Ludwig van Beethoven was born 250 years ago in Bonn. For a moment, we should pause and remember the composer who created the melody that was adopted as an official anthem for the European Union. But this should be more than a momentary emotion. If there is an example of European togetherness expressed in sounds and a piece of music demanding its right place in public life, this is definitely one such story.
Music history: culmination and dissemination
While the personal life of Ludwig van Beethoven is well known to be full of drama and tragedy, for reasons we will discuss later, from the point of view of musical history he should be considered just utterly lucky. First of all, he became a star pianist in Vienna because the imperial capital was looking for a new star, following the premature death of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Secondly, his centrality as a composer is actually explained by how the schools of music developed before and after him.
First of all, Beethoven as a composer was a culmination of an almost linear development of musical tradition originating from Johan Sebastian Bach in Leipzig, and subsequently advanced by Joseph Haydn and then Mozart in Vienna. While belonging to one great epoch, these figures also had their own specific profile: Bach was the master, Haydn was the artist, Mozart was the genius, and Beethoven was the revolutionary.
Arriving from the Rhine region in his early twenties, Beethoven became a representative of the tradition of “Viennese classicism”. However, once he established himself as the number one musician in the imperial capital, constant innovation became his trade mark. He broke the rules of the inherited genre with every single masterpiece he wrote.
However, Beethoven’s impact is not purely the result of standing on the shoulders of three outstanding predecessors. It also was made possible by the explosion that took place afterwards. Though a difficult character, as a musician he was lionized by members of a new generation who were young at the time of his death: Franz Schubert (who was a torchbearer at his funeral), Franz Liszt (who owned his death mask), as well as Robert Schumann (who raised money for erecting his statue in Bonn). Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Frédéric Chopin, and Hector Berlioz should be mentioned in the same class. For them Beethoven’s piano sonatas represented the New Testament (Bach’s Das wohltemperierte Klavier being the Old Testament), according to the distinguished 19th century conductor Hans von Bülow.
And then the next generation came very quickly to compete for the legacy: Johannes Brahms, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Antonín Dvořák, Edvard Grieg. With the rise of liberal nationalism, every emerging nation in Europe had to identify its greatest national composer who was producing symphonies, concertos and chamber music in the Viennese fashion last represented by Beethoven. The romanticists in the second half of the 19th century excelled in writing “program music”, but the foundations of that were also laid down by Beethoven. And arguably the two greatest opera composers of the late 19th century, Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi, also (secretly) looked at Beethoven to perfect their approach to motifs.
A standard theme in music theory is whether Beethoven was still classical or already romantic. In a way, he closed the first and opened the second. And even more interestingly, in his “third period”, he laid the foundations of what we call modernity in music, on which 20th century composers started to build one hundred years later.
Concert of Europe
Ludwig van Beethoven’s artistic profile was shaped by the enlightenment, the French revolution and the Napoleonic wars. And his music helped his audiences to make sense of this turbulent period of history. Though Europe developed a capacity of killings at an industrial scale, and also performed it in the first half of the 20th century, we should not forget for a second how brutal the Napoleonic wars were, in a wide geography between Trafalgar and Borodino. At the very end, the nine hours of the battle of Waterloo (1815), just outside Brussels, alone saw close to 50 thousand men and 20 thousand horses falling victim of massacre.
Waterloo pulled curtain on the Napoleonic era and introduced the period of the illiberal Holy Alliance, and it was a watershed in Beethoven’s life too. The young Beethoven in Bonn was thrilled by the French enlightenment and looked at Bonaparte with high hopes. At the end, he had to put up with Metternich, the architect of the post-Napoleonic, conservative Concert of Europe. His productivity diminished, he went out of fashion as a composer, he spent a lot of time with battling for the custody of his nephew, and in the meantime was watched by the secret service as well.
However, it would not have been Beethoven if he left the last word to someone else. He started to mastermind his comeback. It had to be a symphony, but a special one. He had written eight in 13 years, but then everything changed. It became a real struggle. He had conquered Vienna with his improvisations, but it took him almost nine years to develop the concept of the ninth symphony. Putting it on paper took almost nine months at the end. But he wanted to show the embers under the ashes.
When it was first performed on 7 May 1824 in the Theater am Kärntnertor in Vienna, Beethoven surprised the audience by adding a choir to the orchestra. For a very long time, he had been looking for the right way and the best opportunity to write music to Friedrich Schiller’s poem, written in the summer of 1785: Ode to Joy. The lyrics is not too complicated: “All men become brothers”, and then “You millions, I embrace you. This kiss is for all the world!” The agenda is: overcoming divisions, living in peace, and enjoying life.
After years of suffering from poor health, and three years before his death, Beethoven returned for a last performance before the Viennese to conduct this anthem of humanism. The symphony was dedicated to Friedrich Wilhelm III, the King of Prussia. And by including a Turkish March in the 4th movement, Beethoven extended the universal message of brotherhood to the great adversary of the Austrians, the Ottoman Empire, which was progressively pushed out of Europe.
Ode to Joy respects no borders, and is intercontinental. It has functioned as an expression of hope on many distinct occasions and very spontaneously. According to credible records, it was sung by German prisoners of war in World War One and Japanese in World War Two. People sang it in protest against the Pinochet regime in Chile, children sang it outside gas chambers in Auschwitz, as well as students demonstrating at Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989. Always about the wish to overcome oppression and to have peace.
By the time the Berlin wall fell, and Leonard Bernstein descended on Berlin to perform the 9th Symphony of Beethoven in a mega-concert (with a somewhat controversial change of the lyrics), the Council of Europe (1972) as well as the European Community (1985) adopted Ode to Joy as an official anthem. Why is it so fitting? Because it is about reconciliation: making progress and peace at the same time; bringing on a revolution against privileges, while ensuring that fraternity and solidarity prevails. A program that was just a dream under either French or German domination of Europe, but also under the Holy Alliance.
Struggle for Freedom and Peace
Just like the Vienna Congress framed the peace structure of Europe until World War One, classical music developed for a whole century within the coordinates set by Beethoven. He was a musician with an ideology and a political mission from a very early age. He also wrote for entertainment, but he always looked for more. The figure of Prometheus caught his imagination (resulting in a ballet but also framing the 3rd symphony), the gift of fire being a metaphor for the civilizing power of science and the arts.
Recognising the limits of his own talent, he only wrote one opera, but he did that with a very political libretto: about a political prisoner (duly censored by the Austrian authorities). The incidental music he wrote to Goethe’s Egmont is tribute to a leader condemned to death for having taken a stand against oppression (the Overture became an unofficial anthem of the 1956 Hungarian anti-Soviet uprising).
But with the exception of his first years in Vienna, he had to face incredible adversity. Beethoven’s life and art would not be such a magnet without the nearly miraculous element: he composed much of his famous pieces while being partly and then completely deaf. It is easier to fathom Franklin D. Roosevelt to become a giant of US politics despite polio, and to see Stephen Hawking becoming a superstar physicist despite degenerative motor neuron disease. But how can someone become the greatest musician of his time without hearing, must be a mystery and an inspiration.
If one needs to name a patron saint for working with disability, Beethoven is a top candidate. Arguably, he became a composer giant not despite, but thanks to his deafness. Had he remained healthy, at least in terms of the ability to hear properly, most likely he would have continued his career as a fortepiano performer, and would have composed much less. Having lost his hearing progressively in his thirties, he had to pull out of live concert, but he could devote himself to composing.
Luckily, it is a minority whose life is affected by an abusive father, decapacitating illness, a miserable love life, or the backdrop of an all-devastating continental war. Beethoven had it all: personal tragedies as well as political drama. It was Bernstein who defined the essence of Beethoven as struggle for peace, but it also was a struggle for love, health and independence too. By the age of thirty, he achieved success, but greatness came afterwards, as he managed to overcome the extraordinary hardships of his life, and ensured that his legacy would earn the respect and admiration of the common people as well as the aristocrats, and several subsequent generations.
He could not have advanced his art without aristocratic patrons. But today very few would know who was Waldstein, Brunszvik or Razumovsky without Beethoven dedicating for them a piano sonata or a string quartet. And he was not shy to tell them: “what you are, you are through chance and birth; what I am, I am through my own labour. There are many princes and there will continue to be thousands more, but there is only one Beethoven.”
His Heiligenstadt Testament (1802), in which he explained his deafness driven pain to his brothers, became well-known, but only well after his death. His 9th symphony was his political testament, with the 4th movement to secure there were no misunderstandings. The European Union that chose this most famous melody as an anthem has to work hard to live up to it.
Indeed, when Bonaparte (crowning himself emperor) became unworthy of the dedication of the 3rd symphony, Beethoven erased his name from the front page. Ode to Joy should be a reminder: if the EU fails to be a champion of freedom, equality and brotherhood (for the entire human race), he will find the way to withdraw his song from us.