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Beethoven was a narcissistic hooligan

Dylan Evans
Tuesday June 7, 2005
The Guardian

It's Beethoven week on the BBC. By midnight on Friday Radio 3 will have filled six days of airtime with every single note the composer wrote - every symphony, every quartet, every sonata and lots more besides. This coincides with a series of three films on BBC2 in which the conductor Charles Hazlewood tells us about the composer's life, and three programmes of musical analysis on BBC4.
It's good to see classical music getting some coverage on primetime TV, but the relentless focus on Beethoven is dire. Not all fans of classical music are members of the Beethoven cult. Some of us even think he did more harm than good to classical music.

Beethoven certainly changed the way that people thought about music, but this change was a change for the worse. From the speculations of Pythagoras about the "music of the spheres" in ancient Greece onwards, most western musicians had agreed that musical beauty was based on a mysterious connection between sound and mathematics, and that this provided music with an objective goal, something that transcended the individual composer's idiosyncrasies and aspired to the universal. Beethoven managed to put an end to this noble tradition by inaugurating a barbaric U-turn away from an other-directed music to an inward-directed, narcissistic focus on the composer himself and his own tortured soul.
This was a ghastly inversion that led slowly but inevitably to the awful atonal music of Schoenberg and Webern. In other words, almost everything that went wrong with music in the 19th and 20th centuries is ultimately Beethoven's fault. Poor old Schoenberg was simply taking Beethoven's original mistake to its ultimate, monstrous logical conclusion.

This is not to deny Beethoven's genius, but simply to claim that he employed his genius in the service of a fundamentally flawed idea. If Beethoven had dedicated his obvious talents to serving the noble Pythagorean view of music, he might well have gone on to compose music even greater than that of Mozart. You can hear this potential in his early string quartets, where the movements often have neat conclusions and there is a playfulness reminiscent of Mozart or Haydn. If only Beethoven had nourished these tender shoots instead of the darker elements that one can also hear. For the darkness is already evident in the early quartets too, in their sombre harmonies and sudden key changes. As it was, however, his darker side won out; compare, for example, the late string quartets. Here the youthful humour has completely vanished; the occasional signs of optimism quickly die out moments after they appear and the movements sometimes end in uncomfortably inconclusive cadences.

It's instructive to compare Beethoven's morbid self-obsession with the unselfconscious vivacity of Mozart. Like Bach's perfectly formed fugues and Vivaldi's sparkling concertos, Mozart's music epitomises the baroque and classical ideals of formal elegance and functional harmony; his compositions "unfold with every harmonic turn placed at the right moment, to leave, at the end, a sense of perfect finish and unity", as the music critic Paul Griffiths puts it. Above all, Mozart's music shares with that of Bach an exuberant commitment to the Enlightenment values of clarity, reason, optimism and wit.

With Beethoven, however, we leave behind the lofty aspirations of the Enlightenment and begin the descent into the narcissistic inwardness of Romanticism. Mozart gives you music that asks to be appreciated for its own sake, and you don't need to know anything about the composer's life to enjoy it. Beethoven's music, on the other hand, is all about himself - it is simply a vehicle for a self-indulgent display of bizarre mood swings and personal difficulties.

Hazlewood claims, in his BBC2 series, that music "grew up" with Beethoven; but it would be more accurate to say that it regressed back into a state of sullen adolescence. Even when he uses older forms, such as the fugue, Beethoven twists them into cruel and angry parodies. The result is often fiercely dissonant, with abrupt changes in style occurring from one movement to another, or even in the same movement. Hazlewood is right to describe Beethoven as a "hooligan", but this is hardly a virtue. In A Clockwork Orange it is the fourth movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony that echoes in the mind of Alex whenever he indulges in one of his orgies of violence. Alex's reaction may be rather extreme, but he is responding to something that is already there in this dark and frenzied setting of Schiller's Ode to Joy; the joy it invites one to feel is the joy of madness, bloodlust and megalomania. It is glorious music, and seductive, but the passions it stirs up are dark and menacing.

I won't be able to resist tuning in to Beethoven at times this week, but I'll need to cheer myself up with something more optimistic and life-affirming afterwards.

Dylan Evans is a senior lecturer in intelligent autonomous systems at the University of the West of England

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The Rage of Ludwig
By Michael Church
Why Beethoven the man continues to hold such fascination for us.
The Independent [London] - 24 May 2005

Beethoven didn't only achieve fame posthumously. In his irascible prime, he was already the most celebrated composer in the world, and his Ninth Symphony, with its 'Ode to Joy', has kept the pot on the boil ever since. It was a sensation when it premiered in Vienna, and its after-life has been extraordinary, serving in the 19th century as the anthem for proto-Marxists, French republicans and German nationalists, and in the 20th for both the Nazis and their Jewish victims in Auschwitz.

The 'Ode', which has been sung at every Olympic Games since 1956, was also adopted as an anthem by Ian Smith's white-supremacist regime in Rhodesia. In Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange it stood for private criminality and public terrorism, and it was what Leonard Bernstein chose to conduct — with an orchestra symbolically drawn from six nations — when the Berlin Wall came down.

As an American critic once put it, we all live in the valley of the Ninth: no other work has been all things to all men. And no other composer remains so idolised. Next month, without even the justification of an anniversary, BBC Radio 3 will clear its schedules to offer wall-to-wall Beethoven for a week, while BBC television embarks on the biggest retrospective it has ever mounted on a composer. This is so remarkable that it's worth asking why.

The stock answer is that we thrill to the way Beethoven's sufferings — deafness and a thwarted love life — fuelled his creative triumph. That's fine as far as it goes, but it doesn't explain Beethoven's unique ability to compel us to hang on his every note. It might be that a combination of musical, political, and economic factors produced exactly the right situation to draw out his genius. But not even that explains his power over us. The key, I believe, lies in the realm of psychoanalysis. For Beethoven was, in important respects, not so much sad as mad.

He was a solitary, monosyllabic child, who took refuge in a dream-world to escape the miseries of the real one: neighbours saw him weeping under his father's cruel musical tutelage. And his father was a drunk: when Beethoven's melancholic mother died in his 16th year, he was forced into surrogate parenthood of his younger siblings.

More significant was the fact that he grew up believing he was illegitimate. Like Salvador Dalí, he lived in the shadow of an elder brother of the same name, who had died in infancy: Beethoven believed that his own birth certificate actually belonged to this other Ludwig. When he was 12, he wrote a song 'An einem Saugling' (suckling), which began with the words: 'You still do not know whose child you are.' Even in his middle years he claimed not to know his real age, and he wove a fantasy — which he encouraged others to believe — that he was of noble birth. This suited both his aristocratic view of himself and his contempt for his father. But denying the truth always comes at a price, and Beethoven paid his in the form of mid-life madness.

The principal symptom of this madness was Beethoven's manic determination to wrest custody of his nephew Karl from his brother's widow, in a tug-of-love that he masochistically dragged through the courts. The first psychoanalytical study of this case asserted that Beethoven was an authoritarian sadist transferring his homosexual feelings for his younger brother Caspar on to his nephew Karl, whom he tried to rescue from the 'fatal claws' of his evil mother. Karl, who spent 10 years as a rebellious prisoner in Beethoven's house, finally tried to shoot himself.

A more cogent analysis comes from the American musicologist Maynard Solomon (who has also solved the riddle of the 'Eternal Beloved' to whom Beethoven penned his famous missive). Solomon argues that the dead Ludwig was the fantasy-twin whom Beethoven desperately needed to keep alive, and that the forcible appropriation of his nephew Karl was a desperate symbolic ploy to reincarnate the dead brother. Only when Karl attempted suicide did Beethoven relinquish this fantasy. But as Solomon points out, some of Beethoven's most haunting music is dedicated to this 'twin', who represented a magic doubling of his powers. That is the magic which reaches out to us, as his subconscious makes contact with ours.

Meanwhile, Beethoven's productivity was brought to a halt by his eventual realisation that he would never found a family of his own, and that he was in this respect impotent. Add to that his deafness — what could be worse for a musician? — and you get some idea of the troubles that threatened to overwhelm him. Yet despite the explosion of despair in his Heiligenstadt Testament — 'Oh you who consider me misanthropic ... you do not know the secret cause' — Beethoven's musical powers were scarcely impaired by his deafness: in one sense, it was merely a continuation of the metaphorical 'deafness' into which he'd retreated as a boy. All his life he lived in a world where the loudest sounds were those inside his head. Magic saved him once more, as he turned this disability into superhuman strength, and groped his way, one masterpiece at a time, into the transfigured world of his late works.

'If I were to hear that music often, I would always be very brave': with these words, chancellor Bismarck put his finger on Beethoven's unique capacity to inspire heroic deeds. And philosophers as well as politicians fell under his spell, as was Beethoven's explicit intention. 'I despise that world,' he wrote to a friend, 'which does not intuitively feel that music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.' To the Romantic movement that was then dawning, an artist was a quasi-religious prophet, and Beethoven was the ideal exemplar.

'You ask me where I get my ideas,' Beethoven wrote in one of the conversation-books through which he communicated with his friends. 'I cannot answer this with any certainty: they come unbidden. I may grasp them with my hands in the open air, while walking in the woods, in the stillness of the night, at early morning. Stimulated by those moods that poets turn into words, I turn my ideas into tones, which resound, roar, and rage, until at last they stand before me in the form of notes.'

'Beethoven is not a man,' wrote Bizet, 'he is a god, like Shakespeare, like Homer, like Michelangelo.' For Liszt, Beethoven's music paralleled 'the pillars of smoke and fire that led the Israelites through the desert ... so that we may march ahead both day and night.'

Beethoven's last words were allegedly 'Comoedia finita est' [the comedy has ended], but he wrote a more fitting sign-off in one of his conversation-books: 'The moral law within us, and the starry heavens above us.' Yes, this was a visionary who encompassed the universe.