This is the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven, one of the greatest composers, whose enduring power stems from the close relationship between his creativity and the social turmoil that engulfed the world he grew up in.
Beethoven came from a family of court musicians. In 1792 he settled in Vienna, the great social and cultural centre of the Habsburg Empire.
What marked his artistic development was the impact of the Enlightenment revolution in ideas, particularly of freedom, equality and fraternity, that found material expression in the French Revolution. 1792 was also the year in which the revolution crossed the Rhein, its armies beginning their long march across Europe, toppling thrones and hierarchies.
The system of patronage, which had made his great teacher, Haydn, a semi-feudal lackey, was still a force, but increasingly Beethoven could operate independently as a virtuoso pianist and composer.
The spread of revolutionary ideas acted as a ferment, giving him the confidence to feel that he was culturally, at least, the equal of his social superiors, and that he could push the boundaries of what was musically acceptable. He was attracted to Napoleon who, as an outsider, had through his genius compelled kings and princes across Europe to submit to a new order.
By the 1800s, his music began to push the conventions to breaking point. There was more colour and daring in his harmonies, more excitement in the rhythms. Nowhere was that truer than in his third symphony, the Eroica, the first movement of which is full of jarring discords.
Beethoven originally intended to dedicate the symphony to Bonaparte. But when Napoleon crowned himself emperor in 1804, he angrily scratched out the dedication.
The symphony, whose second movement is a funeral march on the death of a hero, ends by celebrating Prometheus, the hero of Greek myth who defied the gods to bring fire and civilisation to humanity.
His only opera, Fidelio, celebrates a woman’s struggle to free her unjustly imprisoned husband. The prisoners’ chorus is one of the most moving pieces of music he composed.
But if Napoleon trampled on freedom, worse was to come with the emperor’s defeat in 1815. It ushered in a period of reaction. Liberty became a dirty word. Beethoven’s music did not stop being revolutionary in form
— but it expressed more the feelings of the inner self.
His final symphony, the ninth, composed only a few years before his death in 1827, showed the aspirations of his youth still in play. By this time Beethoven was totally deaf. He had been disappointed in love. The complexity of his late work is often coloured by a mood of darkness and despair.
Yet the last movement of this unconventional work (symphonies were meant to be instrumental) reverses this. A singer interrupts to tell the audience to abandon this dark mood. Then a chorus bursts into an Ode to Joy — code word for freedom.
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