Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 25, 2021
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The cult of Beethoven

From pop music to politics, the iconic composer has shaped the cultural landscape for 182 years

Several years ago my grand-daughter Emily, then age six, came into my study and asked what I was doing. “I’m writing a book about Beethoven,” I replied. “Oh, I know all about Beethoven,” she said. My heart glowed with pride that she was so well-informed about classical music at such a tender age.

“Where did you learn about Beethoven,” I asked her. “Oh, I saw the movie about Beethoven, the dog,” she answered. In the original movie (1992) a St. Bernard puppy is named Beethoven because he barks when the Fifth Symphony is played. The movie was so successful that it led to five sequels.

Over the last fifteen years at least five movies that depict Beethoven’s life have appeared — Beethoven Lives Upstairs (1992), Immortal Beloved (1994), An Immortal Spirit (2000), Eroica (2003), and Copying Beethoven (2006) — and his music is also a central theme in The Soloist (2009). The tragedy of the deaf composer with a disordered love life, who is yet able to write great music, makes for high drama and good box-office returns.

Beethoven has become an iconic cult figure even though classical music is enjoyed by a relative minority of the population. During the 182 years since his death, he has been appropriated by popular culture and music groups, by political movements spanning the spectrum from left to right, and most recently, by the black movement in the United States.

It is not surprising that music groups have bent Beethoven to their cause. The Walter Murphy Band disco hit A Fifth of Beethoven is an entertaining example of the “popification” of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The Jacques Loussier Trio and the Marcus Schinkel Trio have played and recorded popular variations of Beethoven’s music, and jazzified versions of Für Elise, the Fifth Symphony, the Moonlight Sonata, and even the Diabelli variations are also available.

In a commercial for Vitamin Water, you can see Curtis Jackson, better known as rapper 50 Cent, conducting an orchestra playing a brief, unconventional excerpt from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony mixed with Jackson's "In Da Club." It is perhaps fortunate that poor Beethoven was deaf; he would be twirling in his grave if he was able to hear how moderns have transformed his music.

To the Ninth power

Although not a political animal himself, Beethoven was strongly influenced by the powerful political tides of his times. We know from his writings and those of his friends that he had democratic, republican views. He initially admired the apparent liberal political philosophy of the French Revolution and Napoleon, but became disillusioned when the latter declared himself emperor in 1804.

Towards the end of his life, Beethoven became increasingly an anglophile, seeing the English system of governance as liberal and tolerant by European standards of the time. His opera Fidelio and the Ninth Symphony are both powerful political statements. Fidelio tells the story of a political prisoner rescued by his wife, who disguises herself as a prison guard, and its message to the autocratic regimes of the early 19th century was loud and clear.

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony includes a setting of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy,” a poem celebrating the unity and brotherhood of all of humankind. The world premiere in Vienna in 1824 occurred at the height of Metternich’s repressive governance of Austria, and the audience loudly applauded both the music and its liberal political theme.

Political movements from fascism to communism have used Beethoven and attempted to turn him to their cause. Nazi Germany adapted Beethoven’s music for their purposes, despite the difficulty of fitting the brotherhood theme of the Ode to Joy into their racially exclusive philosophy.

Josef Goebbels’ Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda did a makeover of Beethoven’s life and creativity, in an attempt to portray him as a National Socialist who believed in a powerful Germany with a strong leader. At the other end of the political spectrum, during the Cold War, communist East Germany regarded Beethoven as a soul-mate and converted him into a left-wing ideologue.

An ode to politics

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Leonard Bernstein conducted an orchestra of musicians from both sides of the divide, celebrating the event with a wonderfully symbolic rendition of the Ninth Symphony. But even this performance provoked controversy when the word “joy” (Freude) was changed to “freedom” (Freiheit).

Bernstein justified the switch by asserting that he felt authorized “by the power of the moment,” noting that many scholars had attempted to show that Schiller was really writing about freedom, rather than joy. The objective was to identify freedom and democracy with peace and joy, but the symbolism was lost on purists wanting to retain musical perfection.

In 1985 Beethoven’s music for the “Ode to Joy” was adopted by the European Community as its anthem, but the words were omitted, likely because of the difficulty of creating musical translations in so many different European languages. Ironically, this music was also used as the national anthem of the apartheid regime in Rhodesia during its brief foray into independence during the 1970s and 1980s.

Both communist China and democratic Japan have developed their own interpretations of Beethoven’s music. After the Cultural Revolution, Chinese philosophers saw Beethoven’s music as exemplifying the spirit of the communist revolutionary struggle and identified Beethoven’s concept of joy through suffering with the Marxist slogan of victory through struggle.

In Japan, Beethoven has become a popular cult figure, and performances of the Ninth Symphony marking the end of the year on December 31 have become traditional throughout the country, in some cases involving huge choirs of up to 7000 singers.

Was Beethoven black?

The possibility that Beethoven had black ancestry was first raised by Joel Rogers (1880–1966) a Jamaican-born American writer. This theory was based in part on the observation by Beethoven’s contemporaries that he had a dark, swarthy complexion, and in part because his paternal ancestors came from Flanders which was governed by Spain during the 16th and 17th centuries. Spain, in turn, had been governed for many centuries by Moors from North Africa, who were only expelled in the late 15th century.

Rogers himself was circumspect about this possibility, but the belief that Beethoven was part black has become an article of faith amongst some black Americans, particularly in the music world, and may be the reason why Rap musicians have adopted Beethoven as one of their own. The heat generated by this controversy lead to a clash between black and white students at Stanford University in 1991 that involved the police and was widely reported in the international press.

Illness and death

As compared to many other historical figures of the period we know a great deal about Beethoven’s health. He often referred to health in his voluminous correspondence, the reports of some of his physicians are extant, and the autopsy report is available, though without histological analysis.

These all indicate that he experienced many medical problems during his lifetime. His deafness is widely known, but he also had chronic, recurrent gastrointestinal symptoms, periodic respiratory disturbances, musculoskeletal ailments and a psychiatric illness that was most likely bipolar disorder.

Beethoven was also alcohol dependent. On several occasions in his letters he described his “need” for wine and there are frequent references to drinking at parties and in taverns. All four of his physicians who treated him in later life recommended he reduce or stop alcohol, but he was able to do so for brief periods only.

His terminal illness lasted four months and during this time he suffered from jaundice and “dropsy” (ascites and lower limb oedema). The ascites was so severe that the peritoneal fluid had to be aspirated four times over a three-month period.

Most tellingly, his autopsy report revealed that the liver was “half its usual size” and leathery in consistency, and that its surface was covered with bean-sized nodules. These macroscopic pathological features, taken together with the alcohol intake, jaundice and ascites are strongly suggestive of liver failure and alcoholic cirrhosis.

There also were genetic predisposing features in that both his father and his paternal grandmother died of alcohol-related problems. With this plethora of medical problems, the wonder is that Beethoven was able to continue composing awe-inspiring music until just a few months before his death.

Beethoven lived through a historical period of intense revolutionary, social and political changes and his music reflects these dramatic currents. Attempts to seize his legacy by a wide range of cultists and political ideologues reflect the universal and visceral appeal of his timeless music.

BIO Dr François Mai is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Queen's University in Kingston, ON. He is also the author of the book Diagnosing Genius: The Life and Death of Beethoven, which looks at how the composer's health problems may have influenced his creativity.

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Showing 1 comments

  1. On October 13, 2010, dr surya master said:
    your article is correct.beehtoven will continue to serve the mankind thru his music as long as we have ears to liston.

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