Monday, March 24, 2008
Music and Morals: Beethoven
My brother G., a music critic and composer, gave a talk to my Music 101 class last week about Beethoven, in the process greatly expanding my students' knowledge of Beethoven from "the composer who was deaf" to the representation not only of Romantic genius, but also of modern man with all his hopes, fears, conflicts, and inner turmoil. Among other recordings, G. played a 1944 radio broadcast of Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in a performance of the "Eroica" Symphony in Vienna, an occasion at which, as G. noted, there were almost certainly Nazi party officials in the audience who knew they were losing the war. G. asked the class to ponder who then was the "hero" in the "Heroic" Symphony. His lecture, as you might guess, was a hands-down success.
Like many people, I love Beethoven. He seems to me the apotheosis of God speaking his own divine music through the brilliant, flawed mouthpiece of fallen man; indeed, I feel so much sympathy for Beethoven as a person that it's sometimes painful for me to listen his music. His biographer Maynard Solomon has written (rather movingly, I think) that Beethoven "wanted understanding [from future generations], as though sensing that both forgiveness and sympathy inevitably follow in its train."
Solomon goes on:
"As an artist and as a man, [Beethoven] knew the healing power of communication and the cathartic effect of shared fears. 'All evil is mysterious and appears greater when viewed alone,' he wrote in a diary entry of 1817. 'It is all the more ordinary, the more one talks about it with others; it is easier to endure because that which we fear becomes totally known; it seems as if one has overcome some great evil.'"