Beethoven and the World of 1824
by Harvey Sachs
Random House, 240 pp., $26
Toward the end of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, in the mid-1970s, the routine attacks on revisionists and running dogs of imperialism were briefly interrupted by a strident anti-Beethoven campaign. A friend of mine who was a schoolgirl in Shanghai at the time remembers that the reeducation sessions demanded particularly resolute striving against the Fifth Symphony, because the dramatic opening chords had been interpreted as fate knocking on the door, and the bourgeois concept of fate was obsolete. The revolutionary will of the people, reinforced by the collective recital of Chairman Mao’s thoughts, overcame all inevitability and could accomplish anything.
It couldn’t accomplish making Beethoven sound bad. Many students, workers, and peasants heard his music for the first time in these propaganda sessions and were secretly transfixed. Tyrannies are, of course, right to get nervous when his music is played. No composer is more clearly identified with themes of individual liberty. His only opera, Fidelio, is about the liberation of a man from a despot’s prison. He struck out the dedication of the Eroica Symphony to Napoleon after hearing he had crowned himself emperor. And the music, like the composer himself, resolutely goes its own way, refusing to bow or conform.
He was the archetypal Romantic genius—wild of hair, disheveled of clothes and living quarters, socially abrupt and awkward, solitary, brooding, venturing far beyond the conventional limits and expectations of his art. And the dominant note of early Romanticism was a rebellion against oppressive uniformity, whether royalist or rationalist. In his engaging and far-ranging account of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and its resonance in European culture in 1824, the year it was first performed, Harvey Sachs writes,
If there is a hidden thread that connects Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to the works created in and around 1824 by other significant artists, it is precisely this quest for freedom: political freedom, from the repressive conditions that then dominated Europe, and freedom of expression, certainly, but above all freedom of the mind and spirit.
Beethoven’s music, like Romanticism in general, introduces a new exploratory impulse into Western art, a questing ambition to go deep into uncharted territory, whether of nature, the self, history, or philosophy. After Napoleon’s defeat, Sachs suggests, political preoccupations gave way to personal and spiritual ones, and the result was a pan-European creative surge. The early Romantic period was, in fact, probably the most artistically fertile period for the whole of Europe since the Renaissance, especially in music and poetry.
No one at the time created more masterpieces than Beethoven, but the same precipitous spiritual landscape he explored was simultaneously being traversed by other composers, writers, and artists, such as Schubert, Byron, Goethe, Heine, Pushkin, Stendhal, and Delacroix, all of whom Sachs discusses with insight and deft biographical sketchwork. Most of these still had, like Beethoven himself, one foot in the classicism of the previous century and were thus able to avoid the melodramatic and morbid excesses of later Romanticism.
The author of eight books on music, Sachs has been a conductor as well, and he helped Sir Georg Solti write his memoirs, experiences that supply anecdotes and insights on playing and conducting Beethoven. It’s a book full of personal asides and tangents, and it’s not meant as a systematic or scholarly study of the music. That’s what makes it accessible to readers who have little technical knowledge but who think that, to fine-tune Nietzsche’s aphorism, life without Beethoven’s music would be a mistake. Anyone who has been deeply moved by listening to the Ninth Symphony—not just the stirring “Ode to Joy,” the famous concluding choral paean to universal brotherhood, but the whole troubling and exhilarating work—without quite understanding why, will understand why after reading Sachs’s movement-by-movement evocation.
The book is full of incidental illuminations. It conveys the musical atmosphere of Vienna in Beethoven’s time, complete with its taste for kitschy spectacles like 16-piano transcriptions of Rossini (who was far more popular there than Beethoven). It offers an original perspective on Carlyle’s cult of heroism and a thoughtful discussion of just what music can and cannot express. And it reminds us that writing music with posterity in mind was revolutionary. Mozart and Haydn to a degree, then, fortissimo, Beethoven, wrote for the ages; but earlier composers wrote for patrons and occasions and expected their music to go out of fashion like ladies’ bonnets.
The change in music was heralded by the rise of a middle class, with piano or violin lessons for the children, that made music part of general culture and education, and the simultaneous turn toward a new, more individually defined expressive ambition in composing. (Sachs notes how much more Beethoven agonized over compositions than earlier composers.) The combined effect, he says, was to make composers “the high priests, perhaps even the gods, of a secular religion.”
The solemn Romantic religion of art probably wasn’t good for art, or artists, in the long run; but as religions go—well, nobody blows up airplanes while shouting “Mahler is great!” Sachs remarks that Beethoven wasn’t orthodox in religion or atheist, either. Probably he devised for himself a form of pantheism, plus a belief in individual redemption through suffering and a stoic but sometimes joyful acceptance of life.
The good thing about great music, though, is that it doesn’t require you to believe in anything but the music, and the spiritual and emotional meanings, while acutely felt, can’t be fully articulated. Beethoven gave us sacred music for an age of disbelief. Sachs at one point offers a variation on a theme by Nietzsche: “Sensitivity to beauty,” he writes, “is one of our strongest defenses; without it, we would perish from truth.” (Nietzsche said, “We have art lest we perish of the truth.”) One of the unpleasant truths that the philosopher must have had in mind is that there is no Truth, nothing absolute and unchanging. In modern culture, art became more important as truth became more elusive or provisional. New dogmas howled for a time and fell silent, but 183 years after his death, Beethoven is still stunning concert-hall audiences, even in China.
Lawrence Klepp is a writer in New York.