Humanist

Beethoven ardently supported the values of the French Revolution: liberty, equality, fraternity.

His attitude has lost none of its relevance today!

The Jubilee Programme also delves into Beethoven’s opinions on society, as well as his universal significance and various political misappropriations. International understanding – a topic of great importance to Beethoven – will also figure in the Jubilee programme.

Beethoven closely followed the political upheavals of his day. He openly sympathised with the ideals of the French Revolution: liberty, equality, fraternity. He had already come into contact with them in his Bonn years: in a letter of 1795 to his boyhood friend Heinrich von Struve he longs for the day ‘when there will only be human beings’ and men will be treated according to their dignity.

Beethoven already pursued the humanistic ideals of the Enlightenment in his early works, such as the song Der freie Mann (The free man), composed in 1792. Two years earlier, in a funeral cantata commissioned by Bonn’s Reading and Recreation Society, he praised the enlightened projects and ideals of the recently deceased ‘reform emperor’ Joseph II.

Perhaps Beethoven’s most important work in this respect is the Ninth Symphony with its fourth movement, the ‘Ode to Joy’. Schiller’s poem was originally a convivial drinking song that was set to music several times in his own day. Beethoven is said to have considered setting it while still in Bonn. His interpretation of the poem is open-ended: it contains references to Christianity and Antiquity no less than allusions of a general humanitarian nature. The understanding of the symphony as an expression of the loftiest ideals of humanity has proved especially momentous, lending philosophical weight to the line ‘Alle Menschen werden Brüder’ (All men shall be as brothers). It was this interpretation that caused the ‘Ode’ to be proclaimed the European anthem. Leonard Bernstein turned it into a hymn to liberty in Christmas 1989, when he gathered together musicians from France, Great Britain, the USA, the USSR and the two states of Germany to perform the Ninth in East and West Berlin. He replaced the word ‘Freude’ (joy) with ‘Freiheit’ (freedom).

The topic of international understanding will leave its mark in many ways on the programme of the 2020 Jubilee.

Beethoven’s ballet The Creatures of Promethus is a work whose subject – the titan Promethus bringing fire to mankind and liberating it from the rule of the gods – clearly pursues Enlightenment ends. ‘The basis of this allegorical ballet’, proclaimed the playbill of the première, ‘is the fable of Prometheus. The Greek philosophers […] explain the essence of the fable in this way: they describe him as a sublime spirit, who found the humans of his time to be in a state of ignorance, and who refined them by giving them science and art and by teaching them morals’.

In his incidental music to Egmont, Beethoven heightened the notion of liberty in Goethe’s drama, which deals with the 16th-century struggles of the Dutch to attain freedom from Spanish domination. Remarkably, Goethe planned for his play to end with a victory symphony, thereby allowing music to have the ‘final word’. Beethoven already anticipates the events in the overture: it, too, ends in a victory symphony, with the result that the victory of the Dutch is already articulated in music before the first word of the play is spoken.

Beethoven made a close study of the ‘rescue operas’ that found their way from the French Revolution to Vienna’s theatres, albeit in translations that seriously blunted the revolutionary contents of the originals. In his only opera, Leonore (later renamed Fidelio), Beethoven himself took up a rescue drama: the libretto was originally written by Jean Nicolas Bouilly for the French composer Pierre Gaveaux. It describes a man of honour rescued by his courageous wife after being unjustly imprisoned by a political despot. In the finale, depicting the liberation of all the prisoners, Beethoven returned to his aforementioned funeral cantata for Joseph II.

Especially famous is the story of the ‘Eroica’ Symphony, in which Beethoven reworked the music of The Creatures of Prometheus. He is said to have torn up the title page with its dedication to Napoleon in a fit of rage after Napoleon proclaimed himself Emperor of the French. The matter is more complicated than that, as can be seen in Beethoven’s vetted copy of the score (the autograph has not survived). First he erased the inscription ‘intitolata Bonaparte’ only to add in pencil ‘written for Bonaparte’. Later he even told his Leipzig publishers Breitkopf & Härtel that ‘the symphony is actually titled Ponaparte’ [sic]. In the end, however, he dedicated it to Prince Lobkowitz.

Even though Beethoven is considered a democrat by today’s standards, and even though the ideas of the French Revolution crop up in many of his works, it should not be forgotten that in the final years of the Napoleonic Wars he tended increasingly to support the opponents of the Revolution. His most successful work in his lifetime was Wellington’s Victory, which apotheosises the decisive victory of the English general against Napoleon. It was in conjunction with the Congress of Vienna that he composed his incidental music to Leopold Duncker’s play Leonore Prohaska, celebrating the eponymous heroine of the Wars of Liberation, and the final hymns of Georg Friedrich Treitschke’s patriotic singspiels Die gute Nachricht (Germania) and Die Ehrenpforten (Es ist vollbracht). Beethoven’s piano variations on God save the King and Rule Britannia (both dating back to 1803) are in the tradition of Haydn’s 'Emperor' Quartet. The many dedications of his works to the imperial family and to members of the Austro-Hungarian aristocracy likewise bear witness to his close ties with representatives of the Ancien Régime.

It was not only Beethoven who actively adopted a political stance in his works. Over the years his music was frequently co-opted to serve political ends. In the 19th century he was considered a musical figurehead of Germany’s emergent nationalism. In the Third Reich his works were misappropriated to strengthen the nation’s stamina. The interpretation of the Fifth as the ‘Fate’ Symphony significantly facilitated this misuse. These aspects, too, will be taken up in the Jubilee Year.

Christine Siegert & Christian Lorenz

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Photographs on the main theme 'Beethoven as a Humanist'

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Main themes

Read the detailed essay on the five main themes by Christine Siegert, Beethoven-Haus Bonn, and Christian Lorenz.

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