Beethoven: man, composer and revolutionary

This week marks the 200th anniversary of the public premier of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, one of the most astoundingly brilliant musical compositions in history. Despite being functionally deaf by 1824, Beethoven personally conducted the premiere in Vienna, continuing his wild gesticulations after the final note had faded, amidst rapturous applause. The performance and the piece itself, often called the ‘Marseilles of Humanity’, were a defiant rallying cry for freedom and brotherhood in a period of counterrevolutionary reaction. To mark the occasion, we republish ‘Beethoven: man, composer and revolutionary’ by our editor-in-chief, Alan Woods.

Beethoven's Ninth Symphony

"Beethoven is the friend and contemporary of the French Revolution, and he remained faithful to it even when, during the Jacobin dictatorship, humanitarians with weak nerves of the Schiller type turned from it, preferring to destroy tyrants on the theatrical stage with the help of cardboard swords. Beethoven, that plebeian genius, who proudly turned his back on emperors, princes and magnates - that is the Beethoven we love for his unassailable optimism, his virile sadness, for the inspired pathos of his struggle, and for his iron will which enabled him to seize destiny by the throat." (Igor Stravinsky)

If any composer deserves the name of revolutionary it is Beethoven. The word revolution derives historically from the discoveries of Copernicus, who established that the earth revolves around the sun, and thus transformed the way we look at the universe and our place in it. Similarly, Beethoven carried through what was probably the greatest single revolution in modern music. His output was vast, including nine symphonies, five piano concertos and others for violin, string quartets, piano sonatas, songs and one opera. He changed the way music was composed and listened to. Right to the end, he never ceased pushing music to its limits.

After Beethoven it was impossible to go back to the old days when music was regarded as a soporific for wealthy patrons who could doze through a symphony and then go home quietly to bed. After Beethoven, one no longer returned from a concert humming pleasant tunes. This is music that does not calm, but shocks and disturbs. it is music that makes you think and feel.

Early years

Marx pointed out that the difference between France and Germany is that, whereas the French actually made revolutions, the Germans merely speculated about them. Philosophical idealism flourished in Germany in the late 18th and early 19th centuries for the same reason. In England the bourgeoisie was effecting a great world-historical revolution in production, while across the English Channel, the French were carrying out an equally great revolution in politics. In backward Germany, where social relations lagged behind France and England, the only revolution was a revolution in men's minds. Kant, Fichte, Schelling and Hegel argued about the nature of the world and ideas, while other people in other lands actually set about revolutionising the world and the minds of men and women.

The Sturm und Drang movement was an expression of this typically German phenomenon. Goethe was influenced by German idealist philosophy, especially Kant. Here we can detect the echoes of the French revolution, but they are distant and indistinct, and they are strictly confined to the abstract world of poetry, music and philosophy. The Sturm und Drang movement in Germany reflected the revolutionary nature of the epoch at the end of the 18th century. It was a period of enormous intellectual ferment. The French philosophes anticipated the revolutionary events of 1789 by their assault on the ideology of the old regime. As Engels put it in the Anti-Duhring: “The great men, who in France prepared men's minds for the coming revolution, were themselves extreme revolutionists. They recognised no external authority of any kind whatever. Religion, natural science, society, political institutions — everything was subjected to the most unsparing criticism; everything must justify its existence before the judgment-seat of reason or give up existence. Reason became the sole measure of everything. It was the time when, as Hegel says, the world stood upon its head; first in the sense that the human head, and the principles arrived at by its thought, claimed to be the basis of all human action and association; but by and by, also, in the wider sense that the reality which was in contradiction to these principles had, in fact, to be turned upside down.”

Bonn in the 18th centuryBonn in the 18th century

The impact of this pre-revolutionary ferment in France made itself felt far beyond the borders of that country, in Germany, England, and even Russia. In literature, gradually the old courtly forms were being dissolved. This found its reflection in the poetry of Wolfgang Goethe – the greatest poet Germany has produced. His great masterpiece Faust is shot through with a dialectical spirit. Mephistophiles is the living spirit of negation that penetrates everything. This revolutionary spirit found an echo in the later works of Mozart, notably in Don Giovanni, which among other things contains a stirring chorus with the words: “Long live Liberty!” But it is only with Beethoven that the spirit of the French Revolution finds its true expression in music.

Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn on November 16, 1770, the son of a musician from a family of Flemish origin. His father, Johann, was employed by the court of the Archbishop-elector. He was by all accounts a harsh, brutal and dissolute man. His mother, Maria Magdalena, bore her martyrdom with silent resignation. Beethoven’s early years were not happy. This probably explains his introverted and somewhat surly character as well as his rebellious spirit.

Beethoven’s early education was at best patchy. He left school at the age of eleven. The first person to realise the youngster’s enormous potential was the court organist, Gottlob Neffe, who introduced him to the works of Bach, especially the Well-Tempered Klavier.

Noting his son’s precocious talent, Johann tried to turn him into a child prodigy – a new Mozart. At the age of five he was exhibited at a public concert. But Johann was doomed to disappointment: Ludwig was no childhood Mozart. Surprisingly, he had no natural disposition for music and had to be pushed. So his father sent him to several teachers to drum music into his head.

Beethoven in Vienna

At this time Bonn, the capital of the Electorate of Cologne, was a sleepy provincial backwater. In order to advance, the young musician had to go to study music in Vienna. The family was not rich, but in 1787 the young Beethoven was sent to the capital by the Archbishop. It was here that he met Mozart, who was impressed by him. Later one of his teachers was Haydn. But after only two months he had to return to Bonn, where his mother was seriously ill. She died shortly afterwards. This was the first of many personal and family tragedies that dogged Beethoven all his life. In 1792, the year in which Louis XVI was beheaded, Beethoven finally moved from Bonn to Vienna, where he lived till he died.

Vienna in Beethoven's timeVienna in Beethoven's time

  The portraits that have come down to us show a brooding, sombre young man with an expression that conveys a sense of inner tension and a passionate nature. Physically he was not handsome: a large head and Roman nose, a pock-marked face and thick, bushy hair that never seemed to be combed. His dark complexion earned him the nickname “the Spaniard”. Short, stocky and rather clumsy, he had the bearing and manners of a plebeian – a fact that could not be disguised by the elegant clothes he wore as a young man.

This born rebel turned up in aristocratic and fastidious Vienna, unkempt, ill-dressed and ill-humoured, with none of the polite airs and graces that might have been expected of him. Like every other composer in those times, Beethoven was obliged to rely on grants and commissions from wealthy and aristocratic patrons. But he was never owned by them. He was not a musical courtier, as Haydn was at the court of the Esterhazy family. What they thought of this strange man is not known. But the greatness of his music ensured him of commissions and therefore a livelihood.

Beethoven GoetheUnlike even the great Goethe, Beethoven refused to doff his hat to aristocrats

He must have felt completely out of place. He despised convention and orthodoxy. He was not in the least interested in his appearance or surroundings. Beethoven was a man who lived and breathed for his music and was unconcerned with worldly comforts. His personal life was chaotic and unsettled, and could be described as Bohemian. He lived in the utmost squalor. His house was always a mess, with bits of food lying around, and even unemptied chamber pots.

His attitude to the princes and nobles who paid him was conveyed in a famous painting. The composer is shown in the course of a stroll with the poet Goethe, the Archduchess Rudolph and the Empress. While Goethe respectfully gave way to the royal pair, politely removing his hat, Beethoven completely ignored them and continued walking without even acknowledging the greetings of the imperial family. This painting contains the whole spirit of the man, a fearless, revolutionary, uncompromising spirit. Suffocating in the bourgeois atmosphere of Vienna he wrote a despairing comment: “As long as the Austrians have their brown beer and little sausages, they will never revolt.” [1]

A revolutionary epoch

The world into which Beethoven was born was a world in turmoil, a world in transition, a world of wars, revolution and counter-revolution: a world like our own world. In 1776, the American colonists succeeded in winning their freedom through a revolution which took the form of a war of national liberation against Britain. This was the first act in a great historical drama.

The American Revolution proclaimed the ideals of individual freedom that were derived from the French Enlightenment. Just over a decade later, the ideas of the Rights of Man returned to France in an even more explosive manner. The storming of the Bastille in July 1789 marked a decisive turning point in world history.

In its period of ascent the French Revolution swept away all the accumulated rubbish of feudalism, brought an entire nation to its feet and confronted the whole of Europe with courage and determination. The liberating spirit of the Revolution in France swept like wildfire through Europe. Such a period demanded new art forms and new ways of expression. This was achieved in the music of Beethoven, which expresses the spirit of the age better than anything else.

Revolutionary FranceRevolutionary France

In 1793 King Louis of France was executed by the Jacobins. A wave of shock and fear swept through all the courts of Europe. Attitudes towards revolutionary France hardened. Those "liberals" who had initially greeted the Revolution with enthusiasm, now slunk away into the corner of reaction. The antagonism of the propertied classes to France was voiced by Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. Everywhere the supporters of the revolution were regarded with suspicion and persecuted. It was no longer safe to be a friend of the French Revolution.

These were stormy times. The revolutionary armies of the young French republic defeated the armies of feudal-monarchist Europe and were counter-attacking all along the line. The young composer was from the beginning an ardent admirer of the French revolution, and was appalled at the fact that Austria was the leading force in the counter-revolutionary coalition against France. The capital of the Empire was infected by a mood of terror. The air was thick with suspicion; spies were ever-present and free expression was stifled by censorship. But what could not be expressed by the written word could find an expression in great music.

His studies with Haydn did not go very well. He was already developing original ideas about music, which did not go down well with the old man, firmly wedded to the old courtly-aristocratic style of classical music. It was a clash of the old with the new. The young composer was making a name for himself as a pianist. His style was violent, like the age that produced it. It is said that he hit the keys so hard he broke the strings. He was beginning to be recognised as a new and original composer. He took Vienna by storm. He was a success.

Life can play the cruellest tricks on men and women. In Beethoven's case, fate prepared a particularly cruel destiny. In 1796-7 Beethoven fell ill – possibly with a type of meningitis – which affected his hearing. He was 28 years old, and at the peak of his fame. And he was losing his hearing. About 1800 he experienced the first signs of deafness. Although he did not become completely deaf till his last years, the awareness of his deteriorating condition must have been a terrible torture. He became depressed and even suicidal. He wrote of his inner torment, and how only his music held him back from taking his own life. This experience of intense suffering, and the struggle to overcome it, suffuses his music and imbues it with a deeply human spirit.

Beethoven as a young manBeethoven as a young man

His personal life was never happy. He had the habit of falling in love with the daughters (and wives) of his wealthy patrons – which always ended badly, with new fits of depression. After one such spell of depression he wrote: “Art, and only art, has saved me! It seems to me impossible to leave this world without having given everything I have felt germinating within me.”

At the beginning of 1801 he passed through a severe personal crisis. According to the Heiligenstadt Testament, he was on the verge of suicide. Having recovered from his depression, Beethoven threw himself with renewed vigour into the work of musical creation. A lesser man would have been destroyed by these blows. But Beethoven turned his deafness – a crippling disability for anyone, but a catastrophe for a composer – to an advantage. His inner ear provided him with all that was necessary to compose great music. In the very year of his most devastating crisis (1802) he composed his great Eroica symphony.

The dialectic of the sonata

The dynamics of Beethoven's music were entirely new. Earlier composers wrote quiet parts and loud parts. But the two were kept completely separate. In Beethoven, on the contrary, we pass rapidly from one to another. This music contains an inner tension, an unresolved contradiction which urgently demands resolution. It is the music of struggle.

The sonata form is a way of elaborating and structuring musical matter. It is based on a dynamic vision of musical form and is dialectical in essence. The music develops through a series of opposing elements. By the end of the 18th century the sonata form dominated much of the music composed. Although it is not new, the sonata form was developed and consolidated by Haydn and Mozart. But in the compositions of the 18th century we have only the bare potential of the sonata form, not its true content.

In part (but only in part) this is a question of technique. The form that Beethoven used was not new, but the way in which he used it was. The sonata form begins with a quick first movement, followed by a slower second movement, a third movement which is merrier in character (originally a minuet, later a scherzo, which literally means a joke), and ending, as it began, with a fast movement.

Basically, the sonata form is based on the following line of development: A-B-A. It returns to the beginning, but on a higher level. This is a purely dialectical concept: movement through contradiction, the negation of the negation. It is a kind of musical syllogism: exposition-development-recapitulation, or expressed in other terms: thesis-antithesis-synthesis.

This kind of development is present in each of the movements. But there is also an overall development in which there are conflicting themes which are finally reconciled in a "happy ending". In the final coda we return to the initial key, creating the sensation of a triumphal apotheosis.

This form contains the germ of a profound idea, and has the potential for serious development. It can also be expressed by a wide range of instrumental combinations: piano solo, piano and violin, string quartet, symphony. The success of the sonata form was helped by the invention of a new musical instrument: the pianoforte. This was able to express the full dynamic of romanticism, whereas the organ and harpsichord were restricted to play music written according to the principles of polyphony and counterpoint.

The development of the sonata form was already far advanced in the late 18th century. It reached its high point in the symphonies of Mozart and Haydn, and in one sense it could be argued that the symphonies of Beethoven are only a continuation of this tradition. But in reality, the formal identity conceals a fundamental difference.

In its origins, the form of the sonata predominated over its real content. The classical composers of the 18th century were mainly concerned with getting the form right (though Mozart is an exception). But with Beethoven, the real content of the sonata form finally emerges. His symphonies create an overwhelming sense of the process of struggle and development through contradictions. Here we have the most sublime example of the dialectical unity of form and content. This is the secret of all great art. Such heights have rarely been reached in the history of music.

Inner conflict

The symphonies of Beethoven represent a fundamental break with the past. If the forms are superficially similar, the content and spirit of the music is radically different. With Beethoven - and the Romantics who followed in his footsteps - what is important is not the forms in themselves, the formal symmetry and inner equilibrium, but the content. Indeed, the equilibrium is frequently disturbed in Beethoven. There are many dissonances, reflecting inner conflict.

In 1800 he wrote his first symphony, a work that still has its roots in the soil of Haydn. It is a sunny work, quite free from the spirit of conflict and struggle that characterises his later works. It really gives one no idea of what was to come. The Pathetique piano sonata (opus 13) is altogether different. It is quite unlike the piano sonatas of Haydn and Mozart. Beethoven was influenced by Schiller's theory of tragedy and tragic art, which he saw not just as human suffering, but above all as a struggle to resist suffering, to fight against it.

The message is clearly expressed in the first movement, which opens with complex and dissonant sounds (listen). These mysterious chords soon give way to a central agitated passage which suggests this resistance to suffering. This inner conflict plays a key role in Beethoven's music and gives it a character completely different to that of 18th century music. It is the voice of a new epoch: a thunderous voice that demands to be heard.

The question that must be posed is: how do we explain this striking difference? The short and easy answer is that this musical revolution is the product of the mind of a genius. That is correct. Probably Beethoven was the greatest musical genius of all time. But it is an answer that really answers nothing. Why did this entirely new musical language emerge precisely at this moment and not 100 years earlier? Why did it not occur to Mozart, Haydn, or, for that matter, to Bach?

The sound world of Beethoven is not one composed of beautiful sounds, as was the music of Mozart and Haydn. It does not flatter the ear or send the listener away tapping his feet and whistling a pleasant tune. It is a rugged sound, a musical explosion, a musical revolution that accurately conveys the spirit of the times. Here there is not only variety but conflict. Beethoven frequently uses the direction sforzando – which signifies attack. This is violent music, full of movement, rapidly shifting moods, conflict, contradiction.

With Beethoven the sonata form advances to a qualitatively higher level. He transformed it from a mere form to a powerful and at the same time intimate expression of his innermost feelings. In some of his piano compositions he wrote the instruction: "sonata, quasi una fantasia", indicating that he was looking for absolute freedom of expression through the medium of the sonata. Here the dimension of the sonata is greatly expanded in comparison to its classical form. The tempi are more flexible, and even change place. Above all, the finale is no longer merely a recapitulation, but a real development and culmination of all that has gone before.

When applied to his symphonies the sonata form as developed by Beethoven reaches an unheard-of level of sublimity and power. The virile energy that propels his fifth and third symphonies is sufficient proof of this. This is not music for easy listening or entertainment. It is music that is designed to move, to shock and to inspire to action. It is the voice of rebellion cast in music.

This is no accident, for Beethoven’s revolution in music echoed a revolution in real life. Beethoven was a child of his age – the age of the French Revolution. He wrote most of his greatest work in the midst of revolution, and the spirit of revolution impregnates every note of it. It is utterly impossible to understand him outside this context.

Beethoven boldly swept aside all existing musical conventions, just as the French revolution cleaned out the Augean stables of the feudal past. His was a new kind of music, music that opened many doors for future composers, just as the French revolution opened the door to a new democratic society.

The inner secret of Beethoven’s music is the most intense conflict. It is a conflict that rages in most of his music and reaches its most impressive heights in his last seven symphonies, beginning with the Third symphony, known as the Eroica. This was the real turning-point in the musical evolution of Beethoven and also of the history of music in general. And the roots of this revolution in music must be found outside of music, in society and history.

The Eroica symphony

A decisive turning-point both in Beethoven's life and in the evolution of western music was the compsition of his third symphony (the Eroica). Up till now, the musical language of the first and second symphonies did not depart substantially from the sound world of Mozart and Haydn. But from the very first notes of the Eroica we enter an entirely different world. The music has a political sub-text, the origin of which is well known.

Beethoven was a musician, not a politician, and his knowledge of events in France was necessarily confused and incomplete, but his revolutionary instincts were unfailing and in the end always led him to the correct conclusions. He had heard reports of the rise of a young officer in the revolutionary army called Bonaparte. Like many others, he formed the impression that Napoleon was the continuer of the revolution and defender of the rights of man. He therefore planned to dedicate his new symphony to Bonaparte.

This was an error, but quite understandable. It was the same error that many people committed when they assumed that Stalin was the real heir of Lenin and the defender of the ideals of the October revolution. But slowly it became clear that his hero was departing from the ideals of the Revolution and consolidating a regime that aped some of the worst features of the old despotism.

In 1799, Bonaparte's coup signified the definitive end of the period of revolutionary ascent. In August of 1802 Napoleon secured the consulate for life, with power to name his successor. An obsequious senate begged him to re-introduce hereditary rule “to defend public liberty and maintain equality”. Thus, in the name of “liberty” and “equality” the French people were invited to place their head in a noose.

It is always the way with usurpers in every period in history. The emperor Augustus maintained the outward forms of the Roman Republic and publicly feigned a hypocritical deference to the Senate, while systematically subverting the republican constitution. Not long afterwards, his successor Caligula made his prize horse a senator, which was a far more realistic appraisal of the situation.

Stalin, the leader of the political counter-revolution in Russia, proclaimed himself the faithful disciple of Lenin while trampling all the traditions of Leninism underfoot. Gradually the norms of proletarian soviet democracy and egalitarianism were replaced by inequality, bureaucratic and totalitarian rule. In the army, all the old rank and privileges abolished by the October revolution were reintroduced. The virtues of the Family were exalted. Eventually, Stalin even discovered a role for the Orthodox Church, as a faithful servant of his regime. In all this, he was only treading a road that had already been traversed by Napoleon Bonaparte, the gravedigger of the French Revolution.

In order to find some kind of sanction and respectability for his dictatorship, Napoleon began to copy all the outward forms of the old regime: aristocratic titles, splendid uniforms, rank and, of course, religion. The French revolution had practically wiped out the Catholic Church. The mass of the people, except in the most backward areas like the Vendee, hated the Church, which they correctly identified with the rule of the old oppressors. Now Napoleon attempted to enlist the support of the Church for his regime, and signed a Concordat with the Pope.

From afar, Beethoven followed the developments in France with growing alarm and despondency. Already by 1802 Beethoven’s opinion of Napoleon was beginning to change. In a letter to a friend written in that year, he wrote indignantly: “Everything is trying to slide back into the old rut after Napoleon signed the Concordat with the Pope.”

But far worse was to come. On May 18 1804 Napoleon became Emperor of the French. The coronation ceremony took place at the cathedral of Notre Dame on December 2nd. As the Pope poured holy oil over the head of the usurper, all traces of the old Republican constitution were washed away. In place of the old austere Republican simplicity all the ostentatious splendour of the old monarchy reappeared to mock the memory of the Revolution for which so many brave men and women had sacrificed their lives.

When Beethoven received news of these events he was beside himself with rage. He angrily crossed out his dedication to Napoleon in the score of his new symphony. The manuscript still exists, and we can see that he attacked the page with such violence that it has a hole torn through it. He then dedicated the symphony to an anonymous hero of the revolution: the Eroica symphony was born.

Eroica Beethoven title

Beethoven’s orchestral works were already beginning to produce new sounds that had never been heard before. They shocked the Viennese public, used to the genteel tunes of Haydn and Mozart. Yet Beethoven’s first two symphonies, though very fine, still look back to the relaxed, easy-going aristocratic world of the 18th century, the world as it was before it was shattered in 1789. The Eroica represents a tremendous breakthrough, a great leap forward for music, a real revolution. Sounds like these had never been heard before. The unfortunate musicians who had to play this for the first time must have been shocked and completely bewildered.

The Eroica caused a sensation. Up till then, a symphony was supposed to last at most half an hour. The first movement of the Eroica lasted as long as an entire symphony of the 18th century. And it was a work with a message: a work with something to say. The dissonances and violence of the first movement are clearly a call to struggle. That this means a revolutionary struggle is clear from the original dedication.

Trotsky once observed that revolutions are voluble affairs. The French Revolution was characterised by its oratory. Here were truly great mass orators: Danton, Saint-Just, Robespierre, and even Mirabeau before them. When these men spoke, they did not just address an audience: they were speaking to posterity, to history. Hence the rhetorical character of their speeches. They did not speak, they declaimed. Their speeches would begin with a striking phrase, which would immediately present a central theme which would then be developed in different ways, before making an emphatic re-appearance at the end.

It is just the same with the Eroica symphony. It does not speak, it declaims. The first movement of this symphony opens with two dissonant chords that resemble a man striking his fist on a table, demanding our attention, just like an impassioned orator in a revolutionary assembly. Beethoven then launches into a kind of musical cavalry charge, a tremendously impetuous forward thrust that is interrupted by clashes, conflict and struggle, and even momentarily halted by moments of sheer exhaustion, only to resume its triumphant forward march (listen). In this movement we are in the thick of the Revolution itself, with all its ebbs and flows, its victories and defeats, its triumphs and its despairs. It is the French Revolution in music.

The second movement is a funeral march – in memory of a hero. It is a massive piece of work, as weighty and solid as granite (listen). The slow, sad tread of the funeral march is interrupted by a section that recaptures the glories and triumphs of one who has given his life for the revolution. The central passage creates a massive sound edifice that creates a sensation of unbearable grief, before finally returning to the central theme of the funeral march. This is one of the greatest moments in the music of Beethoven – or any music.

The final movement is in an entirely different spirit. The symphony ends on a note of supreme optimism. After all the defeats, setbacks and disappointments, Beethoven is saying to us: “Yes, my friend, we have suffered a grievous loss, but we must turn the page and open a new chapter. The human spirit is strong enough to rise above all defeats and continue the struggle. And we must learn to laugh at adversity.”

Like the great French revolutionaries, Beethoven was convinced that he was writing for posterity. When (as frequently happened) musicians complained that they could not play his music because it was too difficult, he used to answer: "Don't worry, this is music for the future."

Beethoven's revolution in music was not understood by many of his contemporaries. They regarded this music as bizarre, hair-brained, even crazy. It jolted the philistines out of their comfortable reveries. Audiences resented it precisely because it compelled them to think what the music was about. Instead of pleasant and easy tunes, Beethoven confronted the listener with meaningful themes, with ideas conveyed in music. This tremendous innovation later became the basis of all Romantic music, culminating in the Leitmotifs of Wagner's vast musical dramas. The basis of all subsequent developments is Beethoven.

Of course, there is no shortage of great lyrical moments in Beethoven, as in the Sixth (Pastorale) symphony and the third movement of the Ninth. Even in the fiercest of battles there are moments of lull, but the lull never lasts long and is only the prelude to new periods of struggle. Such is the real significance of the slow movements in Beethoven. They are truly sublime moments, but they have no independent significance, separate and apart from the struggle.

Beethoven's themes mean something. Of course, this is not superficial programme music. The nearest thing to a descriptive programme is the Sixth Symphony, the Pastorale, where each movement is prefaced by a note that conveys a particular mood or setting ("Pleasant feelings on arriving in the countryside"; "By the brook"; "Shephards' merrymaking and storm" etc.). But this is an exception. The meaning of these themes is more abstract and general. Yet the implications are clear.

The Fifth symphony

A revolutionary spirit moves every bar of Beethoven's symphonies, especially the Fifth. The celebrated opening bars of this work (listen) have been compared to Fate knocking at the door. These hammer blows are perhaps the most striking opening of any musical work in history. The conductor Nikolaus Harnancourt, whose recorded cycle of the Beethoven symphonies has been widely acclaimed, has said of this symphony: "This is not music; it is political agitation. It is saying to us: the world we have is no good. Let us change it! Let's go!" Another famous conductor and musicologist, John Elliot Gardener, has discovered that all the main themes in this symphony are based on French revolutionary songs.

This is the first symphony to trace in a systematic manner the progress from the minor to the major key. Although this transition had been done before, the irresistible development from minor to major, its dialectical development, has no precedents. Like the revolution itself, the struggle that unfolds in the development of Beethoven's Fifth passes through a whole series of phases: from a tremendous forward thrust that sweeps all before it to moments of indecision and despair, leading up to the last movement with its glorious blaze of triumph.

The central message of Beethoven's Fifth is struggle and triumph over all the odds. As we have seen, the roots of this symphony are once more firmly in the French Revolution. Yet its message does not depend on this, or any other association. It can communicate itself to many people in different circumstances. But the message is always the same: it is necessary to fight! Never surrender! In the end we will surely win!

The Germans who listened to it in Beethoven's lifetime derived inspiration to fight against the French occupiers of their native land. During the Second World War, the opening bars of the Fifth (which by coincidence are the musical equivalent of the Morse code signal for "V" - meaning victory) were used to rally the French people to fight the German occupiers. Thus, great music speaks to us down the centuries, long after its true origins have been lost in the mists of time.

Beethoven was a revolutionary in every sense of the word. The kind of music he wrote had never been heard before. Prior to this, music was mainly an aristocratic affair. Josef Haydn (whose father was a simple wheelwright) worked for the Esterhazy family for over thirty years. His music was designed mainly to please his aristocratic audiences. It is great music, without doubt, but also undemanding. Beethoven’s symphonies are another world.


Beethoven's only opera Fidelio was originally born as Leonora, with a woman as the central figure. Leonora was written in 1805 when the victorious French army had entered Vienna. On the first night most of the audience was made up of French officers and their ladies. Like the Eroica, it also has clear revolutionary overtones, especially in the famous prisoners' chorus. The political prisoners who slowly emerge from the darkness of their dungeon into the light of day sing a moving chorus: "Oh what joy to breathe free air..." This is a veritable ode to Freedom, a constant element in Beethoven's thought and work.

Likewise, the incidental music to the play Egmont, based on the events of the revolt of the Netherlands against Spanish rule, has an explicit revolutionary message. The historical Egmont was a Flemish nobleman in the 16th century, that terrible period when the Netherlands languished under the heel of Spanish despotism. A gifted and courageous soldier, Egmont fought on the Spanish side in the wars of Charles V, and was even made governor of Flanders by the Spanish. But despite his services to the Spanish Crown, he fell under suspicion and was beheaded in Brussels on June 5, 1568.

Beethoven learned the story of Egmont from the tragedy of that name written by Goethe in 1788, one year before the French Revolution. Here the man whose statue now stands in Brussels is presented as a hero of the war of national liberation of the Netherlands against the Spanish oppressors. Beethoven set Goethe’s play to music. He saw Egmont as a symbol of the revolutionary struggle against tyranny at all times and in every country. By placing the action in the 16th century, he could avoid the accusation of subversion, but subversive it was.

Today only the famous Egmont Overture is well known. This is a pity because Beethoven’s Incidental Music to Egmont contains other marvellous material. Egmont’s final speech, as he goes calmly to his death, is a veritable denunciation of tyranny and a courageous call to the people to revolt and, if necessary, to give their lives to the cause of freedom. It ends with the following lines:

Forward, good people! The goddess
of victory leads you. And as the sea
breaks through your dikes, so
crush, tear down tyranny's
ramparts, and sweep them,
drowning, from the ground
which they usurp.
Listen, listen! How often this sound
would call me to step out eagerly
towards the field of battle and
victory! How lightheartedly did
the comrades stride on their
perilous way! I too will step
from this dungeon towards an honourable
death: I die for the freedom which I
have lived and fought for, and to which I
now offer myself up as sorrowful victim.
Yes, rally them all!
Close your ranks, you do not
frighten me. I am used to
standing betwixt spears, and,
beset by imminent death,
to feel my courageous life blood
coursing twice as quickly through my veins.
Friends, pluck up courage! Behind you
are your parents, your wives, your children.
But these people are driven on by their ruler's
empty words, not by their own inclination.
Friends, defend what is yours! and
fall gladly to save those you love most,
and follow as I lead.

These words are followed by the Victory Symphony, which ends the work in a blaze of fire (listen). But how can one end a tragedy on such a note? How can one speak of victory when the leader of the rebellion has been executed? This little detail tells us all we need to know about Beethoven’s outlook. Here we have a stubborn and incorrigible optimist, a man who refuses to admit defeat, a man with a boundless confidence in the future of humanity. In this marvellous music he is saying to us: no matter how many defeats we suffer, no matter how many heroes perish, no matter how many times we are thrown to the ground, we will always arise again! You can never defeat us! For you can never conquer our minds and souls. This music expresses the undying spirit of revolution.

The long dark night

Napoleon's retreat from MoscowNapoleon's retreat from Moscow / Image: public domain

Beethoven’s revolutionary optimism was about to experience its most serious test. Despite the fact that Napoleon had restored all the outward forms of the Ancien Regime, the fear and loathing for Napoleonic France in monarchist Europe was no less than before. The crowned heads of Europe feared the revolution even in the degenerate, twisted form of Bonapartism, just as later they feared and hated Stalin’s bureaucratic caricature of October. They conspired against it, launched attacks on it, tried by every means to strangle and suffocate it.

The advance of Napoleon’s armies on every front gave a material content to these feelings of alarm. The reactionary monarchist regimes of Europe, led by England with its limitless supplies of gold, exerted every nerve and sinew to confront the threat from France. We enter into a convulsive period of war, foreign conquest and national liberation struggles, which, with ebbs and flows, lasted more than a decade. Napoleon’s Grande Armée conquered almost the whole of Continental Europe before finally suffering a serious defeat in the frozen wastes of Russia in 1812. Weakened by this heavy blow, Napoleon was finally defeated by an Anglo-Prussian force on the muddy fields of Waterloo.

For Beethoven the year 1815 was marked by two disasters: one on the world stage, the other of a personal character: the defeat of France at Waterloo and the death of the composer’s beloved brother Kasper. Deeply affected by the loss of his brother, Beethoven insisted on taking charge of the upbringing of his son, Karl. This led to a long and bitter wrangle with Karl’s mother over custody.

The Congress of ViennaThe Congress of Vienna

The period after 1815 was one of black reaction. Monarchist-feudal counter-revolution triumphed all along the line. The Congress of Vienna (1814-15) reinstated the rule of the Bourbons in France. Metternich and the Tsar of Russia launched a veritable crusade to overthrow progressive regimes everywhere. Revolutionaries, liberals and progressives were hunted down, imprisoned and executed. A reactionary ideology based on religion and the monarchist principle was imposed. Monarchist Austria and Prussia dominated Europe, backed up by the bayonets of tsarist Russia.

It is true that the war against France contained elements of a war of national liberation in countries like Germany. But the outcome was entirely reactionary. The clearest case of this was Spain. Foreign rule was overthrown by a national movement, the main component of which was the "dark masses" - a downtrodden and illiterate peasantry, under the influence of a fanatical and reactionary clergy. Under the reign of Fernando VII, reaction reigned in Spain, where the experiment with a liberal constitution was crushed underfoot.

Goya: The Execution of the Defenders of Madrid (1814)Goya: The Execution of the Defenders of Madrid (1814)

The magnificent, tortured paintings of Goya’s last years reflect the essence of this turbulent period. Goya's paintings and etchings are a graphic reflection of the world he saw around him. Like the music of Beethoven, these paintings are more than art. They are a political statement. They are an angry protest against the prevailing spirit of reaction and obscurantism. As if to underline his protest, Goya chose the road of voluntary self-exile from the repressive regime of the traitor king Fernando VII, his old protector. Goya was not alone in his hatred of the Spanish monarch - Beethoven refused to send him his works.

By 1814 - the date of the Congress of Vienna - Beethoven was at the pinnacle of his career. But the gathering reaction throughout Europe which buried the hopes of a generation had a dampening effect on Beethoven's spirit. In 1812, when Napoleon’s army was halted at the gates of Moscow, Beethoven was working on his Seventh and Eighth symphonies. Then, after 1815, silence. He wrote no more symphonies for almost a decade, when he wrote his last, and greatest symphony.

The final defeat of what remained of the French Revolution buried all hopes and suffocated the creative drive. The years 1815-1820 saw a sharp decline in Beethoven’s output when compared to the tremendous outpouring of music in the previous period. Only six works of note were produced in as many years. They include the song cycle An der fernte Geliebte (To the distant loved one), the last sonatas for cello and piano, the opus 101 piano sonatas and the great Hammerklavier sonata, a work full of inner contradictions and discord, possibly reflecting the discord in his personal life.

He was now profoundly deaf. We read heartbreaking stories of his struggle to hear something of his own compositions. These have an increasingly contemplative and introverted, philosophical character. The slow movement of the Hammerklavier sonata, for instance, is openly tragic, reflecting a sense of acceptance. Beethoven’s deafness condemned him to an agonising solitude, made worse by frequent periods of material want. He became ever more introverted, moody and suspicious, which only served to isolate him still more from other people.

After the death of his brother he developed an obsession with his nephew Karl and became convinced that he should be in charge of the boy’s upbringing. He used all his influence to get custody over his nephew and then denied Karl’s mother access to her son. Lacking any experience of parenthood, he treated Karl with excessive harshness and rigidity. This eventually led Karl to attempt suicide – a devastating blow for Beethoven. Later they became reconciled, but the whole business led only to great unhappiness and pain for everyone concerned.

What was the reason for this strange obsession? Despite his passionate nature, Beethoven never succeeded in forming a satisfactory relationship with a woman and had no children of his own. All his emotions were poured into his music. This was to the eternal benefit of humanity, but it undoubtedly left a void in Beethoven’s personal life. No longer a young man, deaf, lonely and facing the shipwreck of all his hopes, he was desperately seeking to fill the void in his soul.

Thwarted in the political sphere, Beethoven threw himself into what he imagined was the family life he had never had. This kind of situation is well known to revolutionaries. Whereas in times of revolutionary upsurge, personal and family matters seem to pale into insignificance, in periods of reaction, such things assume a far greater significance, inducing some people to drop out of the movement and to seek refuge in the bosom of the family.

It is true that this affair does not show Beethoven in the best light, and some small-minded people have tried to use the Karl episode to blacken Beethoven’s name. Such accusations bring to mind Hegel’s remark that no man is a hero to his valet, who sees all the faults of his personal life, his eccentricities and vices. But as Hegel comments, the valet may criticise these failings. His range of vision does not see any further than such trivial matters and that explains why he will only ever be a valet and not a great man. For all his failings (and failings are inevitable to all humans), Beethoven was one of the greatest men who ever lived.


Despite everything, in this long, dark night of reaction, Beethoven never lost faith in the future of humanity and in the revolution. It has now become commonplace to refer to his great humanitarianism. This is correct as far as it goes but it does not go far enough. It places Beethoven on the same level as parsons, pacifists and well-meaning old ladies who dedicate their spare time to “worthy causes”. That is to say, it places a giant on the same level as a pygmy.

Beethoven as an old manBeethoven as an old man

Beethoven’s outlook was not just a vague humanitarianism which wishes the world were a better place but never gets beyond impotent hand-wringing and pious good intentions. Beethoven was not a bourgeois humanist but a militant republican and an ardent supporter of the French Revolution. He was not prepared to surrender to the prevailing reaction or to compromise with the status quo. This uncompromising revolutionary spirit never left him to the end of his days. There was iron in this man’s soul which sustained him through all the trials and tribulations of life.

His deafness lasted for the last nine years of his life. One by one he had lost his most trusted friends and was utterly alone. In this desperate solitude, Beethoven was reduced to communicating to people in writing. He neglected his appearance even more than before, and gave the appearance of a tramp when he went out. Yet even in such tragic circumstances, he was working on his greatest masterpieces.

Like Goya in his black period, he was now composing not for the public but for himself, finding expression for his innermost thoughts. The music of his last years is the product of the maturity of old age. It is not beautiful music but very profound. It transcends Romanticism and points the way forward to the tortured world of our own times.

Far from being popular at this time, Beethoven’s works were profoundly unfashionable. They were against the spirit of the times. In times of reaction, the public does not want profound ideas. Thus, after the defeat of the Paris Commune, the frivolous light operettas of Offenbach were all the rage. The bourgeoisie of Paris did not want to be reminded of storm and stress but to drink champagne and watch the antics of pretty chorus girls. The merry but superficial tunes of Offenbach reflected this spirit perfectly.

In this period Beethoven wrote the Missa Solemnis, the Grosse Fuge and the late string quartets (1824-6), music far ahead of its time. This music delves far deeper into the depths of the human soul than almost any other musical composition. Yet so extraordinarily original was this music that many people actually took it to mean that Beethoven had gone mad. Beethoven paid absolutely no attention to all this. He cared nothing for public opinion and was never discreet in expressing his views. This was dangerous. Only his status as a famous composer kept him out of prison.

We should bear in mind that at this time Austria was one of the main centres of European reaction. Not only politics but also cultural life was suffocated. The emperor’s police spies were on every street corner. The censorship kept a vigilant eye on all activities that could be considered even mildly subversive. Under such circumstances, the respectable Viennese bourgeois did not want to listen to music intended to rouse them to struggle for a better world. They preferred to have their ears gently tickled by the comic operas of Rossini – the composer of the hour. By contrast, Beethoven’s great Missa Solemnis was a flop.

The torment in the great man’s soul found its reflection in that strange composition known as the Grosse Fuge. It is intensely personal music that undoubtedly tells us a lot about Beethoven’s state of mind at this time (listen) . Here we are in the presence of a world of conflict, dissonance and unresolved contradictions. It was not what the public wanted to hear.

The Ninth symphony

Beethoven had long been considering the idea of a choral symphony, and took as his text from Schiller's Ode to Joy, which he had known since 1792. In fact, Schiller had originally considered an Ode to Freedom (Freiheit), but because of the enormous pressure of the reactionary forces, he changed the word to Joy (Freude). However, for Beethoven and his generation the message was quite clear. This was an Ode to Freedom.

The first sketch for the Ninth symphony dates back to 1816, one year after the battle of Waterloo. It was finished seven years later, in 1822-24, after the Philharmonic Society of London had offered the sum of 50 pounds for two symphonies. Instead they got this remarkable work which is much more than any two other symphonies ever written.

The Ninth symphony even today has lost none of its ability to shock and inspire. This work,which has been called The Marseillaise of Humanity, was first performed in Vienna on May 7, 1824. In the midst of universal reaction, this music expresses the voice of revolutionary optimism. It is the voice of a man who refuses to admit defeat, whose head remains unbowed in adversity.

Its long first movement arises gradually out of nebulous chords, so indistinct that they seem to emerge out of darkness, like the primaeval chaos that was supposed to precede Creation. It is like a man saying: “Yes, we have passed through a dark night when all seemed hopeless, but the human spirit is capable of emerging triumphant from the darkest night.”

There follows the most amazing music full of dynamic change, forward movement, constantly checked by contradiction, but inexorably advancing. It is like the first movement of the Fifth, but on an infinitely bigger scale. Like the Fifth, this is violent music, and it is revolutionary violence that tolerates no opposition, but sweeps everything before it. It denotes struggle that succeeds against incredible odds, leading to ultimate triumph.

Beethoven conducting the Ninth

Such music had never been heard before. It was something entirely new and revolutionary. It is impossible today to comprehend the impact it must have made on the audience. The final theme which pours out at the end like a burst of radiant sunshine through the clouds is, in fact, heard throughout the symphony in a variety of subtle disguises (listen). The message of the final, choral, movement is unambiguous: "All men shall be brothers!" This is Beethoven's final message to humanity. It is a message of hope - and defiance.

Beethoven, old, dishevelled, unkempt and completely deaf, conducted the symphony. He was unable even to keep time correctly, waving his arms furiously in the air, even after the orchestra had stopped playing. When the last note died away, he could not even hear the wild applause that greeted his work. The great man stood facing the orchestra for a few moments. Then the contralto Karoline Unger gently took him by the shoulders and turned him round to face the public. Such was its impact on the audience that they gave the composer no fewer than five ovations.

So great was the tumult that the Vienna police – ever on the lookout for manifestations of dangerous public demonstrations – finally had to intervene to stop it. After all, three ovations was considered the limit even for the emperor. Would such a demonstration of enthusiasm not be considered an offence to His Majesty? The instinctive reaction of the police was not mistaken. There is indeed something profoundly subversive in the Ninth, from the first bar to the last.

The Ninth symphony was a success, but it made no money. Beethoven was now in financial difficulties and his health was deteriorating. He caught pneumonia and had to undergo an operation. The wound became infected and his last days were spent in agony.

Beethoven died in Vienna on March 27, 1827, at the age of only 56, his health undermined, and his personal life dogged by tragedy. Goya, who was also deaf, died in the same year. 25,000 people turned out for his funeral - a fact which shows the extent to which his genius had been recognised in his lifetime. Yet he remains alive today, as vibrant and relevant as ever. As was the man, so was his music. In his music we feel we have the whole man. We feel that we have known and loved him all our lives.

Beethoven's greatness consists in the fact that in his music the individual is at one with the universal. This is music which constantly suggests a struggle to overcome all obstacles and rise to a higher state. His music was revolutionary because in its searing intensity, it cast light on aspects of the human condition never before expressed in music. It was truth expressed in music.


The Ninth symphony was Beethoven’s last word – a fearless challenge to the apparently triumphant reaction that seemed to be all-powerful after the defeat of the French armies in 1815. That apparently final victory of the forces of reaction led to a wave of despondency and defeatism that suffocated the hopes of the generation that looked for salvation to the French Revolution. Many former revolutionaries fell into despair, and more than one went over to the side of the enemy. It is a very familiar picture to our own generation, with uncanny parallels to the situation that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Then also it seemed that Europe lay prostrate at the feet of royalist reaction. Who could stand against such a power as the united monarchical powers of Europe, with the might of the Russian Tsar behind every throne and police spies on every street corner? Despotism and religious obscurantism were triumphant. Everywhere there was silence as of the grave. And yet, in the midst of this terrible desolation, a brave man raised his voice and gave the world a message of hope. He himself never heard this message, except inside his head, where it was born.

But the defeat of France and the re-imposition of the Bourbons could not prevent the rise of capitalism and the bourgeoisie, nor halt the tide of revolution, which broke out again and again: in 1830, 1848, 1871. The system of production which had triumphed in England now began to penetrate other European countries. Industry, the power loom, the railways, the steamship, were the motor forces of universal and irresistible change.

Delacroix' Liberty on the barricades The ideas of the French Revolution – the ideas of liberty, equality, fraternity, and the rights of man – continued to grip the imagination of the new generation. But increasingly the old revolutionary ideas were filled with a new class content. The rise of capitalism meant the development of industry and the working class – the bearer of a new idea and a new stage in human history – socialism.

The music of Beethoven was the starting point for a new school of music, Romanticism, which was inextricably linked to Revolution. In April 1849, in the heat of revolution in Germany, the young composer Richard Wagner conducted Beethoven’s Ninth symphony in Dresden. In the audience was the Russian anarchist, Bakunin, whose ideas influenced Wagner in his youth. Enthused by the music, Bakunin told Wagner that if there was anything worth saving from the ruins of the old world, this score would be it.

Just ninety years after the death of Beethoven the Russian Tsar was himself overthrown by the working class. The October Revolution was to play a role similar to that of the French Revolution. It inspired generations of men and women with a vision of a new and better world. True, the Russian Revolution degenerated, under conditions of frightful backwardness, into a monstrous caricature that Trotsky, using an historical analogy with the French Revolution, characterised as proletarian Bonapartism. And just as Napoleon’s dictatorship undermined the French Revolution and led to the restoration of the Bourbons, so the Stalinist bureaucratic dictatorship in Russia has led to the restoration of capitalism.

Today, in a world dominated by the forces of triumphant reaction, we face a similar situation to that faced by Beethoven and his generation after 1815. Now, as then, many former revolutionaries have abandoned the struggle. We will not join the camp of the cynics and sceptics, but prefer to follow the example of Ludwig van Beethoven. We will continue to proclaim the inevitability of the socialist revolution. And history will prove us right.

Those who predict the end of history have been proved wrong many times. History is not so easy to stop! Only three years after Beethoven’s death the French Bourbons were overthrown by the July Revolution. This was followed by revolutions all over Europe in 1848-9. Then there was the Paris Commune of 1871, the first genuine workers’ revolution in history, which paved the way for the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.

Therefore, we see no reason for pessimism. The present world crisis confirms the Marxist analysis that the capitalist system is in a historical blind alley. We confidently predict that the collapse of the Soviet Union, far from being the end of history, is only the prelude to its first act. The second act will be the overthrow of capitalism in one country or another, which will prepare the way for a new revolutionary wave on a scale never before seen in history.

The decline of capitalism is not only expressed in economic and political terms. The impasse of the system is reflected not only in the stagnation of the productive forces but also in a general stagnation of culture. Yet, as always happens in history, beneath the surface new forces are struggling to be born. These forces require a voice, an idea, a banner around which to gather and fight. That will come in time, and when it does it will not only come in the shape of political programmes. It will find its expression in music and art, in novels and poetry, in the theatre and cinema. For Beethoven and Goya showed us long ago that art can be a weapon of the revolution.

Like the great French revolutionaries – Robespierre, Danton, Marat and Saint-Juste – Beethoven was convinced that he was writing for posterity. When (as frequently happened) musicians complained that they could not play his music because it was too difficult, he used to answer: "Don't worry, this is music for the future." We can say the same about the ideas of socialism. They represent the future, while the discredited ideas of the bourgeoisie represent the past. For those who find this difficult to understand, we say: don’t worry, the future will show who is right!

In the future, when men and women look back on the history of revolutions and the repeated attempts to create a genuinely human society based on true freedom, equality and fraternity, they will remember the man who, using for his medium music that he could not hear, fought for a better tomorrow that he would never see. They will relive the great battles of the past and they will understand the language of Beethoven: the universal language of the fight for the establishment of a world fit for free men and women to live in.

1 May, 2006


[1] Beethoven was wrong about the Austrians. Two decades after his death, the Austrian working class and youth rose up in the revolution of 1848.

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