Beethoven and the Revolution

It was time, not the time kept by a clock or pocket watch but time kept by eternity.  Underneath the landscape’s horizon line, the hills and valleys around Vienna appeared like a romanticized painting with soft rich greens, golden brownish reds, and luminous beige hues.  The view was speckled with bare trees anticipating the touch of the sun.  The stormy grey skies of March seemed somber with winter’s last hold before the changing of the seasons from winter into spring; the sobriety of the coldness of winter mixed with the longing of warmer days to come along with the blossoms of early spring flowers.  Such was the feeling in Vienna in the late winter of 1827, and indeed seasonal change was in the air.  A young lady riding in a carriage was overheard describing the change in seasons like the transition between symphonic movements.  It was the kind of change that all of God’s creatures on earth intuitively know, the seasonal life cycle; the entry of newborns into the world, and the passing of the living inflected by age, sickness or fate into finality of silence.

Vienna on March 26, 1827, the morning air was still and calm, sweeten with dust from the fields mixed with moisture in the air that created a kind of earthy fragrance.  Dark and towering pillars of thunderstorm clouds began to build outside of town and then slowly marched in like French revolutionary guard ready to battle over the souls of Vienna.  The rumbling of thunder could be heard in the distant from Beethoven’s room.  Beethoven was in immense discomfort and had taken a turn for the worst.  Days before Dr. Wawruch performed a common medical procedure on Beethoven to relieve the swelling of the stomach by puncturing the abdomen to remove the excess liquid.  One of the four puncture wounds became infected.

There laid Beethoven in his deathbed, the man who inspired his generation and generations to come, suffering, in immense human discomfort and pain, cast in silence from his deafness.  Nearly alone spiritually, only two people, and God were present to witnessed Beethoven’s death.  To this day, it is still unclear to scholars of the final passing of Beethoven and if he had last words, if any, but lore.  We are only left with our imagination; as the lighting and thunder from the storm approached closer, the flashes of light and thunderous rumble of vibrations drew Beethoven further inward, remembering the instances from his life with each flash of lighting illuminating his room, then slipping away as the thunder rumbles away into silence and the vibrations into stillness.  Ludwig Van Beethoven died on March 26, 1827. Three days later, Beethoven’s funeral procession marched through Vienna attended by twenty thousand people to pay tribute to this heroic figure.

The Flame

Long before Beethoven was born, a flame flickered in the Age of Enlightenment and which later grew into revolutionary and intellectual fire in the 18th and late 19th centuries, in that European cultural and intellectual thought emphasized reason, analysis, and individualism rather than the age old lines of authority based on ancient and feudal power structures. The light from the flame of enlightenment came the writings of Bacon, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Locke, Mendelssohn, Newton and Voltaire to name more than a few and such thoughts inspired both the American and French Revolution’s ambitions to set men free from the chains of a feudal caste system.  While the American Revolution from the start became a shining light of the world, the French Revolution became a digression into terror and then Bonaparte.  In spite of this historic French digression, French society and culture changed, forever.  French society progressed forward since the days of the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, Napoleonic Code and established Constitution.  Now France is considered one of the shining lights of the modern and free world.  However, the fight against the chains of political tyranny and corruption, religious intolerance and terror, racism and cultural discord, misogyny, poverty, disease, crime and injustice still continues around the world and the flame still burns.

The Artist as Hero

Ludwig (Luigi, Louis) van Beethoven was baptized on the 17th of December 1770 in Bonn, Germany of the Holy Roman Empire.  His parents were Johann van Beethoven and Maria Magdalena Keverich.  Beethoven was fortunate to have a mother like Maria.  Beethoven described her as, ‘kind, loving mother to me, and my best friend’.  Maria was a genteel, serious, and deeply moralistic woman and it is her values which formed Beethoven’s world view on life and music.  Beethoven witness his mother’s sorrows in marriage and she suffered dearly from a dreadful bloody disease.  Maria died at the age of 40 of consumption on 17th of July 1787.

Beethoven’s father, Johann came from Flemish stock as van in his name indicates, as the Beethoven men were proud of their Flemish heritage.  Johann van Beethoven was considered a mediocre court singer with a reputation as an alcoholic more so than having musical ability or talent.  However, Beethoven’s grandfather, godfather and namesake, Kapellmeister Ludwig van Beethoven, was Bonn’s most prosperous and eminent musician, a source of endless pride for Beethoven.  It is true, Johann taught his son to play the piano but from all accounts, he was brutal, cruel, and violently dogmatic in his methods that it effected and changed Beethoven for the rest of his life.  Johann attempted to provide for his family but descended into the despair and lost himself in alcoholism to the point of being an incapable soul.

If Mozart is considered the child prodigy, the boy genius, mentored by his father Leopold Mozart and Papa Joseph Haydn, then Beethoven is the artist’s hero, brooding, challenged, confident, and imaginative innovator.  Beethoven as a child was not a prodigy nor mentored musically by his father but one can say he was indeed disciplined in music.  Beethoven was mentored by Christian Gottlob Neefe in Bonn and Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, Antonio Salieri, Joseph Haydn in Vienna.  However, his relationship with Haydn, who was considered the best composer in Vienna at the time, was short, perhaps of the differences in personality and chemistry.  Although the aristocratic class of Vienna as of the likes of Count Waldstein, Prince Lobkowitz, Prince Lichnowsky and Baron Gottfried van Swieten accepted Beethoven socially, in fact, it was their patronage that enabled Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven for the betterment of Vienna as the center of music in Europe.

Beethoven was never a servant to the high born.  He held the deposition that the artist is equal in nobility as the high born in that the artist’s gift of creativity ennobles all of humanity, regardless of the artist’s social caste, therefore, is noble in the truest sense of the word.  In the values instilled in him by his mother, Beethoven believed music moralistic imperative was to lift the human spirit from the evil and darkness into the divine and light.  Beethoven succeed in his art against all odds that life and God laid before him, wrestling with the angels and demons to eventually write Symphony No. 9 D Major completely without the ability to physically hear a note.  The heir apparent to Mozart, Beethoven single handedly expanded the symphony to new heights and bridged the Classical and Romantic periods in music while carrying the crescendo of the enlightenment.

Genesis of the Eroica Symphony

Like all works of creative expression have an uncanny way to imprint and present the artist’s psychological self-portrait to the observer.  Beethoven’s art is a true self-portrait, his use of the musical language paints his emotions and expresses the joys and sorrows in a way that every human can relate to in universal time, so goes Rembrandt, so does Beethoven.  When Beethoven expanded the tradition of Haydn and Mozart, he stated he was not satisfied with his work thus far and needed to take a new path through the woods.  At the turn of the 18th century, Beethoven could not escape the revolutionary flames in politics or the grand ideas of the time nor could he reconcile the internal conflicts of his personal life.  Beethoven had been an admirer of Napoleon Bonaparte and there was great enthusiasm throughout Europe in the hope the old ways of governance would collapse.  Napoleon appeared to championed the cause.  Beethoven became enraged when he learned of Napoleon’s true intentions and declared himself Emperor.

From Biographische Notizen über Beethoven, F. Wegeler and F. Ries, 1838:  

In writing this symphony Beethoven had been thinking of Buonaparte, but Buonaparte while he was First Consul.  At that time Beethoven had the highest esteem for him and compared him to the greatest consuls of ancient Rome.  Not only I, but many of Beethoven’s closer friends, saw this symphony on his table, beautifully copied in manuscript, with the word “Buonaparte” inscribed at the very top of the title-page and “Luigi van Beethoven” at the very bottom.  Whether or how the intervening gap was to be filled out I do not know.  I was the first to tell him the news that Buonaparte had declared himself Emperor, whereupon he broke into a rage and exclaimed, “So he is no more than a common mortal!  Now, he too will tread under foot all the rights of man, indulge only his ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men, become a tyrant!”  Beethoven went to the table, seized the top of the title-page, tore it in half and threw it on the floor.  The page was later recopied and it was only now that the symphony received the title ‘Sinfonia Eroica.’  

Heiligenstadt Testament

Beethoven was troubled about his financial future, commoner status, ability to marry and above all his health was frightening him.  In the late 1790s Beethoven started to hear the ringing and buzzing in his ears.  In 1801 and 1802, he sought consultation of a new physician, Johann Schmidt, which the recommendation was given to take some rest away from Vienna.  Beethoven decided on a restful place on the outskirts of Vienna in the village of Heiligenstadt.  His time in Heiligenstadt gave him the rest he needed but his ability to hear was deteriorating further.  One can only imagine the thoughts and emotions running through Beethoven’s head.  In the autumn of that year he was compelled to draft of his last will and testament.  This document came to be known as the Heiligenstadt Testament.  The document is considered a confessional and psychological record of Beethoven’s state of mind, he writes in length of his illnesses, reveals that he has contemplated suicide to overcome the pain and despondency of the illness that haunts him but his art keeps him from taking his life.  Beethoven kept this document hidden for the rest of his life and it was never revealed to anyone until after his death.  The document has been linked to the creation of the Eroica Symphony because it gives an explanation of Beethoven’s psychological state and why his compositional style changes so drastically.  Some scholars have noted both the Heiligenstadt Testament and Eroica Symphony are indeed linked confessional documents; recognizable moments of truth.

Symphony No. 3 in E-Flat Major “Eroica”, Op. 55

Beethoven completed the composition in early 1803 and the first public performance of Symphony No. 3 in E Flat Major was on 7 April 1805 in Vienna.  The innovative work of Eroica expanded the scale of the symphony on many levels, exposition, development, recapitulation, and coda became reapportioned to equivalent scope, specifically the development and coda; a departure from Haydn and Mozart.  Beethoven expand the sonata form as never before.  For the first time three horns are used in symphony.  Although like most masterpieces, at first, there are divided opinions on the merits of the work and some critics praised it was a masterpiece while other critics of the day attacked the length of the symphony as being exhausting, disjointed, and lacks rounding out.  After 210 years, the Eroicia Symphony has heroically endured as one of the most innovating, exciting, challenging symphonic works recognized and accepted as an important turning point in music with considerable historical, political, and biographical optics.

The Four Movements:
Allegro Con Brio (Heroic Life)
Marcia Funebre adagio assai (Death, Sorrow and Realization)
Scherzo Allegro Vivace (Resurrection of the Hero and Humility)
Finale Allegro Molto (Hope and Triumph)

Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony  “Ever thine, Ever mine, Ever ours”


All Rights Reserved  © Richard A. Peña 2015


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