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Beethoven after Napoleon Political Romanticism in the Late Works

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Beethoven was a political composer. Like few other musicians in the Western canon, he stubbornly dedicated his art to the problems of human freedom, justice, progress, and community. Beethoven found his voice in Bonn with a cantata memorializing the enlightened reforms of Joseph II, and he crowned his public career in Vienna with the Ninth Symphony's hymn to universal brotherhood. No intervening work drew more labor or revisions from him than Fidelio (née Leonore), the first political opera to remain in the permanent repertory. The Third Symphony, probably Beethoven's most influential work, centers around a funeral march evoking patriotic ceremonies from the French Revolution; and there remains, of course, the famous and problematic relationship of the symphony to Napoleon. In an entirely different vein come such ephemera as the Ritterballett, assorted patriotic songs, and the marches for various national militias. The biographer, unlike the critic, cannot fail to mention Wellingtons Sieg and the choral extravaganzas for the Congress of Vienna, works that, however trivial in modern estimation, swept Beethoven to a pinnacle of acclaim unsurpassed within his own lifetime. To this list we may also add the second Bonn cantata in honor of Leopold II; the incidental music to Egmont, König Stephan, and Die Ruinen von Athen; and the aesthetic utopias of Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus and the Choral Fantasy. Clearly, if we want to understand this music we need to learn something about the composer's politics. A political study of Beethoven can scarcely be regarded as a curiosity for interdisciplinary studies: it belongs squarely within musical criticism, alongside biography, sketch studies, and formal analysis.

The political note in Beethoven's music echoes the cataclysmic times in which he lived. Beethoven was eighteen when the Bastille fell. For the next quarter of a century armies battled almost continuously throughout Europe; republics sprang up and withered; Napoleon rose and fell; the Holy Roman Empire vanished from the map. Beethoven twice suffered the French siege of Vienna and later regaled the allied victors meeting to engineer the Restoration. James Sheehan has described the impact of these events on Germans:

As a distant spectacle or, more often, as a forceful intrusion into their lives, revolutionary politics demanded contemporaries' attention, affected their careers, reshaped their sense of the possible. The romantics' awareness of emotional power, like the philosophers' search for an alternative system of belief, was a response to the political passions and commitments that swept across central Europe from the French side of the Rhine. Burden or opportunity, disaster or triumph, occasion for celebration or lament, politics in the revolutionary era was everybody's Schicksal.

"La politique est le destin . . . " The words belong to Napoleon Bonaparte, the man who appeared to incarnate every tendency, good or ill, of the age. Revolution and tyranny, enlightened reform and lawless violence, heroic striving and base egotismñthese antipodes assumed flesh and blood in the Corsican conqueror, whose ambitions dictated European politics for some fifteen years. Napoleon seems also to have captivated Beethoven's imagination, engendering a sense of identification that, as Maynard Solomon has suggested, combined elements of hero worship, competition, and demonization. Striking affinities connect the two men, born just over a year apart. Both were possessed of enormous drive and ambition, and both rose far above their hereditary station. While Napoleon was gathering laurels in Italy and Egypt, Beethoven was conquering the salons and halls of Vienna, undertaking a "deliberate campaign to annex all current musical genres," as Joseph Kerman put it. Beethoven may have rent the dedication page of the Eroica Symphony on learning that Napoleon had crowned himself emperor, yet the synchrony between symphony and coronation remains fascinating: at precisely the same moment, composer and ruler were kicking away the ladder of the past, each claiming absolute power within his own domain. Felix Markham might as well have been describing the Beethoven of 1803 when he wrote that Napoleon "was not of the generation which made the Revolution, but was a product of the revolutionary ageña time when the mould of tradition and custom was broken, and nothing seemed impossible in the face of reason, energy and will."

Not surprisingly, recent political studies of Beethoven have focused upon the Eroica and the other "heroic" works from the Napoleonic years. Constantin Floros, Peter Schleuning, and Keisuke Maruyama have explored the political resonances of the Prometheus myth in the Third Symphony, whose finale Beethoven borrowed from his ballet Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus (The Creatures of Prometheus). Scott Burnham has traced intellectual trends from the "age of Goethe" in the heroic style, while Thomas Sipe has reexamined the Napoleonic dedication in light of Franco-Austrian diplomacy. Paul Robinson and David Charlton have connected Fidelio in different ways to the French Revolution, and Malcolm Boyd's collection of essays has illuminated Beethoven's French influences. The collection of political essays edited by Sieghard Brandenburg and Helga Lühning confines itself almost entirely to the Napoleonic years, as the subtitle Zwischen Revolution und Restoration makes clear.

But what of Beethoven after Napoleon? What was the composer's political outlook during the twelve years after Waterloo, the period during which he created the late piano sonatas and string quartets, the Diabelli Variations, the Missa solemnis, and the Ninth Symphony? Critical opinion, so vocal about the Napoleonic years, falls strangely silent on Beethoven's career during the Restoration. The abstraction of the late works, coupled with the composer's total deafness during his last decade, raised the suspicion that Beethoven had detached himself entirely from the outer world. Many, if not most, listeners would probably still agree with J.W.N. Sullivan's claim from 1927 that "the regions within which Beethoven the composer now worked were, to an unprecedented degree, withdrawn and sheltered from his outward life. His deafness and solitariness are almost symbolic of his complete retreat into his inner self." Donald Jay Grout canonized this view in his famous textbook: "By 1816, Beethoven had resigned himself to a soundless world of tones that existed only in his mind."

Those critics who have allowed the late works a political content have admitted only a negative relationship to the outer world. Most famously, Theodor Adorno interpreted Beethoven's withdrawal from the affirmative manner of his heroic style as a negation of the false promises of the Enlightenment and Revolution: "The musical experience of the late Beethoven must have become mistrustful of the unity of subjectivity and objectivity, the roundness of the symphonic successes, the totality emerging from the movement of all the parts; in short, of everything that gave authenticity up to now to the works of his middle period." Solomon wrote of the late quartets that "serious art flees to the margins of society and to the more private forms, where it sets up beachheads in defense of its embattled position in life." Sieghard Brandenburg sounded the same gloomy note, claiming that "the repressive, anti-liberal attitude of the Metternichian state finally drove [Beethoven], like other spiritual creators, into an inner emigration."

The reluctance of critics to associate the aging Beethoven with contemporary politics doubtless owes much to the unsavory reputation of the Restoration. To say the least, the epoch lacks glamour. Instead of the clash of ignorant armies, we hear the tinkling of a Biedermeier waltz; bereft of the swashbuckling grandeur of Napoleon, we must console ourselves with the oily diplomacy of a Metternich. The reactionary politics, the nostalgic medievalism, the theocratic mumbo jumbo of the Holy Allianceñall this seems not merely repressive, but historically doomed, a dam barely able to contain the floodtides of modernity. That the visionary Beethoven might have sympathized with such tendencies would be not only disappointing, but a bit embarrassing.

It is instead Gioacchino Rossini whom critics have elected musical representative of the Restoration. As if to atone for his worldly success, the opera composer has had to play Rosenkrantz to Beethoven's Hamlet, cynical collaborateur versus alienated rebel. "The official Zeitgeist," intoned Adorno, "was represented by Rossini rather than by [Beethoven]." Frida Knight compared the bel canto craze to "present-day pop festivals, which provide an outlet for the emotions of susceptible teen-agers (and perhaps the pressures of economic crisis, a decadent society and social emptiness in 1820 Vienna were similar to those of our day)." Carl Dahlhaus liked this dichotomy well enough to make it the basis for an entire history of nineteenth-century music, tracing the "twin styles" of late Beethoven and Rossiniñthe one high-minded and textual, the other frivolous and performance-oriented. All three critics could draw sustenance from Beethoven's own appraisal of the Italian celebrity: "His music suits the frivolous and sensuous spirit of the time, and his productivity is such that he needs only as many weeks as the Germans do years to write an opera."

The comparison does not lack merit. Much in Rossini's music does suggest the repressive climate of the Restorationñthe strict codification of forms, the luxuriant ornamentation of a fixed melodic structure, the controlled catharses of chaos and anxiety. Nevertheless, the composer of Guillaume Tell did not wholly escape the progressive currents of the age. Nor did the composer of Der glorreiche Augenblick and the Missa solemnis prove immune to its reactionary and mystical strains. The question is, How deeply was Beethoven stricken? Are the patriotic works for the Congress of Vienna mercenary ephemera, or do they mark a genuine shift in his political sympathies? Are the archaic ecclesiastical strains in the late works tokens of an inward spiritual quest, or do they reflect the symbology of legitimist politics?

Such questions do not admit of easy answers. Any satisfactory argument must somehow bridge the ancient gulf between word and tone, between the explicit formulations of political thought and the more elusive patterns of musical creation. The political historian will expect a "thick" context in contemporary writings or other forms of concrete representation. The musician, meanwhile, will demand a due engagement with the notes in the score. The chasm yawns all the wider in Beethoven's late works, which are notoriously (and gloriously) rarefied and complex. Not without reason have critics touted these works as paragons of "absolute music," music emancipated from text, drama, or dance. The only convincing argument, it would seem, must educe some common denominator, some historical discourse that embraces both political and aesthetic meanings. It would be still more persuasive if it could be shown that Beethoven understood this discourse. Only with such a sturdy thread in hand would a political historian dare enter the labyrinth of late Beethoven.

The movement known as politische Romantik, "political Romanticism," provides such a link. Led by such luminaries as the Schlegel brothers, Novalis, and Heinrich von Kleist, Romantic authors, philosophers, and painters evolved an aesthetic discourse in opposition to the French Revolution and its Napoleonic aftermath. Old grievances against French cultural hegemony, stoked by the fresh outrages of invasion and occupation, flared up in a virulent reaction to all things French and enlightened. Leading Romantics consecrated their pens and paintbrushes to anti-Napoleonic propaganda, while others distilled their political passions in novels, plays, or systematic philosophies. These artists were Beethoven's exact peers (unlike Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Schiller, with whom he is more often compared). And he undeniably came into contact with their political ideas, as the briefest glance at his patriotic works from the last years of the Napoleonic era will show. The ideology of political Romanticism, this study will argue, was no passing fad for Beethoven. It exercised a profound and enduring influence on his later style.

This is not to say that Beethoven turned into a reactionary, or even that his later music replicates Restoration ideology. David Blackbourn has suggested that we view the years 1815—48 as "a series of cycles, in which political expectations rose to a high pitch, only to give way to repression." Beethoven's late works do fall within a repressive trough, the pessimistic decade following the 1819 Carlsbad Decrees. Yet, as this study will argue, every important element of the late style emerged between 1809 and 1816, the years of the so-called Wars of Liberation. This was an era of optimism, reform, and patriotic engagement for many artists and intellectuals, including Beethoven, in which culture seemed vitally connected to political life. Thus, while Beethoven's late works certainly dampen the revolutionary tendencies of the heroic style, they nevertheless preserve a dynamism foreign to Restoration propaganda.

Recent studies, moreover, have questioned the simple equation of Romantic politics with Restoration reaction. The Romantics, it has been argued, gave a transcendent expression to ideals discredited by the Terror and Napoleonic imperium, thereby continuing the utopian trajectory of the early French Revolution. Even where Romantic artists directly abetted the Restoration, their writings could diverge from the official line: Friedrich Schlegel and Adam Müller, for instance, both worked for Prince Metternich, yet they idealized a Catholic medievalism far more reactionary than the prince's absolutist statescraft. Beethoven's later music presents a similarly complex tangle of tendencies progressive and conservative, dynamic and stabilizing. Indeed, the primary quality that emerges from this study is a profound sense of ambivalence. This ambivalence has nothing to do with the productive dialectics of Beethoven's heroic works, which battle through conflict to a higher unity. The late works create instead a sense of paradox, even deadlock, between irreconcilable opposites. The present study, however, departs from Adorno and company by suggesting that these fragmented, paradoxical works might actually affirm positive political ideals.

The colorful figure of E.T.A. Hoffmann emerges early in the inquiry. Equally at home in government, literature, and the music world, Hoffmann offers a serendipitous entry into the political thought of Beethoven's later years. Hoffmann witnessed the political events of the day at first hand, and, like Beethoven, he wrote propaganda for Napoleon's allied adversaries. Most importantly, Hoffmann served as Beethoven's first great critic and literary champion. His criticism offers a musical lexicon of Romantic political thought from which we can begin to construct a political semiotics for Beethoven's later music. Coincidentally, as one of the original proponents of "absolute music," he can serve as a reminder of the political motivations behind that creed.

Just as Romantic political thought makes sense only against the foil of the Enlightenment, so the novel currents in Beethoven's late music take on full meaning only against the measure of his earlier style. For this reason, two preliminary chapters will explore the ideological context of the heroic styleña style, it will be argued, that represents a high-water mark of enlightened cosmopolitanism. Readers bloated on the recent feast of Eroica criticism face, alas, yet another helping. The later chapters, likewise, inevitably revisit the finale of the Ninth Symphony. On the other hand, particular attention is devoted to more neglected worksñthe six Gellert songs, the Sixth Symphony, the "Harp" Quartet, the Grosse Fuge, and Wellingtons Sieg.

Studying music and politics means practicing musical hermeneutics, which means steering a course between two perilous extremes. At one pole we find the naive interpreter, who uses music as an exotic thesaurus for some a priori narrative. This kind of critic will hear the disintegrating march in the Eroica as the death of Marat, or Hector, or the bourgeois individualñwhatever corpse is needed. At the opposite pole stands the prim formalist, for whom the merest whiff of real meaning threatens to sully the musical artwork. This critic will begin an analysis of the Eroica with the story of the dedication page, a chronicle of Napoleon's campaigns, perhaps a picture of the emperor on horsebackñthen dust off a sonata-form diagram of the first movement. The former plunders the musical text to adorn a political narrative; the latter scatters political meanings like tinsel onto the autonomous work. Neither approach seems very satisfyingñnot, at least, for Beethoven's music and epoch. We would expect a deeper integration from a composer who so persistently leavened his music with political themes; from an era in which so many leading creative figures served as statesmen or professional propagandists; and from a generation of German artists who, imbibing their theory from Schiller and Edmund Burke, believed that the path to politics wound inescapably through aesthetics.

The present study seeks a tertia via by focusing on intellectual constructs that, while they partake of musical and political meaning, remain independent from both. The sublime, universal history, religious archaism, androgynous pairings, voiceñnone of these categories belongs exclusively to either music or politics. But all are junctures where the history of ideas and the history of composition might intersect. According to this method, for instance, we need claim neither that the Eroica illustrates Hegel's dialectic nor that the structure of the Phänomenologie des Geistes evokes a philosophical sonata form. We can simply acknowledge that each work demonstrates, within its own métier, a similar faith in history as a dynamic, meliorative teleology. By focusing on the construction of history, we can indirectly study both music and political thought, without forcing the two into a hierarchical relationship.

There is no denying the epistemological vagaries such a venture entails. A comparative study can never match the kind of certainty that musical or historical analysis can achieve alone. At best, we can hope for some suggestive sense of correspondence, or affinity, between unlike terms. As one historian who has explored Beethoven's political thought put it, "almost by definition, affinities never constitute proof, of either authorial intent or historical influence. Rather, their appeal must rest on their ability to illuminate, to explain matters that otherwise seem confused or unaccountable." This hybrid hermeneutic, moreover, involves the fugitive language of music, whose semantic dimension scarcely matches that of poetry, drama, or the visual arts. It is hard to imagine a less exact science. But there is no alternative, if we want to understand Beethoven's music.

The goal of this dubious quest is a mode of expression that embraces musical and political meanings yet transcends both. This quality might best be compared to what painters call a "new way of seeing"ñthat is, an inextricably artistic mode of patterning the world and its structures. Such a way of hearing cannot be reduced to pure structure, for it resonates too compellingly with its intellectual context. Nor can it be annexed to ideology, for it possesses too great an inner integrity. Since, moreover, it incarnates the ideological in specifically musical structures, its message speaks equally through texted and abstract works: the same patterns will appear in the Gellert-Lieder and the Fifth Symphony, Wellingtons Sieg and the late quartets.

Because ethical and musical values intertwine so closely in Beethoven's music, their priority must remain a matter of personal inclination. For some listeners, myself included, the political thought in Beethoven's music matters chiefly as it illuminates the expressive force of his musical thought. My sympathies are all with F. Scott Fitzgerald's Amory Blaine as he ponders the "Dark Lady" of the sonnets:

For what Shakespeare must have desired, to have been able to write with such divine despair, was that the lady should live . . . and now we have no real interest in her. . . . The irony of it is that if he had cared more for the poem than for the lady the sonnet would be only obvious, imitative rhetoric and no one would ever have read it after twenty years.

Other listeners will doubtless take a deeper interest in the political thought surrounding the birth of Beethoven's works. Some may care even more about these shadowy ideals than the music that memorializes them. So be it. This study does not rank musical and political meaning but strives merely to give both steeds their head. The reader can decide how to steer the team.