Europe Through Music: Beethoven and the Turn of the Nineteenth Century
At the turn of the nineteenth century Europe was rapidly and constantly changing. The French Revolution, a new type of rebellion never before tested, was still fresh in the minds of the people, as was its infamous “Reign of Terror.” Napoleon had begun his assent to power and promised to be a dominant figure in European politics, contrasting sharply with the revolutionary spirit of the time. People began to see life through new schools of thought such as nationalism and romanticism. As Europe progressed in many different directions, Ludwig van Beethoven, a German composer, was able to translate Europe’s changing atmosphere into music. From his first and only opera Fidelio to the Eroica symphony to his famous Ninth symphony, Beethoven’s music reflected Europe’s political and social climate at the turn of the nineteenth century.
The opera Fidelio was Beethoven’s expression of Europe’s new enlightened thought and the feelings of injustice surrounding the Reign of Terror. The opera is based on actual events that occurred in France during the Reign of Terror, but Beethoven set the opera in Spain to avoid any problems with censorship (Bolton 26). Fidelio is the story of a young man, Floristan, who is being unjustly held as a political prisoner by the malicious prison warden Don Pizarro. In order to free Floristan, his wife Leonore disguises herself as a man, calls herself Fidelio, and works inside the prison with the grounds keeper, always awaiting the moment when she can rescue her husband. Fidelio can be classified as a “rescue opera,” a format popular among composers at the time. These operas were “written almost in response to the horrors of the [French] Revolution” and “celebrated married love, faithfulness, bravery, and victory of good over evil” (Bolton 26). Post-enlightenment Europe’s fascination with overcoming oppression and loyalty can be seen not only in Fidelio’s story but also in its music. It is believed that “Fidelio’s Leonore and Floristan embodied the ideals of the Age of Enlightenment” (Bolton 26). Leonore’s cunning, loyalty, and determination can be heard in her first act aria (Appendix A). The slow introspective and heartfelt moments contrast starkly with the powerful moments of a faster tempo, showing the different aspects of a hero. Floristan’s suffering and hopefulness are presented to the audience at the beginning of act two (Appendices B-C). His misery and exhaustions are conveyed by the slow, heavy music and his words “God! How dark it is here!”(referring to his dungeon cell). His hope shines through with a bright, fast-paced section featuring horns. He repeats the words: “To freedom in the Heavenly Kingdom!” as his spirits seem to lift. At the end of the opera, after Leonore has rescued Floristan and the evil Don Pizarro has fled for his life, the main characters and chorus join together in a celebration of freedom and justice (Appendix D). As a German, Beethoven would have watched from a distance as France was torn apart first by the Revolution of 1789 and next by the destructive Reign of Terror. With Enlightenment ideals fresh in his mind, he translated Europe’s struggle to overcome oppression and violence into a story which could reach the people. Beethoven’s fascination with the hero, both conceptual and political, can also be seen in his Third symphony.
Beethoven’s Third Symphony, his Eroica symphony, reflects Europe’s new fascination with the hero as a reaction to the Enlightenment and romanticism and Europe’s mixed feelings about Napoleon’s rise to power. The Eroica, meaning “heroic,” was written as a celebration of the hero. In true romantic fashion, Beethoven broke out of the typical symphony’s format, replacing slow movements with fast ones and substituting one style for another (Romanticism). Moved by the heroic spirit that was left by the French Revolution and by Napoleon’s heroic personality, Beethoven wrote a symphony capturing the qualities of a hero (Bolton 13). An example can be found in the third movement as tempo and volume swell together, giving the impression of great heroic growth and triumph (Appendix E). Originally Beethoven had dedicated this symphony to Napoleon himself, but when he learned that Napoleon had declared himself emperor of Europe, he tore out the dedication. Instead of naming it the “Bonaparte Symphony” he called it the Eroica and in place of a dedication left only the phrase “composed to celebrate the memory of a great man,” (Green). As a German, Beethoven would have seen Napoleon’s imperialism and self-proclaimed power as a threat to his home country, as most of Europe also would have. Beethoven’s Third symphony simultaneously capture’s Europe’s fascination with the hero and expresses its protest of Napoleon’s unchecked power. And as Europe’s mindset began to change, so did Beethoven’s musical message as seen in his Ninth symphony.
The famous Ninth symphony embraces romantic ideals and budding, post-Napoleonic German nationalism. When romanticism emerged at the turn of the nineteenth century, those who embraced it found great importance in the power of emotions, nature, and personal expression. Beethoven, an icon of romanticism in music, wrote the Ninth symphony in true romantic style. The music, unlike Baroque or Classical, is very emotionally charged and filled with sounds that seem to mimic the nuances of nature (Appendix F). Another influence on the Ninth was the nascent German nationalism of the time. Napoleon’s reign left in its wake the remnants of the Confederation of the Rhine. He had unknowingly consolidated the German people under a common national spirit and pride. The influence of this spirit on the Ninth is especially evident in the famous last movement. Its booming exuberance exudes a sort of pride in the present and hope for the future. A single male voice gives way to the frenzied chorus and orchestra, contrasting the solitary individual with the united group (Appendix F). The text that Beethoven chose to use for his last movement was the poem “An Die Freude” or “Ode to Joy” by Friedrich von Schiller. Choosing a text by Schiller, a famously German poet, added to the nationalistic aspect of the piece. The poem itself embodies the romantic outlook on life. It praises the pursuit of love and happiness, brotherhood, and beauty in nature (Schiller 115-118). While the symphony was very identifiably German, it extended hope and unity to the rest of post-Napoleonic Europe. Jan Swafford believes that by writing the Ninth, Beethoven “deliberately stepped into history with a great ceremonial work that doesn’t just preach freedom and unity of the peoples but attempts however strangely to foster them.” Later, in the twentieth century, it became a symbol of European disunity because it was identified with cultish Nazi nationalism, but in 1985 it was made the official anthem of the European Union and a symbol of unity for all of Europe. Beethoven reflected the people’s quest for a sense of unity and belonging in a shattered post-Napoleonic Europe using romantic and nationalistic themes in his famous ninth symphony. It was a work whose message transcended centuries.
At the turn of the nineteenth century, Europe had just witnessed the French Revolution, was becoming aware of Napoleon as a political figure, and was exploring new ways of thinking such as romanticism and nationalism. Ludwig van Beethoven captured the social and political spirit of the time and translated it into music. His opera Fidelio, his Eroica symphony, and his famous Ninth symphony are all musical portraits of different aspects of European thought. Beethoven was able to depict the mind of Europe at the turn of the nineteenth century using the universal language of music.