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Freedom’s Symphony

The world of Beethoven’s Ninth.

Jun 28, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 39 • By LAWRENCE KLEPP
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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.

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