Week33: beethoven’s symphony #9 and the genius he wasn’t


To set [Schiller’s “Ode to Joy”] in the Ninth, he created a little tune as simple as a drinking song, something anybody can sing, and on that mounted a towering theme-and-variations movement that stretches from East--in the form of a Turkish march--to West, from the private to the public, from the absurd to the sublime, to contain this message: heroes can’t give us a better world, and neither will God; we have to do that for ourselves, as brothers and sisters and husbands and wives, in joy and freedom and brotherhood. That message, proclaimed in a time of repression when in Vienna you could be arrested for speaking the word freedom, was intended to keep alive some simple but timelessly important truths. His “Joy” theme was written in the spirit of the new national anthems, but is an anthem for all humanity. “” jan swafford, Language of the Spirit

From the absurd to the sublime…were allegedly the words said by napoleon bonaparte as he mounted his horse to depart from a sound defeat of his army during a russian campaign. he added---and for maximum dramatic effect doing so only after mounting his horse---is but a single step (trot trot trot). perhaps he was quoting thomas paine, who might had himself been quoting been quoting french author fontenelle, who might have gotten the phrase from popular jargon… and so on. whoever authored that might have known very little either of the sublime or, more likely, of the ridiculous. a step is already too significant a gesture, too obvious a thing to describe the thin partition between those two states of mind: a glance would fair much better, or eye contact sustained one second too short.

beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is pockmarked all over by the footprints of such single steps, and when he finally decides upon the sublime (somewhere in that ridiculously protracted third movement) it is with a certainty of mission, a luminous catharsis in light of which the very possibility of the ridiculous seems impossible.

in density and in excess, this symphony (composed in 1824) is perhaps his Third Symphony (composed in 1804) revisited. the most notorious example of such heroes that ‘can’t give us a better world’ was indeed bonaparte, for whom beethoven had originally dedicated the Third. it seems that the twenty years between his Third and Ninth is the realization that hero-worship always pales in comparison to the far less photogenic, but infinitely more worthy heroism of taking up the mantle and meaning of one’s own liberty. beethoven was, in comparison to his superstar predecessors (haydn and mozart especially) the first freelance artist, one not entirely dependent on the grace of a particular court. though still living off the allowance of aristocratic benefactors, he arrived at that unique position by a fair bit of self-advertising to the general public and as much entrepreneurial maneuvering. it is almost inevitable that such a precedent would come to champion of enlightenment values of individual liberties.

A leader deals in hope---that, napoleon definitely said---and so too does a musician. regarding the music ludwig van wrote for schiller’s Ode to Joy, there has been no higher wager of hope since. next week i’ll be listening to his Sixth, which will be the last of this two-month run of beethoven’s works. for the past five years i’ve marked the beginning of spring with that Pastoral Symphony---everytime i hear it, usually at the end of march, i get a soon-relieved urge for High Park (and settle quite often for Christie Pits). in a chummy way, and for my purposes, his Ninth marks the end of winter. between the end of winter and the beginning of spring, too, is the length of single step. and perhaps freedom from winter in toronto is a ridiculous comparison to freedom from napoleonic emperorship, that is no reason to underestimate the relief of april. after all, even the great emperor-general eventually succumbed to the length of a russian winter.  


Richmond High Fidelity Recording // Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827) // Symphony No.9 “Choral”

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Erich Kleiber; Hilde Gueden (soprano), Sieglinde wagner (contralto), Anton Dermota (tenor), Ludwig Weber (bass)

Symphony No.3

  • Allegro ma non tanto troppo un poco maestoso

  • Molto vivace

  • Adagio molto e cantabile - andante - moderato - tempo primo - adagio

  • Presto allegro ma non troppo - Allegro assai

(the other kind of genius)

‘Beethoven’ by Jeremy Lewis @jplewisandsons

‘Beethoven’ by Jeremy Lewis @jplewisandsons

Had I wished to devote my energies to such a kind of [domestic] life, what would have been left for that which is noble and better? “” ludvig van beethoven, Konversationshefte, vol. 2, p. 367

i’m about to commit the very egregious faux pas of beginning a sentence with there is an african proverb…. but there is indeed an african proverbs that goes by way of “If you want to travel fast--go alone. If you want to travel far, bring others with you”. for our purposes here this proverb is the perfect example of the contrast between two kinds of ‘genius’, the former of which describes the beethoven-type.

I am afraid he is a wholly untamed character, who may not be wrong in finding the world detestable, but that does nothing to make it a more enjoyable place either for himself or for others. “” goethe on beethoven, 1812

the genius of travelling fast is exactly what we mean when we generally refer to someone as a ‘genius’, for we are speaking of the concentration of their energies upon a craft that they’ve elevated to the realm of their solitary destiny. (Nietzsche, for example, can be explained almost entirely on those terms). que the lofty heights of their solitude, isolation, severity and coldness in relation to the details of quotidian life, all the features that silently and persistently domesticize our otherwise feral instincts. que the impenetrable obstinacy of the mountainous altitudes of their ego, the arms-length with which they keep everything warm and animal, everything maternal of convivial; how intolerant they are to the aesthetics of domestic life. there is no secret to how quickly that type burns out. they hardly ever include, in the cold calculus of their break-neck velocities, the stringencies of the other kind of genius: the slow, diffused and determined kind of genius. more like saint-saens that like beethoven; more like the methuselahn longevity of the former than the promethean torment of the latter.  it’s the genius of the masses. the slumbering, bloated, sweating generations of progenitors who, too, have achieved an incalculable brilliance in their craft---and have been at it just shy of infinity. the craft of self-preservation, of going far, trodding along the long road, not as fiery and obstinate exceptions, but together. one shouldn't  underestimate how almost completely the silhouette of a person’s character falls into one of these two types.  

I was extremely well received by Beethoven and already have been several times to see him. He is a most unusual man. Great thoughts float through his mind, which he can only express through music. Words are not at his command. His whole culture is very neglected and, apart from his art, he is rough but honest and without pretensions. He says straight out what is on his mind. In his youth, and even now, he has had to struggle with disappointments. This had made him suspicious and grim. He rails against Vienna and would like to leave. “From the Emperor down to the last shoe polisher,” he says, “the Viennese are all a worthless lot.” “” xaver schynder von wartensee, 1811

there are, however, exceptions to this dichotomy. the truly exceptional are indeed those who hold an almost sacred appreciation for both kinds genius. who see the laudable part of the trajectory of human history as simply impossible without tug-of-war between these two psyches. though Nietzsche would prefer to describe them rather as metabolisms than as psyches---inasmuch as it is a force deeper than thought, much less words…  

“Cafe Scene” by raphael soyer, 1946

“Cafe Scene” by raphael soyer, 1946

Did everyday life exist for Beethoven at all? Can we have any confidence in the picture of him cheerfully courting ladies, at least in the first decade of his life in Vienna? He ‘liked women very much, particularly beautiful, youthful faces, and when we passed a charming girl he would usually turn around, examine her again closely through his glass, and laugh or smile when he saw me noticing him. He was very often in love, but usually only for a short period. “” martin geck, Beethoven

Nietzsche, indeed, is one such exceptional exception. he had nothing but the most profound respect for the significance of the herd-instinct, especially when he was in the heat of berating it. that is the basis of his ‘Will to power’, it was his form of justice that was beyond right and wrong (beyond good and evil) but instead concerned with the equality between the individual and the herd instinct; between going far and going fast. he railed against the herd instinct inasmuch as it refused to acknowledge its need of its opposite---and mocked the genius insofar as it demanded some irrefutable supremacy over the herd. equality of that kind, of the most fundamental kind, is essentially nihilistic. for it is blinks and looks away when the individual who travels too fast shrivels and withers in the desert of her own making, or is trampled by the herd for the crime of travelling fast, but not fast enough (benjamin britten’s Peter Grimes, for example, is a profound tale of such a crime). it also blinks and looks away when that same herd is wrangled by a deranged napoleonic lunatic who brings the rest of us along for his tremendous velocity of being. to both instances does justice blink and says: vive la guerre eternelle.

“You have said so much about the genius and his solitary, difficult wandering through the world, as though nature were capable of producing only polar opposites: on the one hand, the stupid, sleeping masses who proliferate by instinct along, and on the other, enormously distant from them, the great contemplative individuals who are capable of eternal creations. But you yourself call these individuals the top of the intellectual pyramid: don’t there logically have to be countless intermediate levels between the broad base with its heavy burden and the pinnacle soaring free into the air? Here, if nowhere else, the saying natura non facit saltus must apply.” “” Friedrich Nietzsche, Anti-Education

the ‘genius’ of Nietzsche was that he found genius not only in the exceptional individuals, but also in the exact opposite: those who cannot eat or sleep until they have murmured a thousand times their most sacred word: we. those who cannot take one step unless they hear the thousand-fold footfall of others heading in the same direction. and one more thing: he believed too that one kind of genius was impossible without the other. that a beethoven was only possible after the long, unconscious, subterranean arc of cultural breeding of a nameless and often utterless unimaginative population. and indeed such a population can only be established, can only find it’s identity, in the masthead of those obstinate independents who too might be entirely ignorant of how much she is indebted and in need of the precisely her opposite kind.

Well, you can help me look for a wife; if you find a handsome one there in F., a lady who might perhaps devote a sigh to my harmonies from time to time … then let me know. “” beethoven to ignaz von gleichenstein