, some downright embarrassing, their gushing exaltations glorifying the attending heads of state and the greatness of Germany and Vienna. All naïveté aside, Beethoven was sincerely voicing his dreams of a new, peaceful Europe.

One more revealing example of his political ideals: Fidelio. Unlike prolific contemporary composers such as Rossini, Ludwig had a heck of a time writing this, his only opera, taking 10 years to complete it. Along the way, he changed its name from Leonore to Fidelio, shortening it, writing four overtures and seemingly straining to write every note.

The story tells us much about the composer’s love of freedom: Florestan was being held prisoner in a dark Spanish dungeon, jailed for his political disagreements with the ruling Prince. His wife, Leonore, disguises herself as a man (Fidelio) and enters the prison seeking work, as step one in her mission to liberate her husband. Apart from the intense love story – which ends happily – are the dramatic depictions of the unfairly jailed prisoners, who enjoy a brief moment in the prison’s courtyard before receiving forgiveness and freedom from the new Prince.

Beethoven must have felt joy as he witnessed the fall of Napoleon’s empire and the ending of an era when political power had been wielded by a handful of kings and emperors. These figures, some of them ruthless, had demanded respect from the masses, who bowed when these sovereigns strolled by.

But Beethoven would have none of that, once famously walking past some nobles without doffing his hat. After all, he was Beethoven! He sensed that the world would always treasure him and his art, while barely recalling the rich and powerful. Of course, he was right.