The Ninth is not necessarily Beethoven’s greatest symphony.
The Ninth is not necessarily Beethoven’s greatest symphony. That honour is surely shared by the Eroica, in which the composer changed the course of orchestral writing after two prentice works (and what works they were!), and the Seventh. Beethoven’s last symphony, known in the English-speaking world as the ‘Choral’, for its unprecedented use of the human voice, is magnificent but flawed. The meditative slow movement may be the greatest Beethoven ever wrote, but the joy that Beethoven strove for in the finale finds finer musical and dramatic expression in the hymn to liberty that closes Fidelio.
If it is not his greatest symphony it is certainly the one that has cast the longest shadows. In the German-speaking world the Ninth is performed, in keeping with the work’s character, to close each year, and to begin every new one. At the Proms it is the only work that is performed every season. At times of crisis, after the destruction of the Twin Towers in 2001, or of celebration, when for instance the Berlin Wall came down, people look towards Beethoven’s setting of Schiller’s Ode to Joy: ‘Be embraced, you millions! By this kiss for the whole world!’
The world has not withheld its thanks to the man who sought, through music, to embrace it. Berlioz, who was 21 when the Ninth received its première in Vienna on 7 May 1824, spoke for musicians everywhere when he wrote that Beethoven had ‘climbed so high that one begins to lose one’s breath’. Wagner, born 10 years later, wrote out the score of the Ninth as a teenager, believing that it held ‘the secret to all secrets’. And what is that secret? In our own age Edward Said has supplied an unequivocal answer. All the positive things one wants to say about human existence are contained in
this fantastic stream of pulsating, organically connected music, which seems to say, ‘the human adventure is worth it in some way’.
Harvey Sachs, an American music writer who was bewitched by Beethoven’s talent to ‘universalise the intimate’ as a teenager in Cleveland half a century ago, has written a book worthy of its subject. Part music lesson, part tour d’horizon of European cultural life in the early 18th century, and part homage to the immortal Ludwig, it may not reveal anything that is not already known, but there is more than one kind of revelation, and the author’s expertise, conveyed in uncluttered prose that falls short of zealotry, will delight the curious reader.
Scholars have furnished entire libraries with books about ‘the Romantic hero’, and Romanticism itself. It is a subject that will never go out of fashion, because the pre and post-Napoleonic years produced so many remarkable men (and they were men) who shaped the world we have inherited. Yet, if there is nothing new here, Sachs elegantly makes his case in four overlapping chapters. Anybody interested in music, or the history of thought, will find much nourishment in this potted study of the man who must be, by any reasonable estimation, not merely the greatest of composers, but, along with Shakespeare and Rembrandt, the greatest of all creators: the one whose music, in Yehudi Menuhin’s phrase, represents ‘the conscience of mankind’.
Beethoven was not the only Romantic hero. As Sachs outlines, Byron died in Greece 18 days before the première, mourned by the whole of Europe — or that part of it which sought an end to political repression. Pushkin, Stendhal, Delacroix and Heine also play significant parts in this book. But while educated people may read Don Juan and Eugene Onegin, and admire the French painter’s brilliant colours, it is the symphony of a deaf man, composed in domestic chaos as Metternich’s spies haunted the alleys and cafés of Vienna, sniffing out subversion, that continues to speak directly to the world two centuries later.
Romanticism, as we know, was in part an internal response to external events. After Napoleon’s defeat, and the restoration of the old order throughout the continent, the urge for liberation found expression in art, music and lyric poetry. That does not mean that all romantic artists were political, though some, like Byron, clearly were. It is to the author’s credit that he delineates the dancer from the dance. We do not remember great artists for the depth (or shallowness) of their political convictions, but for the work they forged, contradictions and all. Here Sachs usefully quotes Heine’s belief that art ‘is its own definite justification, just like the world itself’. That may not be the last word on the subject, but it is a pretty good one.
Have we, however, misunderstood the nature of Romanticism? In his magnificent study of European cultural history, From Dawn to Decadence, Jacques Barzun wrote that it was
not a movement in the ordinary sense of a programme adopted by a group, but a state of consciousness exhibiting the divisions found in every age.
Beethoven, like all great artists, evades easy categorisation. A lover of humanity, he was unhappy among people, and found all forms of social life intolerable. A hater of tyranny, he was by no means a democrat; certainly not in the way our world might understand the term. Better to say he was a composer of unsurpassable ambition (not vanity) who believed his gift could change the world.
Surprisingly there is little room for Wordsworth in this study, though the poet’s line from Tintern Abbey, ‘we see into the life of things’, could be held to represent the whole Romantic movement. Nor is there a mention of Caspar David Friedrich, the German painter, born four years after Beethoven, whose solitary figures staring towards some limitless horizon share similar emotional states to the late Beethoven. Friedrich was concerned with the Christian soul; Beethoven, despite quoting Schiller’s Creator who ‘must dwell above stars’, was not raised a Catholic, his only true religion was music.
‘The rot set in with Beethoven’, said Benjamin Britten, who, cold fish that he was, could never understand the idea of the artist as hero (though he admired Mahler, whose music is nothing if not attention-seeking). He had half a point, because the past century has been chock-full of artists, or ‘artists’, who have asked us to soothe their fevered brows. They are still around today. No matter. Their egotism cannot disguise Beethoven’s greatness, whether or not one considers the mighty Ninth to be his finest work.
Samuel Langford, the English music critic, considering Beethoven’s Op 132 quartet in A minor, conceived during a period of ill-health, wrote that
if these beauties were born of human weakness and frailty, and have come from the hardness of physical crisis…then there is something to be said even for weakness and sickness as an inspiration in the arts.
He concluded, as have so many others, from Berlioz onwards: ‘It is something to belong to the same race of beings as Beethoven’. As Sachs makes clear, in this engaging book, in a manner that neither hectors nor cloys, music-lovers will be saying as much a thousand years from now. Every human society will find Beethoven’s music eternally hopeful, eternally modern. We cannot live without it.