Broadcast on Public Radio International, 1-12-1997.
Certainly the music is the first impulse. People are interested in investigating what it was, what were the forces, who the person was who created something that moves them so much. When people listen to his music they want to associated themselves with him with this willful individual who overcame so much to create things that are so beautiful. It is the power of his personality that impresses, and of course that is combined witht the fact that he created this music in spite of deafness, in spite of what he perceived to be financial difficulty, in spite of terrible loneliness because of his deafness and his failed romantic life. The combination of that story and the power of the music motivates people to look for a key to understanding how to tap into that sort of power.
How has Beethoven?s music been used by different politicians?
To trace it broadly, literally every major political group and ideology, ideologues for all of them, did attempt to associate their ideas in some way with Beethoven?s music. This runs from the time of his life through 1989, and since. And it runs from the far left to the far right. This includes efforts to demonstrate that Beethoven was everything from a committed, card carrying Communist to a fellow traveler of the Nazis.
Isn?t it astonishing that they were all so comfortable doing so?
At base the impetus for this is the music, is the personality of Beethoven. But then when we ask ourselves why politicians.... I thought that I was selecting someone relatively apolitical, but realized that this was not a process of mere projection. The fact is that Beethoven was a political man in many ways, he talked about politics incessantly. Railed and raved about politics. A friend did not want to eat with him anymore because he was tired of the political hogwash. The problem for Beethoven was that he live in perhaps the period of the most violent transition and disruption in modern European history. He grew up in the principality of an enlightened reformer, but he was influenced by the ideas coming out of France and the Enlightenment, by Kant, by mentors involved with anti-clerical orders, and by a professor at the University of Bonn who ultimately fled to France and was guillotined himself when the tide turned. Then he experienced the rise of Napoleon, the invasion of German lands by Napoleon, and his attitudes changed to a certain degree. Though his political roots never dissolved altogether, he shifted in attituded during this period. After the victory over Napoleon, he expected to receive an enlightened, reformed leadership, but what he and his fellows in Austria experienced was very oppressive treatment from Metternich. In response he shifted again to a more radical position. So he went through a very uneven and inconsistent process of political... I won?t say development, but response and reaction during a period of terrific disorder. The result of this is that at various points in Beethoven?s life he expressed things that could be used by just about every political group on the spectrum of European politics. He did say things that would allow us to associate him with the political left. He did say things that have an authoritarian color to them. He did say things that moderate Liberals might accept. The process of politicizing Beethoven, then is not one of projection but one of selective biography, of scavenging his biography for indications that he would associate with one group or another and then arguing that that is ?the? Beethoven and that every other aspect of his personality is is irrelevant, inaccurate, something recorded by a witness who is not trustworthy, etc.
So the political use comes from the fact that he lived through so many political events?
Yes, and it does take musical form in some cases. Some celebrated examples of dedications, etc., show that he did have political motives for composing, in some cases.
Is there another such example of a composer being so used?
Beethoven is arguably the most popular composer in modern German society, in the sense that he has had the greatest amount of impact on popular life. The real question is how Beethoven?s or Mozart?s musics have become part of World culture as a whole -- philosophers, other musicians, visual artists, movie makers and every other area of human endeavor. I have traced here the way some politicians react to Beethoven, and I was suprised to find that most of them reacted to him in some way or another. But what we are really tracing here is the way music interacts with things more mundane. If you think of it in Hegelian terms for a moment, music is a purer mode of expression, perhaps some indication of spirituality, at any rate the most abstract of Western art forms. What I trace is the way that idea has interacted with more material things, and the process seems to be something that takes place mainly after the composer?s work is done, as it is performed through history, as people read about it, as people study it further. This process of reception is at least as important in the history of a composition of music as the efforts that the composer put into producing it. Trying to determine what Beethoven wanted to communicate in any one of his pieces is a very fascinating endeavor, and we should continue to undertake it, but what that will result in is a better understanding of what Beethoven thought. But if we turn to the other side of the process, the receptive as opposed to the productive side, and study what people say about these works, we can learn much about what they think and they outnumber the artists him or herself. Musicologists are right to say that the focus of their work is on the music, and context is less important for them. But those of us on the outside who are interested in the meanings that Beethoven and other artists have and the impact they had on society, attitudes, and perhaps to the extent that they motivated people to make political decisions, to join political groups, indeed go into battle is another part of the story.
From email@example.com Fri Feb 28 11:42:11 1997
Date: Fri, 28 Feb 1997 09:56:50 -0500 (EST)
Subject: book review of Dennis, Beethoven in German Politics 1870-1989
Weimar List Book Review
Review of David B. Dennis, Beethoven in German Politics, 1870-1989 (New
Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1996. pp. xii + 251, $30
by David Imhoof
Department of History, University of Texas at Austin (Goettingen)
This succinct monograph argues convincingly that Beethoven's music and life
comprised one of the most widely used political propaganda tools in modern
Germany. Exploited by every major German political group since his death,
Beethoven has been portrayed as a republican, Fuehrer, Francophile, rabid
German nationalist, humanitarian, warrior, revolutionary rebel, monarchist,
capitalist, proto-communist, esoteric elitist, and apolitical man -- often
at the same time. Beloved by Bismarck and Lenin alike, his music prompted
tall tales about how he influenced leaders and about his own relationships
with the powerful. Although Dennis points out biographical inaccuracies,
his primary task is to trace the _Wirkungsgeschichte_ (effective history)
of Beethoven's work in German politics -- that is, the different effects
the composer had. Indeed, rather than musicology or a history of music the
book offers a "history of music criticism and policy" by detailing the
creation and use of Beethoven as symbol and source of inspiration in high
politics (7). Material comes from newspapers, journals, concert programs
and notes, contemporary writings by scholars, artists, intellectuals, and
politicians, school textbooks, radio, television, and film transmissions,
advertisements, and interviews. The scope is national, but the book
necessarily deals mainly with larger cities, where the most important
musicians, directors, politicians, and intellectuals debated the meaning of
The multiple pictures of Beethoven reflect conflicting political ideologies
and programs in modern Germany, but critical performances and notions about
his life and music also influenced political perception. For instance, the
Berlin Philharmonie's free Beethoven concerts in the days following the
_Wende_ and reunification mirrored the atmosphere of hope and brotherhood,
yet contemporary interviews demonstrate that the music itself gave many
Germans a vocabulary of images and words to describe these momentous
changes. Similarly, Kurt Eisner's May Day 1905 performance of the Ninth
Symphony -- the first ever by and for workers -- reveals how the social
democratic movement united high-culture education and universal appeal.
But at the same time, this particular performance inspired the left's
vision and use of Beethoven and classical music for over eighty years.
Why Beethoven? Beginning with his music's centrality to events of
1989-1990, Dennis notes how frequently the composer's pieces have
accompanied political high-points in German history -- celebrating victory
over France and the founding of the _Kaiserreich_, commemorating the Kaiser
Wilhelm Gedaechtniskirche, heralding the Bavarian Republic, in announcing
Hitler's birthdays, the opening of the Federal Republic's Bundestag. But
more generally, politicians and intellectuals frequently employed Beethoven
to encapsulate their visions and motivate others to action. The composer's
own wildly varying political thoughts are partly to blame. Like Nietzsche,
his extreme proclamations, when removed from context, lent support to a
number of conflicting viewpoints, and his enormous popularity made his
music and biography accessible vessels.
The book contains an introductory chapter, one on the Second Reich, Weimar
Republic, Third Reich, and post-war period. Three main images of Beethoven
emerge. For the Left, his support of the French Revolution and Napoleon,
his discomfort with the aristocracy and Metternich's repressive regime, and
universalist themes in his music made Beethoven a democrat and
humanitarian. The Right, conversely, melded his later rejection of
Napoleon, Rheinland ancestry, and great will into a paradigm of Germanness;
they found inspiration in the powerful and martial elements in his music.
Finally, the high cultural elite evoked a decidedly apolitical Beethoven,
an individual and esoteric genius whose true complexity could only be
understood by thoughtful research and private contemplation. Each of these
broad interpretations grew out of the _Kaiserreich_. Dennis follows Celia
Applegate and George Mosse's research on the essential role of culture and
especially music in early German state-building to describe how Beethoven's
increased popularity coincided with the use of his music to symbolize
German unity -- and political division.
This trend increased dramatically during the Weimar Republic. The Nazi
_Voelkischer Beobachter_ later noted that "[e]very political party and
every sort of confession counted him as one of their own; all of them were
fighting tooth and nail to demonstrate that he belonged exclusively to
their circle of life." (142) Images of Beethoven were as plentiful as
ideologies. When in power, the SPD used his music at state functions and
made it part of educational curricula. Communists directly linked the
composer to class war by playing his music at Liebknecht and Luxemburg's
funeral and at the inauguration of the Bavarian Republic. KPD musical
groups around the country included his music in their repertoire for
working-class education and entertainment. Stressing his fighting spirit
and Germanness, right wing groups transmogrified the bourgeois picture of
Beethoven as genius into one of Beethoven as Nordic hero. Not
surprisingly, the NSDAP presented a more radical interpretation: for the
Nazis, Beethoven was a proto-Fuehrer, and his powerful music symbolized the
energy of their movement. The Weimar cultural elite, on the other hand,
maintained that political readings and use of Beethoven insulted his
significance, praising instead his stoicism and profound complexity.
In the Third Reich one very narrow image of Beethoven was developed and
broadcast to Germany. Starting in the 1920s Nazi supporters systematically
worked out a purely Aryan version of the Beethoven myth, and Dennis argues
that after 1933 his music became one of the Reich's premiere symbols of the
Volk. With full government support a number of musicologists promoted
their volkish Beethoven in schools, concerts, radio broadcasts, newsreels,
feature films, and party pageantry. This exploitation increased with Nazi
aggression: Hitler even used the composer's name when personally
threatening the Austrian chancellor in 1938. During the Second World War
the Nazis dusted off old marches, pushed the warrior image further, and
took his music to captured territories. The Ninth Symphony, for instance,
was played regularly in occupied Poland -- but only for German ears, since
the government doubted those conquered would interpret its fraternal themes
"correctly." Even the announcement of Hitler's death on 30 April 1945 was
accompanied by music from the Third Symphony.
After 1949 links with past representations of Beethoven were as different
as the two Germanies. DDR politicians and intellectuals proudly reclaimed
the traditional left-wing picture of Beethoven as social revolutionary, but
SED propagandists promulgated this singular image through a state cultural
system similar to the Nazis' that stressed ideology over music. DDR
cultural functionaries argued that Beethoven's music was written for
proletarians and that the West feared its revolutionary potential. In many
ways West Germans did depoliticize Beethoven. Above all, he was
commodified there and scrutinized psychoanalytically. Although BRD
politicians used his music for important ceremonies, explicitly political
performances were very often designed to warm international relations.
The events of 1989-90 transcended, if only briefly, over a century of
political cultural difference, when the Ninth's claim that "alle Menschen
werden Brueder" finally seemed real.
Dennis's book is not without its small shortcomings. Clearly intended for
a broader audience, the absence of historiographical discussion, list of
sources, and bibliography is bothersome. And the study could be made
richer by including analysis of discourses surrounding Beethoven -- how his
music related to popular culture like jazz, for example, or the specifics
of de-Nazifying his image. But Dennis did not set out to answer these
questions, and the important ones he poses, he answers well. _Beethoven in
German Politics_ nicely brings together several traditions of scholarship
and will be useful to anyone seeking to understand the relationship between
culture and politics in modern Germany.
Copyright (c) 1997 by Weimar List. All rights reserved. This work may be
copied for non-profit educational use if proper credit is given to the
author and Weimar List. For other permission, or to obtain (e-mailed)
off-prints, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.