Why We Still Need Beethoven
Michael Shurkin

At a recent performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony by the National Symphony Orchestra, the music moved me. From the opening note to the awe-inspiring finale, it held me upright at the edge of my seat and filled my heart with song, optimism, and, yes, joy. This is probably not a surprise to most readers. Everyone loves Beethoven. But it should be a surprise. Beethoven's music functions according to an aesthetic that lies at the root of modern (though not modernist) art; it draws inspiration from and appeals to the most fundamental ideals of modernity. Us post-moderns are not supposed to let such things get to us. We should be too sophisticated for that. Happily, we aren't.

What makes Beethoven's music modern and thus, from a post-modern perspective, hopelessly out of date, are its aesthetics and its optimism. Aesthetically, Beethoven crafted his art in tune with the Romantic ideal of the sublime. Convinced of the existence of a primal, universal, all-powerful, and majestic truth that lay just beyond normal human perception, Romantic artists endeavored to capture their subjective experience of that truth and express it through their art. They believed that, as artists, they had a prophet-like ability to see, feel, and dream their way through to 'the other side.' Their ideal of beauty was to communicate the infinite through the finite, to share with us the entirety of the universe in a bar of melody or a stroke of oil paint. This is the key to the ethereal beauty of Beethoven's late string quartets: the composer, completely deaf, could now hear no other songs than the stirring of his own soul and somehow manages to set those songs to music. In the 9th Symphony I can think of at least two places where Beethoven nails it; that shiver I feel is the experience of the sublime.

Typically, Romantic artists regarded nature as the most favorable arena for capturing the sublime. Caspar David Friedrich and J. M. W. Turner provide arguably the best known examples of this, and Beethoven similarly turned to nature in his evocative "Pastoral" Symphony. However, Romantic art, like all modern art, is never really about the nature it depicts or whatever else may be its ostensible subject matter. Rather, it is about the artist's subjective experience. The hallmark of Romantic art and arguably most modern art since is the conviction that to connect with the infinite beyond or behind the concrete world one should turn inward. Romantic art bespeaks a tremendous faith in the potential of the human spirit; it makes a virtual cult of human creativity and above all the creative genius. In this regard it should be clear that the Romantic fruit did not fall far from the Enlightenment tree, even if Romanticism lauded subjectivity where the Enlightenment emphasized objectivity. In both cases, moreover, faith in the human spirit usually translates into confidence in humanity as a whole. For in a world where men can know truth, they can connect at a deeply spiritual level and form bonds of mutual love and understanding. All of humanity can share the same experience of subjective truth. All of humanity can come together as a single subjective I.

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Image: Caspar Friedrich David,
Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog

October 2002

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