At the beginning of 2020, I resolved to ignore, as far as possible, celebrations of the two-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven’s birth, which fell last month. The uncontested titan of classical music receives sufficient attention in an ordinary year, and there is no lazier way of programming a musical season than letting it be dictated by a birthday. As it happened, the coronavirus pandemic essentially wiped out the Beethoven Year; virtual seasons often turned in a different direction, placing a welcome emphasis on Black composers. Still, there was no escaping the shadow of the scowling one. Recordings and books accumulated by the dozens; radio stations staged multiday marathons. During the months without live concerts, I slipped back into the composer’s vortex, paying particular attention to the latest scholarly literature, which gives insight into how our Beethoven obsession took hold.
Anniversary programming is symptomatic of classical music’s extreme fixation on the past, and the veneration of Beethoven played a pivotal role in the emergence of that mentality. In the years after his death, in 1827, concert halls became temples of undead gods, with a familiar wild-maned figure featured at the center of the pantheon. Beethoven himself in no way invited this turn of events. Although he was an overbearing and in many ways unpleasant personality, he was no megalomaniac, and the idea that his music would dominate the future repertory, to the exclusion of living composers’ work, would presumably have been anathema to him. Perpetually dissatisfied, eternally questing, he developed a musical language that was always becoming and never arriving. A proper tribute to Beethoven would show how his restless spirit has resonated with more recent music—as the Danish String Quartet has done in its exploration of the late quartets.
The authors who published Beethoven books in 2020—I count at least ten—faced the task of countering received images of the composer, who is habitually conjured as a mighty, muscular figure, a hero of musical progress. Mark Evan Bonds isolates the principal issue on the first pages of “Beethoven: Variations on a Life,” a brief, bracing study that combines biography and analysis. “The first thing to get past is The Scowl,” Bonds writes. “It is hard to avoid, for it confronts us everywhere, from album covers and dust jackets to monumental statues and those little white busts that adorn upright pianos.” That fearsome visage conforms to the pell-mell drive of several of the most-often-heard Beethoven works—the “Eroica” Symphony, the Fifth Symphony, the “Appassionata” Sonata—but it belies the composer’s more playful, unpredictable, creatively subversive side, which came more to the fore as he grew older.
Bonds, one of America’s leading Beethoven scholars, actually published two books on the composer in 2020. The other, “The Beethoven Syndrome: Hearing Music as Biography,” delves more deeply into the making of that scowling myth, which necessitated the simplification and distortion of a hugely variegated creative output. During Beethoven’s lifetime, Bonds points out, his contemporaries saw him not as a solitary soul communicating his private agony but as a Proteus, a musical shape-shifter. Around 1800, before Romantic values of self-expression really took hold in the musical sphere, such “creative mutability” was held in the highest esteem. Bonds writes: “The Protean artist, able to overcome self-inclinations at will, was considered superior to those ruled by their innate proclivities.” The idea that Beethoven’s music records his own life and struggles in music took hold only after his death, when Romantic aesthetics and Hegelian philosophy pushed aside the Enlightenment values in which Beethoven came of age.
Laura Tunbridge’s “Beethoven: A Life in Nine Pieces,” a concise, subtly revealing survey, complements the protean image by emphasizing the many-sidedness of the composer’s spirit. The first of the nine works that she uses to summarize Beethoven’s career is, surprisingly, the Septet, a six-movement divertimento-like concoction from 1800, which conspicuously lacks the heroic qualities that have determined Beethoven’s image. The Septet was one of the composer’s first great successes, not least because of its easygoing, proto-Schubertian lyricism. It hardly seems to be the product of the same artist who soon unleashed the “Eroica,” but its gentle quirks look ahead to the divine mischief of the later sonatas and quartets. The Septet was also, as Tunbridge points out, a calculated offering to the musical marketplace of Vienna and its governing power structures: the Empress Maria Theresa was the dedicatee.
The Beethoven of biographical legend spurned the aristocracy and asserted the freedom of the individual. Although he fed that image by striking defiant poses—supposedly, he once chastised Goethe for showing undue deference to a group of nobles—Beethoven made his own compromises with authority. We have long needed a full-length biography that gives a dispassionate picture of the composer’s political maneuvers. Such a book is Jan Caeyers’s “Beethoven: A Life,” which first appeared in Dutch, in 2009, and has now been translated into English by Brent Annable. Caeyers is particularly sharp in showing how Beethoven let himself be positioned as an unofficial national composer in the later stages of the Napoleonic Wars. In return for a degree of financial independence, he had to produce dubious occasional works, such as the 1814 cantata “The Glorious Moment,” written in honor of Prince Metternich’s reactionary Congress of Vienna.
This is not to say that the more marketable image of Beethoven the freedom fighter needs to be entirely discarded. William Kinderman, in “Beethoven: A Political Artist in Revolutionary Times,” reinforces the picture of a fundamentally liberal-minded artist, and gives a telling portrait of the composer’s crisis around 1802, when signs of encroaching deafness apparently stirred thoughts of suicide. The agonized “Heiligenstadt Testament” that Beethoven wrote that year is here seen as both a personal and a political document, with the urge toward liberation expressed, above all, in terms of artistic independence. Kinderman writes: “The idea of a symbolic enactment of the artist’s own death in order that he might start anew—in short, the notion of a ‘rebirth’—may be implied by Beethoven’s references from about this time to a ‘new path’ or ‘a completely new manner’ in reference to his art.”
In the end, a protean artist cannot be contained in conventional political categories. Daniel K. L. Chua makes this point in his philosophically questing book, “Beethoven & Freedom,” from 2017: “Beethoven scholarship is caught within the binary narrative, portraying the composer as either an Enlightened radical or a reactionary conservative.” Like so many major artists through the centuries, Beethoven adhered to no consistent ideology, and, in any event, the ease with which he has been assimilated into every imaginable form of propaganda—revolutionary, reactionary, communist, fascist—demonstrates that the explosive energy of his music carries with it no specific political message, even if one had been intended.
Is it possible that Beethoven felt confined by his own incipient myth—that he sought freedom, in a sense, from being Beethoven? The hammering splendors of his so-called heroic period, which began with the “Eroica” in 1804 and lasted intermittently for about a decade, at once began to hold audiences in thrall, but they constitute only a fraction of Beethoven’s output and grow scarce in the late period. The Ninth Symphony, with its tragic-gestured first movement and its world-embracing choral finale, is the obvious exception; yet Beethoven felt uncertain about the piece after its première, and evidently contemplated replacing the “Ode to Joy” with a purely instrumental finale, for which he had already made sketches. Those ideas wound up in the String Quartet, Opus 132, which inhabits an entirely different realm. Kinderman maps out the hidden relationship between the oratorical symphony and the introspective quartet, suggesting that Beethoven “showed himself capable of regarding Schiller’s ‘Ode to Joy’ with distancing irony.”
Chua, who sometimes loses himself in theoretical thickets as he interweaves the critical theory of Theodor W. Adorno with post-structuralist methodologies, hits upon a memorable aperçu when he states that heroism and freedom, two concepts so often associated with Beethoven, “cannot exist without contradiction.” Heroism requires the exercise of force. Freedom, by contrast, implies the absence of force and oppression. It is on that contradiction that the Ninth could seem to falter. Adorno observed that the “Ode to Joy” contains the line “He who cannot rejoice, let him steal weeping from this group.” The utopian community of joy cannot take shape, apparently, without someone being ejected from its midst. Under the wrong circumstances, the Ninth becomes a ceremony of compulsory mass jubilation.
That higher sphere of freedom, in which heroic gestures and mythic narratives no longer carry much weight, is the zone that Beethoven enters in his later sonatas and string quartets, in which he routinely subverts the expectations that his forward-hurtling symphonic style has created. The most valuable recordings of the Beethoven Year—Igor Levit’s survey of the sonatas and the Quatuor Ébène’s cycle of the quartets—bring out those contrarian tones of wit, weirdness, irony, understatement, frenzy, stasis, and bittersweet release. Having created the single most potent persona in the history of music, Beethoven proceeded to engender another, more elusive self, which was perhaps the truer one. The late works exemplify what Ingmar Bergman once identified as music’s elemental appeal: the power to imagine a different life.