Beethoven: The Essence of Change

Following the US election on Nov 8, 2016, we asked Dowsers contributors to discuss the moods and music the results inspired. We collected their responses in a series, After the Election.

I have studied music since I was a child, but in my memory there is one singular moment in which more was revealed to me about the potential of the art form than in any other event in my life. I was an undergrad student at Webster University, where I was studying music history and piano, when this metamorphosis happened. It was very simple: I was working on an assignment in the music building’s computer lab, half listening to a conversation between my friend Shumpei, a Japanese composition student, and one of the composition professors. Shumpei, for his senior project, was writing a symphony, and he was describing the work to the professor, saying that he was fleshing out this or that part of it on that particular day. The professor was intrigued by this project, especially because in today’s composition programs, most students are working in electronic, atonal, or highly-specialized experimental composition. For Shumpei to be writing a symphony was very strange. Then the professor posed the question that was immediately and permanently seared into my mind. He asked, “What’s it about?”

It had never occurred to me that classical music could be “about” something. Clearly operas were about something, and program music was about something. But instrumental works? It seemed insane to me. My first thought was that the professor was joking, being facetious, testing Shumpei with an obviously rigged question. But as the conversation unfolded, I started to become attuned to a new plane of meaning in music. I became aware of its essence.

I share this anecdote not only because it continues to resonate with me today in my work as a historical musicologist, but also because it frames the way I associate music with contemporary historical events. Whether one likes it or not, Trump’s election is the most significant, unexpected, and potentially transformative political event that has occurred in the adult life of a person my age. I am not saying this in the affirmative or the negative—I am merely being dialectical about it. It is going to produce a new political terrain. Neoliberalism is under siege, the Democratic Party has fractured, the category of “president” is changing, and, most importantly and ideally, the Left has a new position from which to critique—and hopefully overcome—capitalism. From a Marxist standpoint this is truly an interesting situation.

I have found myself listening to Beethoven for the past week. At first I did not question it, for this is typical of someone in my line of work. But as I started to realize that I was listening almost exclusively to Beethoven, I began to wonder why this was. As I have thought about it for the past few days, I find myself contemplating not only Beethoven, but the French Revolution, Hegel, and subjectivity. I don’t intend to descend too far into philosophy here, but I will point out that for Adorno, Beethoven’s music represented a particularly sensuous, philosophical image of society. He believed that in Beethoven’s music resided hope and transformation, that his music personified the emerging human quest for consciousness, becoming spirit. “Art is more real than philosophy,” Adorno wrote in his fragments on Beethoven, “in that it acknowledges identity to be appearance.” This means that, to put it reductively, art’s forms, like those of society, are subject to change, that the whole is mediated by the individual parts, that the totality can become something greater than itself, something non-identical, something other.

What will Trump do? I don’t really know. I want to believe that he won’t be that bad, and that, in opposition to him, we will witness the first revolutionary Left that has existed during any of our lifetimes. In my opinion, this possibility—as the sectarian, dead “left” has shown in the past decades—could not have existed if Clinton had become president. The code word here is “revolution,” and it always must emerge in opposition to something. Trump is the better opponent.

My point with all this is that I look to Beethoven’s music for hope, because it was truly revolutionary in every sense of the word—its forms, its relationship to tonality, and, of course (!) its dialectical relationship to the French Revolution. His music is living proof that spirit cannot be extinguished. Beethoven during his lifetime (1770-1827) witnessed the rise and delay of the possibility of freedom, and this had a profound impact on his development as a composer. In no other body of music can one bear witness to such dizzying moments of hope and despair.

The Eroica asked what it would mean if a particular interval resolved upward instead of downward, allowing the listener to observe as the status quo of form was broken apart before their very ears, melodies conversing and intertwining, down literally becoming up. The fugue of the op. 110 piano sonata contemplates, among other things, what would unfold if a theme was inverted, played as its own negative. The counterpoint and orchestration of the “Harp” quartet is sublime, especially in the last 90 seconds of its first movement, which contains gestures that continue to legitimately blow my mind. The late quartets investigated tonality to its full potential, so much so, in fact, that most music for the following 75 years was a form of sublimation, trying to catch up to what Beethoven did. This is distilled in Josef Danhauser’s 1840 painting Liszt at the Piano, which shows Hungarian composer and pianist Franz Liszt playing at the keyboard under the consterned bust of his great predecessor, a symbol of Beethoven’s domination of all of his 19th century pupils.

To invoke the opening to this essay: What is music about? It is about humanity and possibility. It is an image of ourselves in which the rules do not have to apply, allowing us to work through our desires, our fears, our fantasies, and our losses. I conceived of this playlist as covering a range of classical works that I consider to have significant moments of beauty and freedom, but due to the lengths of the movements I would have selected, as well as the fact that for me, Beethoven is *the* subjective composer, I decided to make this a Beethoven Essentials, of sorts. These are some of his most inspiring flourishes of autonomy. I have listened to Beethoven this week because, if we were living in a sonata form, we would be in the development. There has been a thesis and an anti-thesis, and there is hope. Things are changing, whether we like it or not. It is up to us to determine how we recapitulate.