“Bread and Little Sausages” – Beethoven, the Enlightenment, and the French Revolution

Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven working on the score of Missa Solemnis in 1820. Beethoven at the age of 49 (at this time he was already completely deaf).
Caricatures of Ludwig van Beethoven (1815)

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) is best known for his ground-breaking works of classical music which had their roots in the well-ordered 18th century world of his Viennese predecessors Haydn and Mozart. However, Beethoven’s music provided the template for composers who followed him by placing the artist’s personal experience at the centre of his music. This focus on the individual at the centre of his artistic existence reached its peak at the end of the 19th century in the works of Gustav Mahler, who said “a symphony is like the world: it should contain everything.” 

Beethoven lived his early life during the time of extraordinary intellectual upheaval known as the Enlightenment , and his later life during a time of profound political upheaval as a consequence of the French Revolution. Beethoven’s life spanned 20 years of general European war, redefining geographical and political boundaries. In his later years, Beethoven also experienced the return of autocratic regimes in Prussia, Austria, Russia, and the restored Bourbon regime in France after the defeat of Napoleon. Within this exciting formative time for modern Europe, however, very little is known specifically about Beethoven’s political views and how they informed his music. Nevertheless, this article is an attempt to identify some of his more general intellectual convictions.

     The late 18th century intellectual climate in Europe was powerfully influenced by the rationalist philosophies of French, German and English philosophers such as Rousseau, Kant and Hume. Their fundamental idea was that society should be governed according to human reason, rather than the requirements of a divine law such as that found in the Bible. In extreme cases, such as in Revolutionary France in the 1790s, philosophical rationalism led to an outright rejection of religious faith altogether, as part of the Revolutionary regime’s desire to govern according to the will of the people. This was the opposite situation from most monarchical regimes in Europe, who were still autocracies under the sole authority of monarchs ostensibly chosen by God to govern according to his laws.

Bonn, the city of Beethoven’s birth, undoubtedly reflected the intellectual climate of the Enlightenment, but tended more towards the German rather than the French expression of rationalist views. Its Elector, Max Franz, was strongly influenced by the political doctrine of the “enlightened despot”, the name given to reformist monarchs such as Frederick the Great of Prussia and Emperor Joseph II of Austria. In the case of Joseph, his political and religious reforms of the 1780s were inspired by hostility towards the authority of the Papacy and an openness to religious toleration, as well as the encouragement of middle class economic activity. Despite claiming his reforms were inspired by liberal Enlightenment ideals, Joseph’s policies tended to lead to an even greater emphasis on power emanating from an enlightened monarch. These reforms were also rapidly abandoned after the French Revolution led to the executions of his relatives Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI. The most we can say about Beethoven’s era is that he lived during a time of Enlightened despotism, rather than genuine liberalism.

We have very few clear ideas about Beethoven’s political views as a young man. His grandfather was the court Kapellmeister (in charge of music for the local ruler) in Bonn. His father was a court musician and singer, whose alcoholism led him to an inability to fulfil his early musical promise, while his mother was the daughter of one of the Elector’s most important servants. Beethoven himself seems to have been very reticent about stating any liberal or radical views to his friends, in case of involvement from the state police who were active in discovering liberal views in Vienna, especially after 1815. Whatever liberal views Beethoven did possess seem to have been based on a philosophical commitment to the brotherhood of man which was a commonplace conviction of intellectuals influenced by Enlightenment ideals. This idea of “universal benevolence” was also held by Rev Richard Price, minister of the Newington Green meeting house in the late 18th century, who believed that the philosophical inspiration for the French Revolution and its attempts to create liberty, equality and fraternity were more important than narrow patriotic views about what was good for England’s national interest. 

Beethoven’s commitment to the brotherhood of man as a guiding principle was held consistently throughout his life and eventually found musical expression in his setting of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” as the finale of the Ninth Symphony. Schiller’s poem expresses Joy as a basic emotion which brings all people together back to the arms of a loving Creator.

Joy, beautiful spark of Divinity
Daughter of Elysium,
We enter, drunk with fire,
Heavenly one, thy sanctuary!
Thy magic binds again
What custom strictly divided;
All people become brothers,
Where thy gentle wing abides.”

Schiller concludes:

“Be embraced, Millions!
This kiss is to all the world!
Brothers, above the starry canopy
There must dwell a loving Father.
Are you collapsing, millions?
Do you sense the creator, world?
Seek him above the starry canopy!
Above the stars must He dwell.”

Despite his hope for universal brotherhood, Beethoven seems to have lost whatever revolutionary ardour that he once possessed as a young man. In 1803, Beethoven planned to dedicate his third symphony to Napoleon Bonaparte, then first consul of France, who was widely seen by liberals as sweeping away the old order as his armies marched across Europe. However, in 1804, just before the symphony’s publication, Bonaparte crowned himself as Emperor of France. In disgust, Beethoven tore off the dedication to Bonaparte from the manuscript, saying “now he, too, will raise himself up above all other men, and become a tyrant”. When the work was published, the title of the symphony became “Eroica” (Heroic). Most scholars interpret this change as reflecting that Bonaparte was no longer the hero of the Third Symphony, but Beethoven himself. It could be argued that most of Beethoven’s music after 1804 places the composer’s personal conflicts and victory over the central challenges of his life (such as his deafness) as the central idea or inspiration of his music. Beethoven’s music after 1810 rarely comments on the political or social events of his age.

Once Napoleon’s armies had defeated Austria and Prussia by 1807, the people of Vienna, including Beethoven, had to endure a long siege of the city. Cannon fire seriously damaged many buildings and food shortages became common. Beethoven himself spent much of the siege hiding in the shelters of his friends’ houses, trying to protect his ears from the effects of the French artillery. Beethoven used the celebrations of the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15, with its dazzling gathering of Europe’s aristocracies and political elites, as an opportunity to enhance his fame and make a considerable amount of money from profitable performances of his works. This included works which were hastily written for financial rather than musical gain, such as “Wellington’s Victory”, a musical depiction of the British army driving the French out of Spain.

Beethoven appears to have been quite content with the political situation of the revived Austrian Empire after 1815. When asked if the common people of Vienna would rise up against repressive new laws, Beethoven reflected that “as long as the people can get their beer and little sausages, they are not likely to revolt.” This analysis proved correct, at least until 1830, when various European nations experienced a new wave of political upheaval. 

Overall, there is little doubt that Beethoven took inspiration for much of his life from the philosophical rationalism of the Enlightenment and from some of its artistic expressions, which can be seen in his lifelong desire to set Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” to music. Beethoven appears to have never stopped believing that all humanity was a single brotherhood, connected to God and to one another, and that all persons were worthy of respect. This makes him part of the post-Enlightenment movement of liberalism and radicalism, that was partly caused by a commitment to rationalist principles on the continent of Europe, and more in England by Unitarians and dissenting Christians, who formed an alliance with political radicals in the 1780s and 90s. Following the French Revolution and the wars of Napoleon, however, Beethoven seems to have turned away from expecting that political and social change would occur through violent revolution. In one of his greatest late works, the “Missa Solemnis”, Beethoven wrote above the final movement the title, “prayer for inner and outer peace.”. A turbulent and combustible man all his life, Beethoven appears to have yearned in later life not for liberal and radical change based on rational principles, but for political and social stability.

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