Beethoven, a character study
Together with Wagner’s indebtedness to Beethoven
by George Alexander Fischer
God acts upon earth only by means of superior chosen men.
—HERDER: Ideas Toward a History of Mankind.
As life broadens with advancing culture, and people are able to appropriate to themselves more
of the various forms of art, the artist himself attains to greater power, his abilities increase in
direct ratio with the progress in culture made by the people and their ability to comprehend
him. When one side or phase of an art comes to be received, new and more difficult problems
are invariably presented, the elucidation of which can only be effected by a higher development
of the faculties. There is never an approach to equilibrium between the artist and his public. As
it advances in knowledge of his art, he maintains the want of balance, the disproportion that
always exists between the genius and the ordinary man, by rising ever to greater heights.
If Bach is the mathematician of music, as has been asserted, Beethoven is its philosopher. In
his work the philosophic spirit comes to the fore. To the genius of the musician is added inBeethoven a wide mental grasp, an altruistic spirit, that seeks to help humanity on the upward
path. He addresses the intellect of mankind.
Up to Beethoven’s time musicians in general (Bach is always an exception) performed their
work without the aid of an intellect for the most part; they worked by intuition. In everything
outside their art they were like children. Beethoven was the first one having the independence
to think for himself—the first to have ideas on subjects unconnected with his art. He it was who
established the dignity of the artist over that of the simply well-born. His entire life was a protest
against the pretensions of birth over mind. His predecessors, to a great extent subjugated by
their social superiors, sought only to please. Nothing further was expected of them. This mental
attitude is apparent in their work. The language of the courtier is usually polished, but will
never have the virility that characterizes the speech of the free man.
As with all valuable things, however, Beethoven’s music is not to be enjoyed for nothing.
We must on our side contribute something to the enterprise, something more than simply
buying a ticket to the performance. We must study his work in the right spirit, and place
ourselves in a receptive attitude when listening to it to understand his message. Often
metaphysical, particularly in the work of his later years, his meaning will be revealed only when
we devote to it earnest and sympathetic study. No other composer demands so much of one; no
other rewards the student so richly for the effort required. The making a fact the subject of
thought vitalizes it. It is as if the master had said to the aspirant: “I will admit you into the ranks
of my disciples, but you must first prove yourself worthy.” An initiation is necessary; somewhat
of the intense mental activity which characterized Beethoven in the composition of his works
is required of the student also. There is a tax imposed for the enjoyment of them.
Like Thoreau, Beethoven came on the world’s stage “just in the nick of time,” and almost
immediately had to begin hewing out a path for himself. He was born in the workshop, as was
Mozart, and learned music simultaneously with speaking. Stirring times they were in which he
first saw the light, and so indeed continued with ever-increasing intensity, like a good drama,
until nearly his end. The American Revolution became an accomplished fact during his
boyhood. Nearer home, events were fast coming to a focus, which culminated in the French
Revolution. The magic words, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, and the ideas for which they stood,
were everywhere in the minds of the people. The age called for enlightenment, spiritual growth.
On reaching manhood, he found a world in transition; he realized that he was on the threshold
of a new order of things, and with ready prescience took advantage of such as could be utilized
in his art. Through Beethoven the resources of the orchestra were increased, an added range
was given the keyboard of the piano, the human voice was given tasks that at the time seemed
impossible of achievement. He established the precedent, which Wagner acted on later, of
employing the human voice as a tool, an instrument, to be used in the exigencies of his art, as
if it were a part of the orchestra.
Beethoven’s birthplace, Bonn, no doubt proved a favorable soil for the propagation of the
new ideas. The unrest pervading all classes, an outcome of the Revolution, showed itself among
the more serious-minded in increased intellectuality, and a reaching after higher things. This
Zeitgeist is clearly reflected in his compositions, in particular the symphonies and sonatas.
“Under the lead of Italian vocalism,” said Wagner, speaking of the period just preceding the
time of which we write, “music had become an art of sheer agreeableness.” The beautiful in
music had been sufficiently exploited by Mozart and Haydn. Beethoven demonstrated that
music has a higher function than that of mere beauty, or the simple act of giving pleasure. The
beautiful in literature is not its best part. To the earnest thinker, the seeker after truth, the student
who looks for illumination on life’s problem, beauty in itself is insufficient. It is the best officeof art, of Beethoven’s art in particular, that it leads ever onward and upward; that it acts not
only on the esthetic and moral sense, but develops the mental faculties as well, enabling the
individual to find a purpose and meaning in life…