- - Friday, August 2, 2019


There have been many books written about classical composer Ludwig van Beethoven’s life and musical career. My own collection includes volumes by A.W. Thayer and Maynard Solomon, Harold C. Schonberg’s analysis in “The Lives of the Great Composers,” and Russell Martin’s quirky but entertaining “Beethoven’s Hair.”

When it comes to non-musical topics such as Beethoven’s political ideals, the treasure chest is surprisingly bare. A tiny handful of academic studies exist, Solomon lightly tackled it, and authors like Schonberg have made fleeting references. But it appears that scholars prefer to let Beethoven’s music be his only muse.

John Clubbe’s “Beethoven: The Relentless Revolutionary” is the first attempt to shift mild curiosity surrounding the composer’s politics into a crescendo of intellectual study. An author who taught English at Duke University and the University of Kentucky, he regards himself as a cultural historian rather than musicologist.

His book therefore places Beethoven “within the context of the political events and human energy swirling around him during the decades of his maturity.” In doing so, he discovers the composer was a “revolutionary not only in his music but also, and not least, in his social and political thinking.”

Beethoven lived through the Age of Enlightenment, and was influenced by different thinkers of a revolutionary spirit. Mr. Clubbe believes he “felt the revolutionary impact” of France’s Jean-Jacques Rousseau, including the “potentiality of Man — especially of Man in society.” Friedrich Schiller, who became “the representative figure of German Enlightenment thinking,” had a greater impact on him than either Immanuel Kant or Johann Gottfried Herder due to his “courage and independent stance.”

With respect to the French Revolution, Beethoven’s goal, which was “inspired in part by Schiller’s poems and plays, was to achieve both freedom and joy.” He was both an idealist and cautious by nature, although his outlook on life was relatively positive. In fact, “every energetic impulse he had either found expression in some dimension of his creativity or, if necessary, turned inward until the day arrived when it could find expression.”

The book takes some interesting twists on the musical road to revolutionary thought. 

One of the more unusual inclusions was the Greek philosopher Plutarch — who, according to an 1801 letter Beethoven wrote to his childhood friend Franz Wegeler, “has shown me the path of resignation.” The composer would also learn of the “history, political institutions, and great men of Greece and Rome.” So much so, that Mr. Clubbe suggests “one reason for this admiration is that Beethoven thought of himself among the Plutarchian great.”   

Vienna’s love affair with music and culture inspired Beethoven, too. He wanted to be the “heir” to brilliant Austrian composers like Franz Joseph Haydn (who praised him when he was young) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (who may or may not have met him, depending on which story you believe), and worked hard to achieve this goal. Alas, it didn’t have the intellectual impact he had hoped for.

“Vienna’s political stagnation and repression” didn’t mesh with his Enlightenment ideals, Mr. Clubbe notes, and he remained an outsider who was “proud of being a Rhinelander and unwilling or unable to learn the local Viennese dialect.”

One of the most important historical figures to Beethoven was Napoleon Bonaparte. He regarded the French military leader and emperor “not in reverent adulation, but level-eyed, as an equal.” They were both seen as outsiders and “looked upon the society in which he lived from without as much as from within.” 

While the author points out a significant difference between the two — Beethoven was “both a genius and a moral man” — there’s no question that “Napoleon yet loomed large before him as a man of almost mythic achievement.” 

In fact, Beethoven originally dedicated his famous Symphony No. 3, or Eroica, to Intitolata Bonaparte (“Titled Bonaparte”). It was later scratched out and rededicated to his wealthy patron, Prince Joseph Franz von Lobkowitz — a much safer pseudo-inspiration than the controversial French revolutionary.   

Mr. Clubbe’s assessment is that while Beethoven “did not express the slightest interest in political theory, he followed the public life of the times closely.” Indeed, he would never have been described as a “doctrinaire revolutionary,” but could have been depicted as something more of an “idealistic rebel, or rather, often a rebel, sometimes a revolutionary, more usually somewhere in between.”   

Did politics play a role in Beethoven’s musical odyssey? The jury is still out. Musicologists will probably dismiss Mr. Clubbe’s analysis, but historians now have more than mere musical notes to chew on.

• Michael Taube is a contributor to The Washington Times.

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By John Clubbe

W.W. Norton & Co., $39.95, 505 pages

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