Written by Vladimir Moss



     The false “dogma” of the Romantic era was the moral superiority and godlike status of the artist and/or revolutionary. The political or artistic genius was truly a “genie” who, once let out of his bottle by his divine imagination, could create heaven or hell on earth – and for his worshippers, it didn’t really matter which. Revolutionaries and artists both saw visions unattainable to the ordinary mortal, and for that they were venerated as God-seers if not as gods.

     For Imagination for the Romantics was much more than the ability to fantasize. As Jacques Barzun writes: “Out of the known or knowable, Imagination connects the remote, interprets the familiar, or discovers hidden realities. Being a means of discovery, it must be called ‘Imagination of the real’. Scientific hypotheses perform that same office; they are products of imagination.

     “This view of the matter explains why to the Romanticists the arts no longer figured as a refined pleasure of the senses, an ornament of civilized existence, but as one form of the deepest possible reflection on life. Shelley, defending his art, declares poets to be the ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world’. The arts convey truths; they are imagination crystallized; and as they transport the soul they reshape the perceptions and possibly the life of the beholder. To perform this feat requires genius, because it is not a mechanical act. To be sure, all art makes use of conventions, but to obey traditional rules and follow set patterns will not achieve that fusion of idea and form which is properly creation. It was Romanticist discussion that made the word creation regularly apply to works of art…

     “Those Romanticist words, recharged with meaning, helped to establish the religion of art. That faith served those who could and those could not partake of the revived creeds. To call the passion for art a religion is not a figure of speech or a way of praise. Since the beginning of the 19C, art has been defined again and again by its devotees as ‘the highest spiritual expression of man’. The dictum leaves no room for anything higher and this highest level is that which, for other human beings, is occupied by religion. To 19C worshippers the arts form a treasury of revelations, a body of scriptures, the makers of this spiritual testament are prophets and seers. And to this day the fortunate among them are treated as demigods…”[1]

     The connection between the revolution and romanticism became especially clear and strong during the July Days of the 1830 revolution, as was noted by Adam Zamoyski: “’People and poets are marching together,’ wrote the French critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve in 1830. ‘Art is henceforth on a popular footing, in the arena with the masses.’ There was something in this. Never before or since had poetry been so widely and so urgently read, so taken to heart and so closely studied for hidden meaning. And it was not only in search of aesthetic or emotional uplift that people did so, for the poet had assumed a new role over the past two decades. Art was no longer an amenity but a great truth that had to be revealed to mankind, and the artist was one who had been called to interpret this truth, a kind of seer. In Russia, Pushkin solemnly declared the poet’s status as a prophet uttering the burning words of truth. The American Ralph Waldo Emerson saw poets as ‘liberating gods’ because they had achieved freedom themselves, and could therefore free others. The pianist and composer Franz Liszt wanted to recapture the ‘political, philosophical and religious power’ that he believed music had in ancient times. William Blake claimed that Jesus and his disciples were all artists, and that he himself was following Jesus through his art. ‘God was, perhaps only the first poet of the universe,’ Théophile Gauthier reflected. By the 1820s artists regularly referred to their craft as a religion, and Victor Hugo represented himself alternately as Zoroaster, Moses and Christ, somewhere between prophet and God.”[2]

     Thus the man-god of the early Romantic period was either a tyrant-despot such as Napoleon or Bolivar, or an artist, such as Goethe or Beethoven. And yet while Goethe and Beethoven were probably the most famous artists of their age, they were not typical man-god artists. Born in the pre-revolutionary period, they displayed, to the end of their lives, the classicist, universalist and cosmopolitan traits that were typical of that more restrained period. At the same time, both were archetypal romantics in their estimate of the role of artists, and their work displayed that ecstatic, heaven-storming passion that we associate with Romanticism.


     Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was perhaps the first romantic. His novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), was the world’s first “best-seller”; its tale of unrequited love and suicide created a taste for passion, as it were, that has never since departed from the subconscious of western civilization. “What set Goethe's book apart from other such novels was its expression of unbridled longing for a joy beyond possibility, its sense of defiant rebellion against authority, and of principal importance, its total subjectivity: qualities that trail-blazed the Romantic movement.”[3]

     And yet here we come up against the first contradiction in this highly contradictory man: the first romantic was also the author of “Weimar classicism” and an admirer of Greek classicism. He might well have agreed with the sentiment of the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by the contemporary English romantic poet, John Keats:

When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou sayst,
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

     Another surprising fact about Goethe was that he was one of the very few intellectuals of his generation who did not admire the French revolution, - “the most dreadful of all events”, remaining committed to the old regime’s model of politics. There may have been personal reasons for this: since 1775 he had been a leading figure at the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, and so had much to lose from the revolution. Moreover, he had been present at the battle of Valmy in 1792, when the revolution won its first victory over the Germans; he had witnessed the siege of Mainz, and the barbarism of Napoleon’s troops when they ransacked his house in Weimar in 1806…But his attitude to Napoleon himself was different. Mistakenly thinking that he was the reverser rather than the continuer of the revolution, “he persisted,” as Ritchie Robertson writes, “in admiring Napoleon, the invader of Germany and conqueror of Prussia, whom patriots denounced as a devil risen from hell. For him, Napoleon was the hero who had defeated the French Revolution and replaced anarchy with a social order which Goethe hoped would prove permanent. More than that, Napoleon was a superhuman figure, ‘the highest phenomenon that was possible in history’. ‘His life was the striding of a demi-god from battle to battle and from victory to victory’, Goethe later said to Eckermann (11 March 1828). Goethe’s meeting with Napoleon [at Napoleon’s request] at Erfurt on 2 October 1808, and again in Weimar on 6 October, was one of the supreme moments of his life. Napoleon awarded him the Légion d’Honneur, which he proudly wore at every opportunity. Hence he deeply disliked the often furious German nationalism that grew up during Napoleon’s occupation, triumphed over his downfall, and would flourish for the next century and a half.”[4]

     In his freedom from nationalism, Goethe again showed his affinities with the enlightened, cosmopolitan eighteenth century rather than the romantic, nationalist nineteenth. Again, there may have been personal motives for that: a man who in his literary career had been deeply influenced by foreign writes, from the English Shakespeare to the Greek Euripides to the Persian Hajiz, and spent much of his time translating them, was hardly likely to think that all truth and beauty was in one nation. “Although often requested to write poems arousing nationalist passions, Goethe would always decline. In old age, he explained why this was so to Eckermann: ‘How could I write songs of hatred when I felt no hate? And, between ourselves, I never hated the French, although I thanked God when we were rid of them. How could I, to whom the only significant things are civilization [Kultur] and barbarism, hate a nation which is among the most cultivated in the world, and to which I owe a great part of my own culture? In any case this business of hatred between nations is a curious thing. You will always find it more powerful and barbarous on the lowest levels of civilization. But there exists a level at which it wholly disappears, and where one stands, so to speak, above the nations, and feels the weal or woe of a neighboring people as though it were one's own.’[5 

     Goethe’s attitude to religion was similar. He was not anti-religious: he objected to Voltaire’s mockery of religion, his works contain sympathetic portrayals of religious people, and he counted sincere Christians among his friends. But he was too much of an Enlightenment man to believe in the literal truth of Christian dogma; he particularly disliked the doctrine of original sin, and didn’t believe in miracles.

     And he was an ecumenist, who believed in no institutional religion, but was very interested in the eastern religions. As Robertson explains, his real religion was probably a kind of nature-worship. “He told Lavater firmly: ‘You consider the Gospel the most divine truth; even a loud voice from heaven wouldn’t convince me that water burns and fire puts it out, that a woman bears a child without a man, or that a man can rise from the dead; instead, I consider those beliefs to be blasphemies against the great God and his revelation in nature.’ He thought it self-evident that there was a God who was manifested in the order of nature. Natural religion therefore did not require any effort of faith; it was only particular religions that did so. Natural religion sprang from ‘the dialogue in our bosom with nature’; it depended on feeling and could not be implanted by rational argument. Hence what Faust professes to Gretchen is natural religion.”[6]

     One aspect of Goethe’s private religion may have been a product of his interest in eastern religion. This was a kind of amorality, an anticipation of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil: a belief that good and evil went together in the world like Yin and Yan, as two aspects of one reality. As he put it: nature was “an organ on which our Lord plays and the Devil treads the bellows”.

     Thus according to Goethe, writes Ellendea Proffer, “at the heart of everything lies a contradiction – attraction and repulsion, creation and destruction – that men see as good and evil, heaven and hell. Goethe felt that moral concepts were really only one facet of the whole, a whole in which immorality and amorality are at least equally represented. The main thing is activity – the surge of life, an everlasting repetition that never progresses, good never really does triumph over evil, but the movement in itself is what is important. All these contradictions are inseparable from one another and from God Himself.”[7]

      In accordance with his views on morality, Goethe paid little attention to the fairly strict contemporary views on sexual life, and had a string of affairs. “Many of Goethe's works, especially Faust, the Roman Elegies, and the Venetian Epigrams, depict erotic passions and acts. For instance, in Faust, the first use of Faust's power after signing a contract with the devil is to seduce a teenage girl. Some of the Venetian Epigrams were held back from publication due to their sexual content. Goethe clearly saw human sexuality as a topic worthy of poetic and artistic depiction, an idea that was uncommon in a time when the private nature of sexuality was rigorously normative.

      Still worse, Goethe wrote of both boys and girls: ‘I like boys a lot, but the girls are even nicer. If I tire of her as a girl, she'll play the boy for me as well’. Goethe also defended pederasty: ‘Pederasty is as old as humanity itself, and one can therefore say that it is natural, that it resides in nature, even if it proceeds against nature. What culture has won from nature will not be surrendered or given up at any price.’”[8]

      An important aspect of Romanticism was its subtle devaluation of science – the god of the Enlightenment – by comparison with art. Goethe, for example, though a scientist as well as a poet, approached his science in a distinctly non-empirical way, fearing an excessively abstract approach to nature. As Professor Robertson writes, “Given his fear of abstraction, Goethe was inevitably hostile to the most successful model of scientific research in his time: the conception of the universe as a great machine, operating by regular laws, and capable of being described in quantitative and mathematical terms. Goethe knew little of mathematics: in 1786 he tried to learn algebra, with limited success. He says that mathematics is all very well in its place, dealing with those restricted areas where exactitude is possible, but should abandon its claim to ‘universal monarchy’. The study of nature needs to emancipate itself from mathematics and ‘seek with all loving, reverent, devout energies to penetrate nature and its holy life’. Although he occasionally used a microscope to examine micro-organisms, and enjoyed looking at the moon through a telescope, Goethe generally deplored the use of instruments such as microscopes, on the grounds that they distorted the natural relation between the observer and the world.

     “Despite rejecting mathematical abstraction, Goethe did not confine himself to the empirical study of phenomena. His cogently criticized the empirical method advocated early in the 17th century by Francis Bacon and practiced after 1660 by the Royal Society in London. Empirical studies need to be guided by principles, otherwise they will just lead to millions of isolated and insignificant facts. The Royal Society, though claiming to study nature without preconceptions, in fact assumed that the universe was really a great machine. The investigator, in Goethe’s view, needed to remember that there were no raw facts, independent of the viewer’s preconceptions.

     “However, when Goethe writes, ‘The supreme goal would be to grasp that everything factual is already theory,’ he does not mean ‘theory’ in any recognizable present-day sense. He rejects ‘theory’ in the sense of mathematical abstraction. Nor has he any interest in causal explanations for phenomena. After all, since everything in nature is interrelated, a causal account merely privileges one set of relationships, a historical one, at the expense of innumerable others. Often he uses the word ‘theory’ in the original sense of Greek theoria, meaning ‘looking’… Ultimately all you can do with phenomena is contemplate them. There is nothing behind them, nothing to be explained. The aphorism just quoted continues: ‘The blue of the sky reveals to us the basic law of chromatics. Do not look for anything behind the phenomena: they themselves are the doctrine’. Even to express phenomena in words requires caution, since language is just another phenomenon; we must use language with self-awareness and irony if we are not to fall into mere abstraction.”[9]

     Combining the roles of statesman, poet, scientist and philosopher, Goethe was the nineteenth-century equivalent of the Renaissance man and represents, perhaps better than anybody else, the paradoxes of western civilization and the essence of its apostasy. We can understand this better if we study his most famous and influential work, Faust: Faust Part One takes place in multiple settings, the first of which is Heaven. The demon Mephistopheles makes a bet with God: he says that he can lure God's favourite human being (Faust), who is striving to learn everything that can be known, away from righteous pursuits. The next scene takes place in Faust's study where Faust, despairing at the vanity of scientific, humanitarian and religious learning, turns to magic for the showering of infinite knowledge. He suspects, however, that his attempts are failing. Frustrated, he ponders suicide, but rejects it as he hears the echo of nearby Easter celebrations begin. He goes for a walk with his assistant Wagner and is followed home by a stray poodle (the term then meant a medium-to-big-size dog, similar to a sheep dog).

      In Faust's study, the poodle transforms into Mephistopheles. Faust makes an arrangement with him: Mephistopheles will do everything that Faust wants while he is here on Earth, and in exchange Faust will serve the Devil in Hell. Faust's arrangement is that if he is pleased enough with anything Mephistopheles gives him that he wants to stay in that moment forever, then he will die in that moment.

      “When Mephistopheles tells Faust to sign the pact with blood, Faust complains that Mephistopheles does not trust Faust's word of honor. In the end, Mephistopheles wins the argument and Faust signs the contract with a drop of his own blood. Faust has a few excursions and then meets Margaret (also known as Gretchen). He is attracted to her and with jewellery and with help from a neighbor, Martha, Mephistopheles draws Gretchen into Faust's arms. With Mephistopheles' aid, Faust seduces Gretchen. Gretchen's mother dies from a sleeping potion, administered by Gretchen to obtain privacy so that Faust could visit her. Gretchen discovers she is pregnant. Gretchen's brother condemns Faust, challenges him and falls dead at the hands of Faust and Mephistopheles. Gretchen drowns her illegitimate child and is convicted of the murder. Faust tries to save Gretchen from death by attempting to free her from prison. Finding that she refuses to escape, Faust and Mephistopheles flee the dungeon, while voices from Heaven announce that Gretchen shall be saved – ‘Sie ist gerettet’ – this differs from the harsher ending of Urfaust [the earliest draft of Faust] – ‘Sie ist gerichtet!’ – ‘she is condemned.’

      “Rich in classical allusion, in Part Two the romantic story of the first Faust is forgotten, and Faust wakes in a field of fairies to initiate a new cycle of adventures and purpose. The piece consists of five acts (relatively isolated episodes) each representing a different theme. Ultimately, Faust goes to Heaven, for he loses only half of the bet. Angels, who arrive as messengers of divine mercy, declare at the end of Act V: ‘He who strives on and lives to strive/ Can earn redemption still’ (V, 11936–7).”[10]

      It is this quality of striving that is so characteristic of what we may call Faustian man, Homo Occidentalis. Just as Adam strove for deification through tasting of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, so Faustian man strives for knowledge and power. To that end he embraces science, magic and the senses – but betrays true love, both that of “the Eternal Feminine” and of God Himself.

      Then, after his fall into the nets of the devil, he strives again to reach the paradise he has lost. But not through repentance and atonement. Western man strives for that which he has lost, but in the wrong way, with pride and lust, following the urgings of the devil. And for that the true judgement is Goethe’s original “He is condemned”, not the facile “He is saved” of his later revision. The problem is that in Faust, and especially in Part II, Goethe is moving away from authentic tragedy (and from the Grecian and Shakespearean models he so admired) to a superficial Origenism, in which everybody is saved in the end. For, as Robertson writes, “after the intense agony of the ‘Prison’ scene, an unspecified time passes, and at the beginning of Part II we find Faust lying on an Alpine meadow, attended by charming spirits who pity his distress and sing him to sleep. When he wakes the next morning, Faust is refreshed and ready to continue his career, thanks to the healing power of nature. Now this may seem unfair, indeed morally offensive. After all, Faust is responsible for Gretchen’s misery and death. One might feel that he should be punished. However, it seems that he has been punished enough by the agony of confronting Gretchen in prison. Thereafter his moral failure is treated as a medical problem. Not atonement, but healing, is prescribed. A spectacular act of atonement would do no good: it wouldn’t bring Gretchen back to life, and it would only prevent Faust from achieving his potential and, perhaps, doing more good in the world. Goethe is here moving beyond catharsis and beyond tragedy.”[11]

      Tragically, European culture followed the path Goethe’s Faust had laid out. Henceforth there would be no tragedies with a Divine, let alone a Christian dimension. The tragic heroes of later European Kultur would be “redeemed” by suffering and striving alone, not by repentance and faith. Their justification would be the same as Faust’s: striving, which would give a quality of dynamism to Western civilization, but never of peace. At most, “redemption” would be achieved by the death of all the guilty, including the hero, as in the final scene of Hamlet or the battlefields of World War I– a most unsatisfactory ending, providing no real catharsis and certainly no joy.

      Like the spires of the medieval Gothic cathedrals, - interest in which, not coincidentally, Goethe revived in his early essay, “On German Architecture” (1772), - Faustian man strives always upwards and outwards, knowing that the Kingdom of heaven is no longer within him… This in contrast to the curves and domes of Eastern Orthodox architecture, which seek to keep the Kingdom of heaven inside the building. No striving, nor innovation, is needed there… 


     Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) greatly admired Goethe, but he was a very different man whose legacy pointed in a different direction. He was the pupil of Haydn and Mozart, and his “Early Period” (roughly 1795-1802) could best be characterized as “Haydnesque” (especially the First Symphony) with some Mozartean interludes (such as the Second Piano Concerto). Only in his piano works could something radically new be detected even at this early stage (for example, in the famous “Pathétique” and “Moonlight” sonatas). And yet this was still more like early Sturm und Drang Romanticism; it hardly prepared one for the real storm that was to come…

     One event appears to have triggered the transition to his earth-shaking “Middle Period” (roughly 1803-1813). This was the discovery that he was going deaf – a terrible affliction especially for a composer, which he movingly recorded in his famous “Heiligenstadt Testament” (1802). Then, with the writing of his “Eroica” symphony in 1803 he embarked upon that colossal series of masterpieces in all the major fields of classical music that smashed the conventions followed by Haydn and Mozart.

     This period, writes Harvey Sachs, “leaves one with a sense of wonder bordering on disbelief: the Third (‘Eroica’), Fourth, Fifth, Sixth (‘Pastoral’), Seventh and Eighth symphonies; Leonora (the name he gave to the first and second versions of his only opera); the Fourth and Fifth (‘Emperor’) piano concertos; the Violin and Triple concertos; the ‘Waldstein’, ‘Appassionata’ and ‘Les Adieux’ piano sonatas; the Ninth (‘Kreutzer’) and Tenth (G Major) violin sonatas; the Third Cello Sonata, op. 69; the String Quarters, op. 59 nos. 1 to 3 (‘Razumovsky’), and op. 74 (‘Harp’); the ‘Ghost’ and ‘Archduke’ trios for piano, violin and cello; the Coriolan, Egmont and three Leonore overtures; the Choral Fantasy for piano, orchestra, and chorus; and the Mass in C Major. Probably only Mozart and Schubert, in the last ten years of their brief lives, produced in a single decade as much that is still performed frequently all over the world as Beethoven between 1803 and 1813. During the same period, Hegel wrote his University of Jena lectures, later published as Phänomenologie des Geistes (Phenomenology of the Spirit or of the Mind), which were crucial to establishing his reputation as a philosopher; Goethe gave the world Faust, Part One; Schiller produced Wilhelm Tell; and Blake’s Milton and the first two cantos of Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage appeared. But none of these works – not even Faust – occupied as much space in its specific area as Beethoven’s works of that decade have occupied in theirs.

     “These were the works that gave birth to the familiar image of Beethoven as a tempestuous genius who shook his fist at fate and, Jove-like, loosed musical lightning bolts that welded the rationalistic Enlightenment ideals of the just-ended eighteenth century, in which he had spent roughly the first half of his life, to the stormy Romantic individualism of the newborn nineteenth. By the time he reached middle age, his startling originality had made him a European musical icon, and his much-discussed intransigeance and eccentricity had become a symbol of untrammeled artistic freedom.”[12]

     If Beethoven’s Early Period showed him as a Classical artist, albeit a highly unusual and talented one, in the Middle Period he was predominantly the Romantic artist – indeed, the prototypical Romantic. Apart from the features mentioned by Sachs, we may point to his extremely high estimate of the role of art in general and music in particular, which was so typical of the romantics. “Music,” he said, “is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy. Music is the electrical soil in which the spirit lives, thinks and invents.” 

     For the romantics, as we have seen, the artistic genius as a God-seer or demi-god, lighting the path through the storm and stress and darkness of earthly life to the Divine Light of Heaven, was a familiar theme. We find the same idea in Goethe, who wrote: ”As a temporal gospel, true poetry announces itself by knowing how to liberate us, through internal serenity and external pleasure, from the earthly burdens that weigh us down. Like a balloon, it lifts us and the ballast that we carry, into higher regions, leaving earth’s tangled paths lying spread out before us in a bird’s-eye view.”

     Sachs argues that Beethoven may also have shared the ideas expressed in “Benjamin Constant’s treatise, De la religion, in which the French writer and statesman essentially equated true religion with spirituality – a quality natural to all human beings, he said – whereas formal, imposed religion is inimical to the human spirit. ‘Religion has been disfigured,’ Constant wrote. ‘Man has been pursued right to his last place of asylum, to this intimate sanctuary of his existence. Persecution provokes rebellion… There is a principle in us that becomes indignant at every intellectual fetter. This principle can be whipped into a furor; it can be the cause of many a crime; but it is connected to everything that is noble in our nature. Surely Constant’s anti-dogmatic, anti-Establishment, nondoctrinaire, informal, open-minded, and indeed Romantic approach to spirituality is closely linked to Beethoven’s beliefs…”[13 

     However, in his Late Period Beethoven enters a deeply religious phase of his career, which, while still revolutionary, cannot easily be described in such terms.

      The critical transition from the Middle to the Late Period in Beethoven’s music – the relatively fallow years 1813-1823 – went in parallel with, and may well have been influenced by, an important political transition: the defeat of Napoleon and the Revolution and the return of Divine right monarchy in the form of the Bourbon Kings Louis XVIII and Charles X. Unlike so many romantic artists of the period, Beethoven appears to have been in no way upset by this turn of events, and gladly composed two anti-revolutionary pieces (“The Glorious Moment” and “Wellington’s Victory”) that he performed before all the crowned heads of Europe at the Congress of Vienna in November, 1814. It would be going beyond the evidence we have to say that Beethoven the lover of freedom, who had removed Napoleon from the dedication of his Eroica symphony when he became Emperor because of his despotic tendencies, had now repented of his earlier liberalism and become a reactionary. Nevertheless, there is marked return to classicism, if not in form, at any rate in spirit, in his Late Period works which seems to parallel the return to older forms of government in Europe as a whole. Only this is a revolutionary, new form of classicism which appears to combine classicism with romanticism in a unique – and uniquely religious – mixture.

     Beethoven’s Last Period begins with the Missa Solemnis, a setting of the Catholic Mass.Elements in the musical style hark back to earlier, more Christian ages, such as the Bachian fugues[14]; and Donald Tovey remarks that “Not even Bach or Handel can show a greater sense of space and of sonority. There is no earlier choral writing that comes so near to recovering some of the lost secrets of the style of Palestrina. There is no choral and no orchestral writing, earlier or later, that shows a more thrilling sense of the individual colour of every chord, every position, and every doubled third or discord.”

     More important, however, than these formal characteristics is the content. Not since the stupendous Kyrie of Bach’s B Minor Mass had the West produced a work of such unequivocally sincere faith. And if sincere, then it cannot, of course, be described as undogmatic, especially in the Credo. It is significant that the work was first performed in 1824 in Orthodox St. Petersburg, not Catholic Vienna, under the patronage of Prince Nikolai Golitsyn, who commissioned many of his late sonatas and string quartets.

     In the same year of 1824 Beethoven published his most famous work, the Ninth Symphony. The first three movements constitute as it were a summing up of his Middle Period – the tragic drama in the first movement, the colossal energy in the second, the profound lyricism in the third. But in the fourth, after the orchestra repeats the beginning of each of the first three movements, these are rejected in turn in order to make way for a new theme, the famous “Joy” melody that has become the “national anthem” of the European Union. This is followed by the soloists and chorus singing Schiller’s Ode to Joy – evidently this is the “new word” by which Beethoven means to characterize his new music, the music of his Late Period. At first we are tempted to think that the Joy in question is some sort of nature-worship:

All creatures drink Joy

At Nature’s breast;

All the good, all the bad

Follow her rose-bedecked trail. 

But Beethoven’s God is not the same as Goethe’s pantheist deity, nor the latter’s indifference to the difference between good and evil.[15] First of all, the passage ends with the word “God” thundered out at length in a huge fortissimo. And secondly, this God is clearly a personal God, as both the words and the “solemn, even liturgical” music, ending in a mysterious pianissimo,[16] indicate: 

Be embraced, you millions!

By this kiss for the whole world!

Brothers, a loving Father must live

Above the canopy of the stars.

     So for Beethoven the message is that joy is possible for all, but not in the worship of nationalist-imperialist heroes such as Napoleon, but in a truly universalist union under the one, personal and transcendent God; the saviour is not nature, as Goethe thought, but the Creator of nature. Could Beethoven’s meeting with Tsar Alexander, whom he met in 1814 and who had a very similar vision of pan-European unity under the one Christian God, have influenced him? Perhaps; and it is indeed intriguing that Beethoven’s encounter with the Tsar, and his relationship with his devoted Russian patrons (Count Razumovsky and Prince Nikolai Golitsyn), took place at this time.

     It was a unique and decisive moment in European history, when the Orthodox East stretched out its hand to the Catholic/Protestant West, and the White Tsar entered Berlin and Vienna - and even godless Paris and London. But the decision went the wrong way: intrigued, and briefly grateful to their “barbarian” liberators, the Europeans nevertheless continued along their Faustian path. “The Gendarme of Europe” continued to defend them against the real barbarians – but, a generation later, there was none of the former curiosity or gratitude…

      As for Beethoven, increasingly isolated from society, sick, misunderstood and lonely, he entered deep within himself, producing some of the most profoundly poignant and original works of Western music. (His great contemporary, Schubert, called for Beethoven’s String Quartet in C sharp minor, opus 131, to be played at his deathbed.) Critics have called these works “mystical”, but of course there can be no true mysticism where there is not the mystery of the true faith and the True Church. Nevertheless, we may be confident that Beethoven rejected the path of Faustian man; for his heart thirsted, not for the ephemeral goals of the Faustian dream, but for the living God…


January 20 / February 2, 2018.


[1] Barzun, op. cit., pp. 473-474.

[2] Zamoyski, Holy Madness: Romantics, Patriots and Revolutionaries, 1776-1871, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999, op. cit., p. 255.


[4] Robertson, Goethe: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2016, pp. 81-82.


[6] Robertson, op. cit., pp. 105-106.

[7] Proffer, “Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita: Genre and Motif”, in Laura Weeks (ed.), The Master and Margarita: A Critical Companion, Northwestern University Press, 1996, pp. 106-107.


[9] Robertson, op. cit., pp. 29-30.


[11] Robertson, op. cit., pp. 98-98.

[12] Sachs, The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1924, London: Faber & Faber, 2010, pp. 46-47.

[13] Sachs, op. cit., p. 131.

[14] The use of this “old-fashioned” stylistic form is characteristic of Beethoven’s late works, as in the “Hammerclavier” piano sonata or the Grosse Fuge for strings.

[15] If for Goethe sin was not natural and inevitable, and therefore not really sinful, Beethoven was quite different. For, as we see in his life from the Early and Middle Periods, and in his music in his Late Period there was something down-to-earth and moralistic in Beethoven that resisted the raptures of Romanticism, even while they drew a chord in his heart. Thus his struggle to obtain the wardship of his nephew Karl because of the immoral behaviour of Karl’s mother was a struggle that lasted many years and cost him a great deal both financially and emotionally. Again, he was appalled by the popularity of the “frivolous” Rossini’s operas; for him, music was too intensely serious and important to be used in such a way – the later Romantic attitude of “art for art’s sake” was profoundly foreign to him. Again, his only venture into opera scrupulously avoided the sensuality and illicit love of almost all great operas from Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppaea to Mozart’s Don Giovanni, from Verdi’s La Traviata to Puccini’s La Bohème, being a hymn to marital fidelity.

[16] Sachs, op. cit., pp. 158, 159.

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