Oct 012016

“I will seize fate by the throat; it shall certainly never wholly overcome me.”  -Ludwig van Beethoven

Beethoven Full SizeBeethoven Full Size Text

Beethoven’s ideas of human freedom and fundamental rights aligned him with events of the French Revolution in the 1790s. Even before the decline of his hearing at the turn of the century, he was very idealistic in his thinking that people can forge their own destiny. He felt that different aristocrats were only a product of their birth, whereas, “there is only one Beethoven.” So in this way, in his life and music, he felt that he was a self made man and valued human perseverance through struggle and misfortune.[1]

In April of 1802, he sought a place of solitude for a six-month reprise. He traveled to Heiligenstadt, but ended up working hard on new pieces. Moreover, his brother Carl and pupil Ferdinand Ries were busy helping him arrange and sell different pieces to publishing companies. Beethoven’s hearing would soon deteriorate further and push his morals and courage to the test. All the while, Beethoven had been somewhat interested to writing a work in commemoration of Napoleon Bonaparte, who was increasing in rank and popularity. However, these early years of the 1800s show an interesting transition for Beethoven, who ultimately denounced Napoleon while finding the strength to push through his own turmoil and personal struggles. This gives Beethoven the chance to forge a new style of writing and expression while giving him the means to craft more overarching political and philosophical statements through his music.[2]

In 1800, Beethoven was already trying to create complex ideas and write pieces for active listening. Meanwhile, art like Napoleon Crossing the Alps by David emphasize Napoleon’s rising authority. In the following years he would gain more and more leverage and even crown himself emperor. David’s Coronation of Napoleon emphasizes this moment. Beethoven like many initially thought Napoleon was a “freedom fighter.” But he changed his stance with these developments, believing Napoleon would “place himself above everyone and become a tyrant.”[3] Ultimately, he feared that Napoleon’s individual will would be at the “expense of free will of others.”[4] As Beethoven soon had to pick himself up out of a depression and forge ahead with his art, he would denounce Napoleon, most noticeably with his removing of the dedication to Napoleon in the Eroica Symphony.[5] I feel that this was the ultimate test of will power for Beethoven, but represented a different impact than Napoleon.

By reflecting Beethoven’s works, we really see how his soul and convictions evolved in this early period around 1802-1808. On the surface, there are new aspects of his compositions including motivic links and similarities between movements, harmonic and rhythmic complexity, and even different overtones and orchestration.[6] His pieces were also more expressive and at times shocking, moving towards the idea of a symphony as more of a stand alone event. [7] But ultimately what Beethoven accomplishes is to present complex ideas about human struggle and perseverance.[8]

The overall form of many of his compositions in this period was a tripartite narrative of fate, conflict then ultimately triumph.[9] With Beethoven’s Tempest Sonata Op. 31 No. 2 that he worked on at Heiligenstadt around 1801-1802, this idea of struggle and enduring was very personal. The first movement opens on a dominant chord and explores different harmonic areas with intense figuration and dissonance. There is even a pedal area in the middle where the sound floats on an improvised line, like he is thinking out loud about what is to come. In the second movement there is more inconclusiveness and a steady ¾ meter with rhythmic pulsation throughout. Then the third movement has recurring figuration with more areas of dissonance. One of my favorite spots is before the coda where the same overtones emerge and Beethoven thinks out loud again. This moves into the final statements of the theme with some clearer texture and precise rhythmic ending, indicating some clarity of mind after the turmoil.[10]

With the suicide note to his brother, Beethoven detailed the cause of his pain and uncertainty to be his hearing loss. He felt betrayed that his passion was hampered by something he could not control or fix. He also felt hurt that he could not effectively communicate with people or enjoy the intricacies of their conversation and company. For this reason, he felt misunderstood and like an outcast. It was not that he did not like to be around others, but that he felt he could not effectively be a part of society in a social context. What is so amazing is that although Beethoven prayed to God, he did not put extra meaning into what was happening. He knew that his hearing would most likely not improve and there was little chance that he would experience joy or happiness again. Ultimately he had to consider his options and search for a reason to live in such misery. This development in Beethoven’s character occurred when he decided that he still had more art to create and that he alone was in charge of what he accomplished. I feel that this is the ultimate display of free will and even defiance against his fate.[11]

With his art a primary motivation not to commit suicide, Beethoven had the platform and opportunity to explore complex ideas of the human spirit. Some notable examples include his opera Fidelio from that he worked on from 1803-1805 and the Fifth Symphony that he worked on from 1804-1808. This idea of overcoming political tyranny and struggle in search of triumph was very prevalent.[12] In the Fifth Symphony, we again hear the tripartite narrative of “fate knocking at the door” with the famous opening four note motive, followed by some theme and variations with some ominous motivic development, and finally an optimistic coda in the fourth movement ending in C Major. [13]

With this commentary on human will and triumph, Beethoven wanted his music to have meaning not just for the present day but also for future generations. While he was composing into his later style, Napoleon’s rule was beginning to fade. Works like Reading of the Bulletin of the Grand Army from 1807 and Napoleon on the Battlefield of Eylau from 1808 depict not only Napoleon’s withering appearance but also death and uncertainty for the every day soldier and citizen. As Beethoven predicted, Napoleon’s will and power did not necessarily speak for the collective or individual will of the people, particularly as he further sought to expand his power and empire. Moreover, it was at the expense of countless lives in Europe. Beethoven on the other hand valued the idea that one could create his/her own destiny.[14]

By pushing through his own struggles, Beethoven embodies the ideals he strove to write about in his music.   Beethoven’s own survival makes him the perfect authority to comment on the nature of the human spirit to endure. In this way, Beethoven is able to ascend past just being a composer and becomes an immortal force for his present and future audiences. In this way, he did not need to waste more time worrying about Napoleon and instead leads by example in his pursuit of art and higher ideals of unity and free destiny. For this, Beethoven surpasses Napoleon as a force for good, even with the absence of his own joy.


[1] Johnson, Stephen. “Beethoven the Revolutionary.” The Beethoven Experience. BBC. 2014. Web. 1 October 2016.

[2] Swafford, Jan. Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. Print.

[3] Johnson, Stephen. “Beethoven the Revolutionary.” The Beethoven Experience. BBC. 2014. Web. 1 October 2016.

[4] Pollitt, Ben. “David, Napoleon Crossing the Alps.” Khan Academy. Web. 1 October 2016

[5] Johnson, Stephen. “Beethoven the Revolutionary.” The Beethoven Experience. BBC. 2014. Web. 1 October 2016.

[6] “Beethoven’s Tempest.” The Art of Piano Performance. 23 April 2012. Web. 1 October 2016.

[7] Woods, Alan. “Beethoven: man, composer and revolutionary.” In Defence of Marxism. Marxist.com. 1 May 2006. Web. 1 October 2016.

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[10] Swafford, Jan. Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. Print.

[11] Swafford, Jan. Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. Print.

[12] Johnson, Stephen. “Beethoven the Revolutionary.” The Beethoven Experience. BBC. 2014. Web. 1 October 2016.

[13]“Beethoven Symphony No. 5” La Salle University. Web. 1 October 2016.

[14] Brown, David B. Romanticism. New York: Phaidon Press Limited, 2001. Print.

 October 1, 2016  Posted by on October 1, 2016 Personal Thoughts  Add comments

 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>