Beethoven was a revolutionary. Not just in the obvious sense that his compositions took music in a new direction. He was an artist imbued with the idea of revolution. Crucial to a full appreciation of Beethoven’s music is a knowledge of the times in which he lived, an understanding of the tumultuous events sweeping across Europe, bringing with them new orders and new ideas.
Where was Beethoven born?
Bonn, where Beethoven was born, was an outpost of the Habsburg Empire. It was small, prosperous and sophisticated due to the fact that it was the seat of the Elector of Cologne and Münster. On the surface it was also conservative. But Vienna – capital city of the Holy Roman Empire, formal and proper, with a growing network of spies, where dissent was not tolerated – was 500 miles and several days’ coach ride away. And so the burghers of Bonn, not to mention the elector, were prone to making decisions almost calculated to upset those at the heart of government.
The first of these to have a lasting impact on the young musical prodigy in Bonn was the employment as court organist not only of an outsider, from Saxony, but a man of the wrong religion too. A Protestant, no less, who wasted no time in joining the proscribed organisation of like-minded dissidents, the Illuminati. No one knows what persuaded the largely incapable and alcoholic Johann van Beethoven to employ Christian Gottlob Neefe as teacher to his son Ludwig, but it was an inspired choice.It does not take too much imagination to see Neefe, as well as encouraging his young pupil’s first attempts at composition, filling his head with ideas of religion, philosophy and politics. Neefe radicalised Beethoven.
Before Beethoven was ten, the old order passed with the death of Empress Maria Therese. Emperor Joseph put in place immediate reforms, stripping the clergy of much of their power, introducing a measure of freedom of worship, and pushing through emancipation of the peasantry before he died, just 48, in 1790.
That was when the musical establishment of Bonn took a truly extraordinary decision. They decided to commission a work to commemorate Joseph’s death, which would set to music words by a local poet, which in lauding Joseph’s break with the past were political dynamite, as well as a second piece to mark the accession of the new emperor. And instead of choosing one of the several senior and respected musicians at court, they awarded the commission to the 19-year-old Ludwig van Beethoven. No matter that the orchestra refused to perform the pieces because they considered them unplayable, from these two Cantatas on, Beethoven would always be a political composer.
He left Bonn for Vienna in November 1792, never to return. At the time, Paris was undergoing the single most cataclysmic event of the age. Three years earlier the people had stormed the Bastille, initiating the French Revolution. Louis XVI and his Queen were under arrest. The King would go to the guillotine within two months, Marie Antoinette a matter of months after that. It was not long before the French set about exporting their revolution, a task made easier by the fortune that one of their citizens was on his way to becoming the greatest military commander in history. Vienna was steeped in old-world tradition and was therefore most vulnerable to the new French Revolutionary Army. It was a city living in fear.
While lauding the aims of the French Revolution, Beethoven condemned outright the violence and bloodletting it had led to. He also deplored the French occupation of Bonn and the Rhineland. But this revolutionary young composer had found a hero in the First Consul of France, Napoleon Bonaparte, to whom he dedicated the Eroica Symphony, the work that famously propelled music into the 19th century. When Napoleon appointed himself Emperor, Beethoven withdrew the dedication, declaring him to be nothing more than a tyrant after all. Still, Beethoven could not help admiring Napoleon. The title page of the first edition bore the words: Sinfonia Eroica… per festeggiare il sovvenire di un grand Uomo [Heroic Symphony… to celebrate the memory of a great man], and Beethoven wrote to his publisher that ‘the title of the symphony is really Bonaparte’.
The influence of the Revolution stayed with Beethoven. The French composer Méhul, much admired by the revolutionaries, composed five symphonies in this period. All four movements of his First Symphony bear striking stylistic similarities to Beethoven’s Fifth – regarded as the epitome of revolutionary musical writing – and both were composed in the same year. Who influenced whom? One suspects that if you suggested to Beethoven that he was influenced by Méhul, he would probably agree, and say that the revolutionary theme of his only opera, Fidelio, was also influenced by themes used by Méhul in his operas.
Several times in adult life, Beethoven actively contemplated a move to Paris – surely a desire to experience revolutionary times at first hand. In fact in 1808, an annus horribilis for him, plans for the move were well advanced. It never, of course, happened. After Napoleon’s final defeat and exile, Vienna, with the autocratic Metternich running things, was more or less shut down. There were secret police everywhere.
Beethoven, by now deaf, had only one outlet for his ideas, and that was music. No wonder his compositions gave a new meaning to the world ‘revolutionary’. There had never been a piano sonata like the Hammerklavier. No composer had ever used voices in a symphony, as Beethoven would in his Ninth. The final Piano Sonata, Op. 111 shows his radical approach to form and his revolutionary brilliance stands out in every movement of his five Late Quartets, simply the greatest body of music ever composed.