Kenneth Clark once noted that he could not describe 'civilisation' - but he knew it when he saw it. With Beethoven's fifth, sixth and ninth symphonies, I wouldn't attempt to form any description of what human civilisation is or represents - but I know it when I hear it. It is music at its most dramatic, tumultuous and emotionally consuming; music at its most human. The music critic, Harold Schonberg, famously noted of Beethoven's finely polished predecessors, Haydn and Mozart, that 'theirs is the music of gods'. With Beethoven, however, we have the 'music of man, of his suffering, his impatience, his exhilaration, confronting the world and yet affirming it at the same time...'
Indeed Beethoven has a universal quality, and his music can transcend language, borders and history itself. This explains why Britain could continue to draw inspiration from the genius from Bonn during the Second World War - at the same time Hitler was drawing a very different sort of inspiration from him. It seems appropriate that Daniel Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, founded in 1999 with Edward Said to create a platform for young Israeli and Palestinian students to perform, should be guiding us through the first full cycle of Beethoven's symphonies at the Proms since 1942.
Yet for a figure who was so consciously trying to break away from historical inevitability and into timeless universality as Beethoven, the composer was still very much affected by the pulsating and revolutionary world around him. Beethoven was brought up in the intellectual tumult of the eighteenth century - in an age when the German philosopher Kant's view that orchestral music was more for pleasure than culture, still resonated with most critics. Beethoven was sent by his patron Count Waldstein in 1792 to Vienna with the prophecy that through his labour, he would 'receive Mozart's spirit from Haydn's hands.' These words came the year that the German sage Goethe witnessed the defeat of a coalition of imperial forces assembled against Revolutionary France - uttering the immortal lines 'from this place, and from this day forth begins a new era in the history of the world'. Beethoven, by 1803, was initiating his own musical revolution, trying to break free from a structure perfected by his his former tutor Haydn. 'Eroica', Beethoven's third symphony, was enormous and bold in its scale and originality. It has traditionally been thought of as the moment at which music 'becomes' romantic; expressing a 'freed' self through the medium of music.
Beethoven's fifth symphony was the next work planned - a titanic musical struggle which seems to lock a pitiless 'fate knocking on the door' refrain against an at first faltering and uncertain, but finally triumphant and glorious, opposition. The finale apparently saw one extremely moved veteran of Napoleon's Grand Army leap up and cry 'L'Empereur!' (Indeed it has been suggested the final triumphal refrain was derived from a French revolutionary marching song.) Indeed a comparison between the third and fifth symphonies is interesting, when we considers how 'Eroica', with its themes of heroism and struggle, was originally dedicated to Napoleon. Beethoven famously flew into a rage on hearing that his hero the First Consul had morphed into an 'Emperor', scratching out the Coriscan's dedication in the process. The fifth symphony, therefore, falters; it lacks the heroic confidence that opens the third symphony, and is aware of the inevitability of fate throughout.
Beethoven's sixth symphony stands out amidst the rest, and has a very different feel. It is rare to see it played alongside his fifth symphony. Unlike the fifth, Beethoven's pastoral is much less about struggle, opposition and resolution but instead gives a harmonious vision of nature. It is a symphony which moves gradually from scene to scene, rather than weaving in recurring motives. Unlike his fifth, it does not seem to be making a point, but rather revels in the beauty of nature. The broad, open chords of the opening evoke the pleasant feeling of the expanse of nature opening up before the composer, who noted that 'no one can love the countryside as much as I do'.
The symphonies are hard to put into words, and it is harder still to highlight their boldness - especially considering our familiarity with them. It is refreshing to read one of the original reviews of Beethoven's fifth in 1805:
'Listening to Beethoven we become aware, dimly, of a higher form of reality not otherwise perceptible to us...Art is no longer a vehicle of entertainment, but a vehicle of truth...The arts in general begin where philosophy ends.'
Beethoven's ninth and last symphony took him around 12 years to complete - first appearing in a notebook in 1811. Throughout this time - from before Napoleon's disastrous march on Moscow to the peace that followed his downfall, the conception of the work changed radically - becoming much more expansive and ambitious in outlook. The symphony moves from a vast tundra of primordial sound in the first movement to a triumphant finish, which draws on Schiller's poem Ode to Joy for the chorale. It has been argued that the symphony was a subtle undermining of the existing European aristocracy, and a call to universal brotherhood. The lines 'all men become brothers' suggest where the composer's sympathies lay. But so too do the folk hymns and village band he included in his sixth symphony (complete with an amateur oboist who is consistently two beats behind the rest of the group). Similarly in his ninth the grand and epic confrontation is comically interrupted (or rather, augmented) by the arrival of the common people, with their marching band. History, Beethoven was saying, is no longer about elites debating over irrelevant points but had finally become a matter for the entire consciousness of mankind.
Beethoven's genius lies in his accessibility to everyone and his exploration of universal themes. As Daniel Barenboim has noted - it is music for 'everyone, anywhere'. This is music which, even at the time, was recognised as occupying a 'separate realm beyond the phenomenal' with a capacity to provide 'a glimpse of the infinite'.
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