Beethoven and the Modern – Radio National

Between Bach and Beethoven I’d choose Bach. Between Mozart and Beethoven I’d choose Mozart. I like Beethoven, particularly his string quartets, but on the whole I like a lot of other things a lot more. His music is full of the tortured soul and so full of angsty emotion – he’s more Romantic than the Romantics, and listening to him can be a bit like listening to an in-love-out-of-love existentialist yet idealist teenager. Anyway, this is a transcript is of a Radio National program The Philosopher’s Zone about Beethoven and the Modern – I can’t remember who it was who said that Bach wrote music of the divine soul, and Beethoven wrote the music of man, but I think they were right – Beethoven is all about the heroic human struggle, and life.

Whilst in any year it’s unavoidable that at least 2 Beethoven symphonies would be on any orchestra’s program, this August WASO will be playing all 9 symphonies as part of the Beethoven Festival. In the meantime here is Beethoven’s String Quartet (no 14) in c sharp minor, opus 131, performed by the Julliard Quartet.

Beethoven and the Modern
first broadcast 24th October 2009
on Radio National – The Philospher’s Zone

Alan Saunders: When did the modern world begin and who was the first modern person? Well, when it comes to the birth date of modernity, there are a lot of candidates and there are a lot of claimants for the role of first modern person, too. This week on The Philosopher’s Zone we’re looking at one of them: Ludwig van Beethoven. Hi, I’m Alan Saunders.

Beethoven was born in 1770 and died in 1827, which means that he bestrides a lot of great historical moments: the French Revolution, the age of Napoleon, the Romantic era.


Alan Saunders: This is from the music he wrote to the play Egmont, by his great contemporary, Goethe, and it’s all about progress, liberty and optimism. But how much of a modern was Beethoven? Was he our contemporary?

To explore these questions, I’m joined now by a musicologist and Beethoven expert, Associate Professor Peter McCallum from the University of Sydney. Peter, welcome to The Philosopher’s Zone.

Peter McCallum: Hello, Alan.

Alan Saunders: Peter, if we’re thinking about modernity, should we be thinking about Beethoven? Is he a modern man?

Peter McCallum: Yes, I think so. But I think it’s important not to sort of historicise that modernity, if I could put it in that way. In other words, it seems to me that Beethoven is a modern figure because of this element of, if you like, continuous critique that you find in his music. That to me is an essential thing about being alive, and society moving on. It sounds like I’m saying society progressing, and post modern critics will question this idea of whether things really progress, and so forth. But it seems to me that an essential element of one’s life, and of the life of society, is continuous critique, very honest critique, and stripping a way of the unnecessary. And in that sense, I find Beethoven a very modern figure. That I think gets to the heart of his appeal to succeeding generations of modernists.

You can find all sorts of things in Beethoven, of course, that are very modern, like the Grosse Fuge, which is a very dissonant and rather extreme texture; it’s rather unique from Beethoven. You can also find things in Beethoven which are rather dated. You can find all sorts of passages which seem surprising for someone of Beethoven’s capacity, and also which these days we’re just not all that interested in. And that’s just the nature of any composer’s output. But what to me is modern, is this element of critique, and that’s what I think has appealed to succeeding generations.

Alan Saunders: Peter, music can move our emotions, it can move our legs, it can make us dance or march, but how can music be a vehicle for ideas?

Peter McCallum: Well, I guess the tradition of music as being about ideas can be said to start with Beethoven, though the first person who probably articulated it in a very precise way was Schoenberg. In fact, for him, the idea of a musical idea was an almost transcendent thing.

Alan Saunders: That’s in the 20th century.

Peter McCallum: In the 20th century, that’s right. But there’s no doubt that the concept of music as embodying ideas started in Schoenberg’s mind with Beethoven and the kind of musical ideas. Musical ideas are not necessarily about something, but in many other ways they resemble ideas. They can be developed, they can be contradicted, they can be, to some extent, seen to relate to the time they come from, without necessarily expressing specific things. So I think there are many common elements between an idea, and certainly any composer or anyone who improvises, the idea of a musical idea is almost a self-evident thing, a theme, a tune, a rhythm, and something like that. But how they can then engage and become, so to speak, a philosophy, is a more complex question I think, and one that I think the achievement of Beethoven was very strongly bound up with.

Alan Saunders: So in normal musical usage, when you talk about an idea, if in normal language I say I’ve got an idea, and you say, Well, what is it? or What’s it an idea of? Now in the case of music, that’s not a proper question; you’ve got a musical idea, what’s it an idea of? It’s not an idea of anything.

Peter McCallum: No, that’s right. It is simply a shape, if you like. But it’s a shape which carries all sorts of things with it (and I think in particular this was an idea very dear to Schoenberg) often a musical idea will carry the seeds of its own continuation. So an idea might suggest another idea, perhaps a balancing idea of similar shape that may be going up instead of down, or down instead of up. Or maybe instead of finishing on one chord, finishing on a different chord. That idea of music having a sense of inner logic I think, is something that musicians have often responded to very strongly. In fact a lot of composers have expressed the task of composing as finding the inner logic of the idea. In fact that’s very much the way in which Schoenberg himself expressed it. He thought almost that if one could really uncover what was the essence of an idea, what flowed from it was to a certain extent almost inevitable.

Now there’s an interesting counterfoil to that which is how the composer intervenes with their own will if you like. And that is I think very much bound up in the idea of Beethoven and Beethoven as a composer who existed at this time of the assertion of the individual, the assertion of freedom and liberation.

Alan Saunders: Well this is obviously an idea that we’re going to have to dwell on, but let’s just look at ideas in a more literal, or perhaps more philosophical sense. Germany in Beethoven’s day, especially after the death of the great philosopher, Immanuel Kant, was a hotbed. There was Schelling, there was Fichte, and eventually there was Hegel. What, if anything, was Beethoven’s relationship to the philosophy of his time?

Peter McCallum: Well, Beethoven is a fascinating case of a genius who was an autodidact. He obviously was incredibly inspired by ideas. He obviously read widely, but certainly not in any scholarly sense. And he had some extraordinary gaps, which you would smile at today. For example, he was almost innumerate in modern terms; he couldn’t really do multiplication, except one repeated addition, and things like that. But he regarded himself as living… – in one letter in fact, in 1814, he says, for him ‘The empire of the mind is the most important.’ In another letter he says that no idea could be too complex or demanding for him. He obviously liked intellectual tussle. Now as to how much he engaged with the philosophers of his day, I suspect possibly in a relatively superficial way by any scholarly standard.

Alan Saunders: But we do know that he was widely read; how do we know that he was widely read?

Peter McCallum: Well we mainly know that because of his surviving library, which certainly included works of Kant, and we also know it from about 1818 onwards, his deafness was such that he actually wrote down conversations, or rather unfortunately they’re only one way. It’s like a wire tap where you can only hear one party. It would be nice to know what Beethoven said, but we know what people said to him. So there’s actually half records of a good many of Beethoven’s conversations, and of course also in his correspondence. So in terms of traces, if you like, of his intellectual life, there’s a fair amount of material there. And it’s very rich material.

In terms of Kant, there’s a famous appearance in one of these little conversation books from 1820, well after the Napoleonic era, where he writes ‘The moral world within us, and the starry skies above us. Kant!!!’ And this was obviously an image that appeared to him. It seems likely that this was not something that he got at first hand. In fact Maynard Solomon, the fine Beethoven scholar, has actually traced it to an article in a magazine in Vienna of the time, around about the same period. So it seems that he was kind of digesting philosophy through the journal literature of his time. He makes a few jokes occasionally about Kant, and The Critique of Pure Reason, he was a great one for always punning and lampooning things and so forth.

The other important figure of course is Schiller, who was a writer, a playwright, a poet, as Beethoven knew him, and of course set his Ode to Joy in his last symphony. And Schiller also was a philosopher, and there was an important document of course from around about I think around 1794, sometime in the early 1790s at any rate, which is usually known these days as Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man. We don’t know for sure whether Beethoven had read this, but it does seem likely, and certainly several of the ideas in it would have appealed to him.

One of the interesting things about the Schiller letters is it was a suggestion of how you would fix things because of all the terrible things that had gone wrong in the French Revolution. The French Revolution was seen as a moment of great hope, and it had all gone horribly wrong with the Terror, and so forth. Schiller was obviously worried about this, possibly in an exactly comparable way Beethoven was later on over the figure of Napoleon, the great liberator, becoming a tyrant and a totalitarian. And so Schiller, of course, set up this idea of a utopian, you might call it an aesthetic state. He thought the key to raising mankind was through the beautiful, and so his theory is in a way, about aesthetic education as a path to enlightenment and towards a utopian figure. So in that respect I think you could say Schiller shared a view with Beethoven that the aesthetic realm was the utopian realm which would in some way, raise mankind.

Alan Saunders: On ABC Radio National, you’re with The Philosopher’s Zone and I’m talking to Associate Professor, Peter McCallum from the University of Sydney, about Beethoven and the modern.

And what we’re listening to now is the moment in Fidelio, Beethoven’s only opera, where the prisoners confined by the evil Don Pizarro, are set free.


Alan Saunders: Peter, perhaps you can tell us what this says about Beethoven’s idea of freedom.

Peter McCallum: That chorus, of course, is a fascinating idea of the modern, because it’s a sublime moment. Artistically the sublime is something which emerges in discussions of art of the late 18th century and early 19th century, and it’s usually associated with Romanticism, and yet for Beethoven, I think it was something genuinely, deeply personally transcendent for him. That quotation from Kant that we mentioned earlier, ‘The moral world within us and the starry skies above us’, this idea of infinite is an image which occurs a lot in his music, and he equated it visually with simply the night sky.

In terms of the relationship to the modern, it’s also fascinating because particularly in the late works I think there’s sometimes a sense in which that transcendent idea, what you might call a deep retreat into your own subjectivity, into your own personal experience, and for Beethoven, into his own personal suffering, which he obviously did have, that that is in one sense, the utopia. You find the utopia within because you can’t find it without. It’s also a reaction against the world and a turning away from the world.

Now I think that’s very interesting if you look at the way that Beethoven was then taken up during the 20th century, because during the 20th century I think it’s fair to say that modernism had a somewhat Jonas-faced character to it. On the one hand, it was about progress, it was about moving forward, about for example, feeding the world’s peoples, liberating from oppression. But modernism often brought with it a lot of aspects, which actually achieved the opposite effect. They were very depersonalising. Industrialisation, for example, brought all sorts of alienating features for the people in that society. So that the experience of modernism was on the one hand, one of hope and aspiration towards a better world, and on the other hand, a retreat into the personal because of this deeply alienating environment. And so much modernist out of the 20th century actually chronicles that alienation. You find it of course in Kafka, and you find it in an awful lot of the literature; in T.S. Eliot, for example, who often used the concept of the transcendent musical moment as a bit of a withdrawal from that.

There’s no coincidence I think that Eliot’s last great masterpiece, the so-called Four Quartets, evokes a musical title, and most people think that in some way he is referring to the late string quartets of Beethoven, as many of the writers of the 20th century actually did. And the late quartets which in the immediate period after Beethoven’s death had been the least relevant works (the works that were valued during the period of the 19th century of course, the big heroic works, the Fifth Symphony and so forth) but for the 20th century the late quartets became the iconic works of Beethoven and one that gave him intrinsic, modern relevance, because of this personal subjectivity.

Alan Saunders: Well let’s hear some of the Heiliger Dankgesang, (‘The Holy Song of Thanksgiving) from Beethoven’s late A-minor quartet, Opus 132.


Alan Saunders: Peter, what does this have to tell us about Beethoven’s relationship to the modern?

Peter McCallum: There are a lot of aspects of this piece which are very relevant to what we’re saying. First of all, it’s based on very strong contrasts. Really, it’s got a wonderful hymn-like passage in which time seems to stand still. And it stands still in a way which was more or less unprecedented, because not only is the music very slow, and the arch-like melody almost seems to have all desire purged out of it, but he wrote it (and here I’ll just use a technical musical term) he wrote in what he called Lydian Mode, and it doesn’t matter if listeners don’t understand what people mean by the Lydian Mode, but what it does is, it gives the music a certain slight strangeness. It’s not quite familiar and the cadences don’t quite go where you might expect, and that adds to this timelessness, the exact same timelessness of course that T.S. Eliot evoked in the Four Quartets. I could well imagine he might have had those passages in mind.

But that’s one part of the music. And then there is the section which Beethoven labels ‘Feeling new strength’, and it becomes the opposite. It becomes fairly robust and energetic and so forth. And this idea of the contrast, very strong contrast, is extremely important in late Beethoven, and often had a slightly alienating effect in his music. There are quite a lot of examples in the late works, where he puts together contrasts which seem almost pushed to the point of incongruity. A good example is the last string quartet, the last movement of it where he gives each one a labelled ‘Muss es sein?’ ‘Es muss sein!’ And the ‘Muss es sein?’ sounds like a deeply tortured philosophical question.

Alan Saunders: ‘Must it be?’

Peter McCallum: ‘Must it be?’ And the ‘Es muss sein!’ is a joke. It’s a very lighthearted thing. And I won’t go in to the details now but the story did arise out of an actual joke. So putting together the strong metaphysical question and the lighthearted response, was in a way very typical of Beethoven’s approach at this time.

Some writers have pointed to the concept of romantic irony in this regard, that when you have these almost incongruous aspects, and romantic irony was a concept which was first evoked during Beethoven’s time by philosophers like Schlegel and others as well. But the sense of deep incongruity actually sort of extracts the artist a little bit from their work a bit, and almost makes them a commentator on the work a little bit. And so you get that sort of sense of alienation.

Another quite good example, it doesn’t have to be through strong contrast, it can also be through maybe self quotation, and there’s a very good example at the beginning of the finale of the Ninth Symphony where Beethoven puts in little snapshots of all the earlier movements and then the baritone comes in and says, ‘Nicht diese Tone’ ‘Not these sounds’, something else. So it’s almost as though the commentary comes from the composer’s voice himself, that he’s commenting on his own work. So strangely Beethoven did that very often in the late works.

Alan Saunders: Yes that’s interesting because the Ode to Joy which concludes the Ninth Symphony, is as you’ve said by Friedrich Schiller but he didn’t write the words ‘Nicht diese Tone’, did he ‘Not these notes’. What are we to make of that Ode to Joy? Is that a simple, un-ironic expression of a very romantic hope that ‘Alle menchen verdem bruder’ that ‘All men will be brothers’?

Peter McCallum: Oh well, now you’ve asked the eternal question. It seems to me that one of the great strengths of Beethoven is that in most cases you’re never quite sure whether something is of ironic intent, and if you were it would be a much lesser irony. The artwork is always capable of being interpreted in many different ways, and most people have at some stage, who’ve listened to the Ninth Symphony been overwhelmed by the sheer exhilaration of certain moments and you could well be persuaded that what Beethoven was trying to do was to have the audience say ‘Yes, yes, all people will become brothers, or brothers and sisters or whatever’, but is he speaking ironically in that? Well it’s an extremely difficult question to answer.

Alan Saunders: So, Beethoven, our contemporary.

Peter McCallum: Yes.

Alan Saunders: I’ve been talking to Associate Professor Peter McCallum from the University of Sydney. Peter, thank you very much for being with us.

Peter McCallum: Thanks very much, it was a great pleasure.

Alan Saunders: The Philosopher’s Zone is produced by Kyla Slaven with technical production by Charlie McCune. I’m Alan Saunders. More of the music of pure thought next week.