Beethoven and the Revolution

It was time, not the time kept by a clock or pocket watch, but time preserved for eternity.  Underneath the landscape’s horizon line, Vienna’s hills and valleys appeared like a romanticized painting with soft, vibrant greens, golden brownish reds, and bright beige hues.  Speckled bare trees were anticipating the touch of the sun.  The stormy grey skies of March seemed somber with winter’s last hold before changing the seasons from winter into spring; the sobriety of the coldness of winter mixed with the longing for warmer days to come along with the blossoms of early spring flowers. 

Such was the feeling in Vienna in the late winter of 1827; the seasonal change was in the air.  A young woman riding in a carriage 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 the finality of silence.

Vienna, on 26 March 1827, the morning air was still and calm, sweetened 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 the French revolutionary guard, ready to battle over the souls of Vienna.  From Beethoven’s room, the rumbling of distant thunder sounded off. Beethoven was in immense discomfort, and his health turned for the worst. Doctor Wawruch performed a standard 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 on his deathbed, the man who inspired his generation and the generations to come, suffering, in immense discomfort and pain, cast in silence from his deafness, nearly alone spiritually with no words to whisper.  Two people stood present with God to witness Beethoven’s death.  We are left to our imagination and the mind’s eye. Lightning and thunder from the storm approached closer. The flashes of blue light from the lightning painted the room, and the thunderous rumble of vibrations drew Beethoven further inward. Beethoven began remembering the instances from his life with each flash of lightning illuminating his room, then slipped away as the thunder rumbled into silence and the vibrations into stillness.  Ludwig Van Beethoven died on March 26, 1827, and 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, the Age of Enlightenment became a flickering candle flame in the darkness of history. The enlightenment later became the revolutionary and intellectual fire in the 18th and late 19th centuries prompting European cultural and philosophical thought to emphasize reason, analysis, and individualism rather than the age-old lines of authority based on ancient and feudal power structures. The flame of enlightenment engendered the writings of Bacon, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Locke, Mendelssohn, Newton, and Voltaire, to name more than a few, and such ideas 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.  Despite 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 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 continues worldwide, 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 a ‘kind, loving mother to me, and my best friend.’  Maria was a polite, serious, and deeply moralistic woman and her values formed Beethoven’s worldview on life and music.  Beethoven witnessed 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 17 July 1787.

Beethoven’s father, Johann, came from Flemish stock, as the 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.  Johann taught his son to play the piano, but from all accounts, he was brutal, cruel, and violently dogmatic in his methods which affected and changed Beethoven for the rest of his life.  Johann attempted to provide for his family but descended into despair and lost himself to alcoholism to the point of being a tragic soul.

Beethoven was never a servant to the highborn.  He held that the artist is equal in nobility to the high born in that the artist’s gift of creativity ennobles all of humanity, regardless of the artist’s social caste; therefore, the artist is noble in the absolute sense of the word.  In the values instilled in him by his mother, Beethoven believed music’s moral imperative was to lift the human spirit from evil and darkness into the divine and light.  Beethoven succeeds in his art against all the odds that life and God laid before him, wrestling with the angels and demons to eventually write Symphony No. 9 D Major entirely without the ability to hear a note physically.  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.

The Genesis of the Eroica Symphony

Like all works of creative expression have an uncanny way of imprinting and presenting the artist’s psychological self-portrait to the observer.  Beethoven’s art is an accurate self-portrait; his use of 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, and 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 that the old ways of governance would collapse.  Napoleon appeared to champion 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, and marriageability; above all, his health was frightening.  In the late 1790s, Beethoven started to hear the ringing and buzzing in his ears.  In 1801 and 1802, he sought the consultation of a new physician, Johann Schmidt, and 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 hearing ability was deteriorating.  In the autumn of that year, he was compelled to draft his last will and testament.

This document came to be known as the Heiligenstadt Testament. The paper is considered a confessional and psychological record of Beethoven’s state of mind. He writes about the length of his illnesses, revealing that he has contemplated suicide to overcome the pain and despair of the disease that haunts him, but his art keeps him from taking his life. Beethoven held this document hidden for the rest of his life, never revealing it to anyone until after his death. The document has been linked to the Eroica Symphony’s creation because it explains Beethoven’s psychological state and why his compositional style changed so drastically.  Some scholars have noted that both the Heiligenstadt Testament and Eroica Symphony are linked confessional documents and 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.  Eroica’s innovative work expanded the symphony’s scale 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 expands the sonata form as never before.  For the first time, three horns are used in a symphony.  Although, like most masterpieces, at first, there were divided opinions on the merits of the work, and some critics praised it as a masterpiece. In contrast, other critics of the day attacked the symphony’s length as exhausting, disjointed, and lacking in rounding out.  After 210 years, the Eroica Symphony has heroically endured as one of the most innovative, exciting, and challenging symphonic works, recognized and accepted as an essential turning point in music with considerable historical, political, and biographical optics.

Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony:
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)

“Ever thine, ever mine, ever ours.”


All Rights Reserved, Beethoven and the Revolution  © Richard A. Peña 2015

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