The following is a summary of the points made by the musicologist Peter McCallum of the University of Sydney on the podcast Philosopher’s Zone, recorded in the studios of the Australian Broadcasting Company on October 24. The mastermind of the series is Alan Saunders.
The concept of music as embodying ideas started with Beethoven. Musical ideas are not necessarily about something but in many other ways they resemble ideas. They can be developed; they can be contradicted. They can carry the seeds of their own continuation. A musical idea can be a theme, a tune, a rhythm. It may suggest another idea, perhaps a balancing idea of a similar shape, and through the interplay of musical ideas the piece can develop a sense of inner logic. Some composers have actually expressed the task of composing as finding the inner logic of an idea. This goes back to Beethoven.
All this is bound up with Beethoven’s assertion of freedom and liberation. He lived at the time of the French Revolution – hopes raised by Revolution and shattered by the Terror and Napoleon. Germany was an intellectual hotbed. Beethoven was deeply involved in the ideological battles of the time. In a letter written in 1814 he said there was no idea that was too complex or demanding for him. (At the same time he was almost innumerate – he could not multiply.) He loved tussling with ideas, to make puns and jokes, even about Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, which had a profound influence on him. The idea of “the moral law within us and the starry sky above us” appealed to him tremendously. And so did Schiller – Schiller was the poet who wrote the Ode to Joy – who shared with him the view that the aesthetic realm was the utopian realm that would, in some way, raise mankind.
The chorus in Fidelio, when the prisoners of the evil Don Pizarro are liberated, is a sublime moment. As perceived in the late 18th and early 19th centuries the sublime is usually associated with Romanticism. For Beethoven it was deeply personal and transcendent. The transcendent – the retreat into his own subjectivity, into his own personal experience – is mostly evident in his late works. He had to find the utopia within because he couldn’t find it without.
In the 20th century, modernism had a Janus face. On the one hand it was about progress, on the other hand it was the opposite – it was alienating, forcing a retreat into the personal. Beethoven’s most compelling works for many of us are the late quartets, whereas in the 19th century, the heroic middle period – the Fifth Symphony, etc. – was the most meaningful.
While the contrast between a solemn passage at one moment and, incongruously, a light-hearted passage in the next was called “romantic irony” even in his lifetime, to us it seems peculiarly modern. It turns the composer into a commentator and often conveys a sense of alienation. You find continuous critique in his music. A good example is the recitative introducing the Ode to Joy in which the baritone explicitly turns his back on the previous movements – “Nicht diese Töne” [not these sounds].
One of the great strengths of Beethoven is that often you’re not quite sure whether he is being ironic. The works are capable of being interpreted in many different ways. Does he really mean it when he quotes Schiller in the Ninth Symphony: “all men will be brothers”?
Beethoven is our contemporary.