Hyperian History Of The World (19th Century, Part 2)
Hegel wrote that “the history of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of freedom”. Indeed, Hegel was writing following the revolutionary events of the end of the 18th century, in which humanity began to awaken to the tyranny under which they lived and began to resist it. The 19th century certainly proved to be one in which the consciousness of freedom made great progress. Whilst Hegel’s philosophy provides us with a metaphysical explanation of this process, to see the real evidence of this process in action one ought to look at the art and creativity of that time, in particular, it’s music.
In the previous century music had reached dizzying heights of greatness in the works of Handel and Bach, Haydn and Mozart. Yet, for the most part, these composers were being commissioned to compose by their wealthy patrons and, as such, their music was being controlled by a powerful ruling class despite their great individual genius. Mozart had begun to challenge this with some of his operas having controversial subject matter which troubled the aristocracy.
In the 19th century, one composer managed not only to eclipse the talent and mastery of those great 18th century masters, but managed also to completely change the way in which composers composed, taking complete control over his own work, injecting it with a powerful sense of personality, a true expression of an individual progress of the consciousness of freedom. This was of course the great Ludwig Van Beethoven, perhaps the greatest composer who ever lived.
Beethoven perfectly embodied the enlightenment values of his time, which he poured into his music, as well as a great sense of the power of the individual to dazzle the world with the unlimited creative content of his mind. Beethoven knew exactly what he was capable of and didn’t allow anything to stop him and refused to compromise in order to ‘fit in’. Beethoven, through force of will, became the greatest master of music the world has ever seen, and his dazzling later works are all the more astonishing when one considers that, by that time, the composer had gone completely deaf.
“Oh you men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn, or misanthropic, how greatly do you wrong me. You do not know the secret cause which makes me seem that way to you.” These are the words with which Beethoven began his so-called Heiligenstadt Testament written in 1802. In this document, addressed to his brothers but not found until after the composer’s death in 1827, Beethoven reveals his anguish at the prospect of his oncoming deafness, a truly terrible prospect for a musician. Yet, though the letter reads almost like a suicide note, the great man evidently did not commit suicide (the letter itself states, “it was only my art that held me back”), instead he went on to achieve greater heights of artistic genius than perhaps any other composer in history.
Had Beethoven killed himself in 1802, he would have been nothing more than a footnote in musical history, known perhaps a great virtuosic performer of his day and as a composer who wrote a few notable works in the classical style of Haydn and Mozart, before an untimely death. But despite the prospect of his impending tragedy, the avoidance of which he knew to be impossible, Beethoven made the conscious decision to live on nonetheless. “I was ever inclined to accomplish great things”, he writes, showing that he knew in himself what heights he was capable of, and no physical ailment was going to stop him. Rather, Beethoven turned his disadvantage into a strength. Through his own mighty force of will, Beethoven ceases to be known merely as a virtuosic performer or as a composer imitating the styles of others, and instead rises above everything that has come before him. He uses his isolating illness to probe depths of the human psyche no musician had ever dreamt of.
Two years after the Heiligenstadt Testament, Beethoven had completed his third symphony, his epic ‘Eroica’. Twice as long as any symphony composed by anyone else before, this work would have baffled and amazed audiences in 1805, when it was first performed, with its impressive scale, force and power.
Isolated though he was, Beethoven was well aware of events going on in the world at the time. A practitioner of Enlightenment values, Beethoven had been a supporter of the French Revolution and had supported Napoleon in his early days, and it was to that world historic figure that Beethoven had originally dedicated the ‘Eroica’, that is, until he learned that Napoleon had crowned himself Emperor, in opposition to the revolutionary values that Beethoven also held. The original manuscript of the score still bares the scars of Beethoven’s wrath, with Napoleon’s dedication scratched out with such force as to tear the page. Instead, Beethoven dedicated the piece “to the memory of a great man”.
In this symphony, Beethoven celebrates the glory of the individual, the enlightened individual who stands in opposition to all the forces of endarkenment. The ‘Eroica’ of the title, the heroic individual, is one who makes themself all that which they have it in them to be.
When Napoleon’s French forces occupied Vienna, Beethoven’s wealthy patron, Prince Lichnowsky was entertaining some of them one night, and Beethoven was invited to attend the evening. When the prince asked Beethoven to play for them, Beethoven exploded into a rage, not wishing to be presented as an attraction to the foreign invaders. Beethoven makes his allegiance quite clear when he says to the Prince, “What you are, you are by accident of birth; What I am, I am by myself. There are and will be a thousand princes; There is only one Beethoven.”
Following this, Beethoven ceased to rely on patronage, instead taking control of his own career and making money through concerts and publications, no longer requiring wealthy patrons, as composers had done for centuries. Beethoven despised the wealthy elite, as shown by another famous anecdote. Beethoven was walking through the street with his friend, the great writer Goethe, when they came upon a group of aristocrats. Goethe stepped aside to allow them to pass, yet Beethoven continued on, forcing the aristocrats to move aside for him. He stopped further up the street to allow Goethe to catch up. Once he had, Beethoven said to him, “I have waited for you because I respect you and I admire your work, but you have shown too much esteem to those people”.
Beethoven made himself the greatest composer of all time and, despite becoming profoundly deaf, still managed to compose works of impossible brilliance, such as the Missa Solemnis and, in particular, his ninth symphony. Completed in 1824, this symphony was even longer than the Eroica and, in its final movement, even utilised singers for the first time ever in a symphony, which was usually an instrumental work. Yet Beethoven had long wished to set to music a poem by the poet Schiller called the Ode to Joy and he did so in this symphony. The poem celebrates joy and calls for universal brotherhood and is very much in accordance with Beethoven’s enlightenment values.
Despite its great length and incredible innovations, the symphony was a massive success. At its premier, Beethoven, completely deaf, insisted on conducting the orchestra despite not being able to hear them. This was allowed to occur, yet the lead violinist actually took control and had the orchestra follow his lead. As a result, the orchestra finished before Beethoven, who was still waving his arms around as the audience began to applaud. As they rose in a huge standing ovation, Beethoven had to be physically turned around by one of the singers in order to accept the adulation.
Beethoven represents the culmination of all the developments in music which preceded him, and also the root of all which followed him. Music for the remainder of the century, and beyond, continued to follow the trajectory which he had begun. Contemporary to Beethoven was Franz Schubert, who, aside from being perhaps the greatest songwriter who ever lived, also managed to compete with Beethoven with a few of his symphonies and other works.
The 19th century also saw opera reaching its greatest heights. One composer in particular took it to extreme levels. Recognising that opera was the true artistic heir to the great synthesis of the arts which had been the tragedies of ancient Greece, Richard Wagner applied the same ideas to his operas. Wagner devised the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk, or total-artwork, in which several art forms all come together in one single work. Wagner didn’t just compose the music for his operas, but also wrote all of the words (unusual for composers of the time), directed all of the onstage action and even designed the sets and costumes himself.
Wagner broke free of all of the traditions of opera and his gargantuan works would consist of huge unbroken streams of music rather than being broken down into shorter sections as in other operas. The culmination of Wagner’s ideas comes in his epic Ring Cycle. Based on Norse mythology, this work consists of four operas to be seen on four consecutive evenings for a total of about fourteen hours of music. To stage this absurdly ambitious work, Wagner had to actually build his own opera house, as no existing venue had the means to put on such a work.
Wagner’s true genius, however, was to reach deep into the collective unconscious of humanity and draw forth the archetypes and structures of our mythology and put them into musical form. Wagner tended to represent each archetype, characters, objects and even ideas and feelings, with little melodies or leitmotifs which would recur throughout the opera in many different forms. This technique gives his music great psychological power and is a technique utilised by many other composers, particularly modern film composers.
Despite the epic scale of the Ring Cycle, Wagner’s most deeply spiritual work is probably his final opera, Parsifal. Based on the medieval legend of the knights of the Holy Grail, Parsifal is an immensely powerful work with profound power. If it were possible for a piece of art to contain all of the secrets to enlightenment, then Parsifal is arguably the one which comes closest.
The 19th century produced an astonishing number of great composers. Aside from Beethoven, Schubert and Wagner, there was also Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, Verdi, Bruckner, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak and many others. Human creativity was on fire and it was all down to the decision that Beethoven made in his Heiligenstadt Testament, the decision to go on and actualise all of his potential, regardless of everything which life threw at him. As Hyperians we all must make similar decisions. We can disappear into obscurity, or we can pour out the contents of our souls and light up the world with our creative brilliance. Beethoven was just one individual. Imagine what we could do if we all united.
“Seid umschlungen, Millionen! Diesen Kuß der ganzen Welt!”