When the two E♭ major tutti chords which introduce Beethoven’s 3rd symphony first rung out over Vienna in 1805, European music was forever changed. It was this piece of music which marked the beginning of an era in which the symphony would be the axis around which all public orchestral performances revolved, while the monumental Eroica (Heroic) Symphony likewise re-shape perceptions of music’s role in society and its scope as a modern art form.
In terms of musicality, Beethoven’s 3rd expanded the symphonic form in respect of harmonic dexterity, subtle narrative arch, melodic development, overall size and scope, dynamic range and emotional longevity. In terms of its cultural impact, Beethoven’s 3rd begun the manifold transition wherein symphonic music was transported from the stately homes of neo-feudal patrons to the public concert halls in which orchestral music became modern entertainment for the masses. The 3rd likewise helped transition the symphony form into one that could be readily augmented, extended and re-imaged in terms of musicality, thematic grandeur and cultural relevance.
Beethoven’s subsequent symphonies continued to push the boundaries of symphonic form as it existed in the early 19th century. His final symphony, the 9th was in many ways more revolutionary than the 3rd although without the 3rd there could have been no 9th. The 9th symphony broke the record of the 3rd in terms of being the most lengthy and heavily orchestrated of the era. Moreover, while the 3rd represented something of European musical classicism’s Indian summer, the 9th was in many ways the singular moment in which the late classical European music transitioned into the early romantic.
With the 9th, Beethoven did not just allude to a new era in music and in culture but he boldly declared it without reservation. The 9th continues to stand as one of the most recognisable and unifying forces in European art which has incidentally been largely embraced by the wider world including in much of Asia and the Americas. Beethoven’s Chorale symphony as it is also known is likewise famous for incorporating Friedrich Schiller’s poem An die Freude (Ode to Joy) in the final movement. Beethoven’s melody against which Schiller’s words are set has become so beloved over the centuries that it is often sung as a song, independent from the context of the 9th symphony’s final movement.
Beethoven was remarkable not only for challenging preconceptions of the symphonic form and the symphony’s place in culture, but he was also remarkable for adding new layers of musical complexity to the orchestral form. Prior to Beethoven, orchestral musicians of Europe had never known music of such complexity and as a result, the modern European orchestra of the 19th century is largely an outgrowth of attempts to give Beethoven’s music the kind of presentation it beckoned for and ultimately required at both a technical and emotional level.
As a result, performances of Beethoven’s music became far more complete and substantial after his death than they were during his lifetime. In this sense, there is some ironic justice in the fact that in his later years Beethoven was virtually completely deaf as it is thought that Beethoven may well have imagined the way his music would have been performed by an orchestra of the 1880s rather than that of the 1820s, as a means to compensate for his lack of hearing.
While Wagner is in many ways the founder of the large romantic European orchestra that has been known to the world ever since the mid 19th century, without Beethoven, there would have been no Wagner to re-arrange the physical expansion of the orchestra in order to accommodate the weighty sounds that Beethoven first inspired among the generation who would lead post-Wagnerian European romanticism into the 20th century.
Accordingly, as orchestras grew larger, more dynamically capable and more musically proficient, Beethoven’s sound continued to grow into itself as large modern string sections and augmented wind and brass sections were by the turn of the 20th century, at long last able to reveal the beauty of Beethoven that was only partly understood in his own storied lifetime.
While Frankfurt School Communist music theorist Theodore Adorno decried the advent of recorded sound in the 20th century as he felt it would only cheapen, commodify and ultimately vulgarise music, the realities turned out quite differently to his expectations. Just as the growing concert hall that Beethoven’s music required allowed for wider audiences to hear orchestral music, the advent of radio and gramophone recording democratised this experience one-thousand fold as now the music of the great orchestras could be listened to in homes and public spaces across the world.
The fact that the dawn of recorded sound also corresponded in terms of proximity in time with the era of some of the great romantic European conductors has allowed subsequent generations to enjoy the majesty of performances of Beethoven that are scarcely possible in 21st century Europe in spite of advancing technologies.
Whether the profound metaphysics and spiritual enlightenment of Wilhelm Furtwängler, the poetic gusto of Willem Mengelberg, the sincere Apollonian sheen of Hermann Abendroth, the broad elegant brush strokes of Hans Knappertsbusch, the somewhat paradoxically austere romanticism of Bruno Walter, the unflinching exactitude of Karl Böhm, the masculine confidence of an ageing Otto Klemperer and later, the aural completeness of Herbert von Karajan: the great European interpreters of Beethoven in the early and middle 20th century were all unique in terms of their approach, but all grand in their elevation of Beethoven to a musical titan among men.
As many of the aforementioned maestros had careers both before and after the second world war, such a phenomenon is a testament to the fact that Beethoven’s music was able to survive even the darkest period in modern European history unscathed. Indeed, as Nietzsche called Beethoven the last cosmopolitan/universal composer before European music tended to divide itself into categories of romantic nationalism, Beethoven was well placed to redeem his German homeland in the decades after 1945.
Yet while Beethoven and his greatest modern champions tended to survive the second world war, it was only in the final thirty years of the 20th century that a generation of Europeans conspired to destroy Beethoven’s legacy and in so doing, deprive Germany of its greatest artistic treasure.
In the latter half of the 20th century the so-called “historically informed performance” (HIP) movement began to look at mainly pre-Beethoven and even pre-Mozart composers and re-examine performance methods associated with such luminaries as Bach and Handle. The central premise of the HIP movement was that in performing composers like Bach on modern organs, pianos and ensembles, the lush sounds of modernity were obscuring the more restrained and rugged tones of the instruments of Bach’s time.
While Bach’s music was that of the church and grand manner house and while Mozart’s symphonies never reached the epic scale of Beethoven’s, by the end of the 20th century, the HIP movement set their sights on Beethoven – the composer whose music required modern orchestral treatments in order to realise its full musical potential.
The HIP movement first attacked the flexible tempo rubato that characterised most modern performances of Beethoven before attacking maestros who performed Beethoven’s symphonies with a full modern orchestra. Not content with this, the HIP movement then began to dictate that Beethoven’s symphonies be played at lighting fast and inflexible tempi in a vainglorious attempt to revive Beethoven’s old and long malfunctioning metronome and finally, the HIP movement suggested that the modern instruments that audiences in the 20th century had grown up with be replaced by archaic and coarse sounding instruments of the early 19th century.
Even forgetting the fact that according to the HIP movement, the beauty of modern Beethoven performance should be replaced by a return to the ugliest elements of cultural infancy, the fanaticism of the HIP movement has gone far beyond a group of people making a free argument in favour of bad taste. Instead, the HIP mentality has sunk into the wider European zeitgeist and become incredibly brutal in its ability to proscribe all those who oppose its crusade of hatred against beautiful music. As a result, even mainstream conductors in the 21st century tend to perform Beethoven with metronome like high speeds, small orchestras and little legato, vibrato and portamento. The bullying tactics of the HIP movement have become so pervasive that it is difficult to find Beethoven in modern Europe, even in places where his name still exists.
The result has been that multiple generations of young Europeans and those who love European orchestral music have been deprived of a genuine all immersive, emotionally convincing Beethoven experience. The grand Beethoven that existed between the era of Wagner and the mid-20th century has become a boring, ugly and watered down shadow of its actual self – a poor reflection through a cracked dust covered mirror. The overriding effect has been one of brutally transgressing the overwhelming beauty of Beethoven and transforming it into ghastly alien sounds that are necessarily repugnant to anyone who maintains the slightest contact with the range of human emotions conveyed by Beethoven and his most masterful interpreters and performers.
The idea that one of Germany and Europe’s great cultural icons can only be enjoyed if largely obstructed from view is the sonic equivalent of the backward Wahhabi practice of covering a woman’s face and body for fear that men are somehow unable or unworthy of looking upon the female form without becoming maddened. But just as Wahhabism rejects the human form, modern Europe and Germany in particular is rejecting its own cultural form – forcing young generations to view a heavily censored version of their own culture for fear that it might inspire some awakened sense of cultural identity that is incompatible with the post-cultural agenda of political tyrants like Angela Merkel. Furthermore, while it is true that the German civil war against Beethoven began long before the political arrival of Angela Merkel, Merkel’s overt loathing of German culture has helped to solidify this vicious process, thus elevating it to the level of de-facto state approval. This is the case because Merkel’s vindictive crusade/jihad against German and pan-European culture has been a major plank of her long time rule and as such, Beethoven is the fitting cultural sacrifice to be made on the altar of anti-German/anti-European, anti-cultural, anti-beauty ‘Merkelism’.
Indeed, I personally have little doubt that if a young composer began writing music today that hinted at Beethoven and the tradition he inspired, such a young composer would be mercilessly condemned as a miscreant, provocateur or even a racist or cultural criminal. Such is the extent of self-loathing in the heart of Merkel’s post-cultural Germany of the 21st century. While the aforementioned examples of proscription directed at a neo-Beethoven may sound extreme, in many cases, merely discussing cultural icons including Beethoven, Wagner, Wagner’s rival Brahms, Bruckner, Strauss, Furtwängler, Mengelberg, Abendroth and von Karajan have become sufficient to make one shunned throughout the self-hating Europe of the 21st century.
It appears that there is no room for the full, open, grand and emotionally genuine Beethoven in post-cultural Germany/Europe and in this sense Beethoven is already being censored without being formally banned. This stealth ban on Beethoven was recently confirmed when the Berliner Philharmoniker passed on the opportunity to appoint either Daniel Barenboim or Christian Thielemann, two latter-day champions of Beethoven as director of the orchestra in 2016 and instead selected a man highly removed from the tradition of proper Beethoven interpretation. This single episode in the heart of Merkel’s post-cultural German perhaps has sealed Beethoven’s fate.
But while Beethoven was much beloved in his lifetime and remains beloved today, his censorship by stealth in his homeland ought to help to awaken a love for the genuine, emotionally authentic Beethoven in lands beyond Europe. While Europe rejects its own heritage, other cultures that are at peace with their own heritage now have the luxury of adopting the “foreign” Beethoven as after all, Beethoven was the last true universal composer in spite of his German/European heritage and in this sense such an adoption can be done with some degree of harmoniousness.
While Germany censors Beethoven, future years could likely see some of the best modern Beethoven performances coming from China, a country which unlike much of Europe, continues to cherish multicultural orchestral traditions including that of Beethoven, even while Beethoven’s homeland becomes consumed in a morass of total social decline which is verging on the irreversible.