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Socialist Worker

Beethoven's cry of freedom

by Gareth Jenkins

MENTION CLASSICAL music to many people and it is an instant turn off. So probably not that many Socialist Worker readers would instinctively tune in to watch a BBC programme due to be broadcast this Saturday (9.15pm, BBC2) dedicated to the Third Symphony by the composer Beethoven. Yet that is precisely what I recommend you do, because Beethoven's music is above all about struggle and freedom.

Beethoven was born in a small, stuffy town in northern Germany in 1770. But even here a spirit of intellectual revolt was beginning to stir. The great French Revolution of 1789 struck fear into the hearts of every European ruler. 'Liberty, equality and fraternity' promised a new dawn across the continent.

The young Beethoven responded eagerly. His musical talents would make him the equal of any social superior. No longer would he put up with being a lackey for a feudal patron, as his musical teacher had been. He still worked among wealthy and fashionable people-but on his terms, not theirs.

When revolutionary France, in the shape of Napoleon Bonaparte, began to conquer Europe, Beethoven welcomed the overthrow of centuries of stagnation. Beethoven was doing for music what Napoleon was doing for society-turning tradition upside down.

His music pushed the accepted conventions to breaking point. There was more colour and daring in his harmonies, more excitement in the rhythms. Nowhere was that truer than in his third symphony, the 'Eroica'. Beethoven originally dedicated it to 'General Bonaparte'. But Napoleon then crowned himself emperor in 1804. In fury Beethoven scratched out the dedication at the betrayal of his ideals. The second section of the Eroica symphony is a funeral march on the death of a hero.

But Beethoven did not end the symphony on a note of defeat. The last section is a celebration of Prometheus, the mythical Greek figure who defied the gods to bring fire to humanity. That sense of human potential and freedom remained with Beethoven throughout his life. His only opera, Fidelio, is the story of a woman's successful struggle to free her unjustly imprisoned husband.

But it wasn't only Napoleon who trampled on freedom. The French ruler's defeat in 1815 by the combined monarchies of Europe ushered in a period of reaction across the continent. Liberty became a dirty word. Outward expressions of struggle for a better world became impossible. Beethoven's music did not stop being revolutionary in form-but it expressed more the feelings of the inner self.

But his last and ninth symphony, composed only a few years before his death in 1827, showed that Beethoven had not abandoned the aspirations of his youth. By this time Beethoven was totally deaf. He had been disappointed in love. He felt isolated and abandoned by the few relatives he had. His music could have restricted itself to expressing the despair and defeat he must have felt.

Yet this was not so. A singer suddenly interrupts the last part of the symphony to tell the audience to abandon this dark mood. Instead the music becomes a jaunty march, of the sort that would have been associated with the armies of revolutionary France.

Then a chorus bursts into an ode to joy - code word for liberty-as the movement moves to its celebratory climax. The stuffed shirts who go to concerts of his music, or who think of the ode to joy as nothing more than the official anthem of the European Union, are missing the point-and want us to miss the point. Beethoven is part of our hope for a better world-not theirs of clinging to privilege and power.

So watch Saturday's programme, and also try the video of the excellent film Immortal Beloved which brings out the revolutionary side of Beethoven-the man and his music.


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Sat 4 Oct 2003, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1871
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