Thoughts on Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and Cultural Crisis

19 Jan

Mozart’s music was the full ripeness of a Western form developed from otherworldly imaginings and dance, a remarkable fusion mellowing for a millennium. The strains and dynamism in the mystique of abstraction, the corporate fiction and imago whose emerging era of dominion was noted by Joachim de Flores (1145-1202) in the period of Western consolidation, are resolved in a synthesis of courtly high manners derived from a rural-peasant-agricultural base of dance and seasonal rhythms. The poise of this synthesis recalls Nietzsche’s writings on the “physiological basis of aesthetics” and his critique of Wagner for destroying the lyrical and bodily bases of Western music and reducing it to a cult of poses. The cult of the pose now dominates in postmodern logos and the digital ‘quick takes’ of ‘freeze frame’ screen portraits and teasers. We have devolved from dance to rigidity. Digital icons pervade postmodern society from pro-sport, sit-com and news ‘personality – intros’ to advertisements for car insurance. Wagner’s cult of the pose, of frozen emotion presented for rapture is idol worship which is postmodernism’s expressive-petrifactive mode: it is a worship of congealed power unleashed in electric spectaculars that dwarf what is human. The culture of digital poses negates expression just as the modernist ‘day’ that followed the Romantic twilight negated Romanticism and the classicism from whose ripeness it emerged. Similarly, postmodern technically synthesized persona negate character and digital ‘news’ negates history. This is a dying era of imposture, power-games and sterility. The ripeness of 1790 is now rotten, its superficial vitalism an electronic deceit. It is an era in which lying has become a universal principle (Kafka) and fiat the medium of all discourse, relations and valuations.

In Shakespeare’s sense, Mozart is the all-sufficing truth of ripeness; the terrible, wondrous and tragic beauty of consequence revealed and affirmed in joy. He or rather, he through his music understood the gracious limits of his culture as it poised on the brink of terror that “men must endure their going hence even as their coming hither: ripeness is all” (King Lear 5.2.10). In Spengler’s terms, Mozart is thoroughly “in form,” the seemingly effortless completion of a tradition based on centuries of breeding in norms fashioned out of a culture’s essence. Pathos, grace, elegance, poignancy, courtesy, delight in love and spirited exhilaration join and take turns in a dance perfectly comprehended. The soul that animates the Clarinet Concerto (K. 622) could not live in the Terror of the Commune; nor can it re-awaken under the modern Directorate.

Beethoven’s destiny was to live (1770-1827) concomitantly with the transition of the European West from a Culture to a Civilization (in Spengler’s sense) [1]. Moreover, Beethoven’s work exemplifies how an individual is a product of the culture they in turn can shape and develop by its own logic working in and through them like “the trumpet of a prophecy” (Shelley, “Ode to the West Wind” 69). His life almost perfectly matches the Romantic period. His music is titanic in the literal sense. Like the original titans, Kronos, Prometheus the emblem of Romanticism, Kottos, Briareos and Gyes (Hesiod, Theogony 207-10) the “stretchers” he “stretched [his] power outrageously” just as his era and the people in it strained as the spirit of the age shaped them into the beginnings of the modern world, a radical trans-valuation and inevitable rotting of the ripeness that immediately preceded it in “the age of sensibility and elegance.” The twenty-five years of war that defined this revolutionary age and affected its traumatized and chilled aftermath began with “Panic and Terror,” children of Ares and Kytheria (“Aphrodite,” Theogony 933-37). That is, the age began with “the Terror” of violent revolution that with remarkable symbolism followed within weeks the passing of Mozart. Like Prometheus Beethoven gave an ambiguous gift that heralded a new age of iron to the West and through the West to humankind. He and his music embody “a twilight of eternal losing and eternal extravagant hoping” (Nietzsche, Beyond Good & Evil 245). Yet as Beethoven stretched and strained the capabilities, nature and identity of orchestras, instruments (not least, voices) and music, he returned always within the musical form he inherited but that it was his doom to bring to giantism, incipient formlessness and collapse. This all was done via his and Europe’s demand for joy and liberation from the tradition no longer strong enough to fend off doubts and lethal critiques. Similarly, Nietzsche eventually understood that the Dionysian and aesthetic perfection of ancient Hellas were rooted in a terrified and terrifying “demand for beauty” (preface to the 1886 2nd edition of The Birth of Tragedy) rooted “in deprviation, melancholy and pain.” The Greek sources show the kinship of Eros, joy and horror; of jagged tearing dissonance, like war, and harmony: they show the tragic harmony of passionate self-destrution (e.g. the tragic tetrad of Herakles, Dejaneira, Nessus and Aphrodite in Sophocles’ The Women of Trachis). With Romanticism, Europe experienced one of its accelerating series of resurgence of Hellenic cultural material and entered a grim darkening decline into regimentation. The beautiful order of its aesthetics was transfigured into the totalitarian mangerial order of bureaucracies expanding to global scope, reducing and crushing the human. Enlightenment reduces all things to abstractions and reduces all social relationships, from justice to love, to “commodity exchange” (Adorno, Dialectic of Englightenment). This reduction inheres in the coercive power of the manipulated collective like that to which Schiller seductively appeals and moves…

Aphrodite also bore to Ares Harmonia, a remarkable prolepsis and testament to the degree to which Europe is an idea (“ficta et picta” Nietzsche wrote), an extrapolation of Hellenic myth that like the Titans in time overpowers the Hebraic roots that held forged the West in an audacious and utterly, ultimately unstable and tragic hybrid: the last gift of the Greeks. The Romantic exaltation of the primal, primitive and rural, of Nature and the female redeemer (“Asia” in Shelley’s epic, her name derived, as he probably knew, from isha, “woman”) accompanied its vast idealizations and testify to the resurgence of primal Hellenic material that conjoins sensuality, eros, terror and violence. The menace and primal formlessness of Dionysian joy is in the 9th, especially the cosmic organization that heaves itself into coherence in the chorale. Its mix of unconscious rapture and latent inhumanity also was the climactic message of von Kleist’s remarkable essay “on the Marionette Theater” (1810). The fulfillment of rapture-joy, of animal grace in unconsciousness, his narrator remarks, will mark “the end of the history of the world.” This apocalypse tending toward civilizational elegy is embodied in the last play of the classical stage: The Bacchae of Euripides. It remains the model for our times and the Terror of the French Revolution (1792-4) announced its socio-political form. It survived, rationalized and inexorable in welfare-State bureaucracies and the hyper-calculating utilitarian reason of their therapeutic apologetics.

Enormous discomfort and growing pains, enormous rage and “stretching” titanic energies characterize the music of Beethoven. The “death pounding on the door” motif in the 5th symphony is among the epitomes of the genius he carried and expressed, inseminating the new era that had to have it and had brought him forth to seed it. The infinite searching and sehnsucht of the variations reveals the essence of the West’s hybrid and confused identity whose need for belated resolution the Romantic period announced. The intense, the compulsive drive for idealization and idealized identity inherent in the West emerged as definitive in the medieval Romances whose latent individual potencies, whose questing became the mode of the twilight period, the ending of a long day and beginning of a long last night to which they gave their name. The Romantic period (Beethoven’s life almost perfectly aligns with that of William Blake, the first born of the major Romantic artist – visionaries, 1757-1827) brought a purposeful focus to idealization and its antithesis for the West was straining to free itself from the unsustainable conscious-emotional demands of the dying ejaculate of late Classical Civilization: the cult of Jesus which inevitably revealed itself as a cult of abstraction and corporate fiction, the personae or masks of the trinity. These were resurgent in another seminal Romantic’s psycho-political revolution, Rousseau’s dogma of the “General Will” (The Social Contract, vi-vii). As with the writings, theories of education and society and the life of Rousseau in general, the music of Beethoven bears immense sorrow and sense of personal dislocation; and it makes immense demands for sympathy on its listeners (readers) to orchestrate its fulfillment. It begs, it rages for fulfillment of these demands, for understanding for the new language of the self it must speak, for a clarified identity. In exchange it promises a unique and liberating joy via expansiveness of expression. It is the Faustian soul screaming in the eloquent forms of the Culture that brought it to birth for release from the contradictions in its nature but, inevitably, seeking for this freedom and love by the means of imagination and representation, precisely the magic that constituted its unstable nature and compulsion to finesse this instability by elegant games of power and control. Symphony means “sounding together” or “sound together” and the autocratic end stage of Caesarism resides within its command to communal, it would say, universal joy, — except for those who, lonely and needing love most, must “slink unhappily away” from Europe’s anthem to its hegemony cloaked in seductive universalism.

The conception and formulation of this symphony occupied Beethoven for decades (Schiller’s sister noted it in a 1793 letter); thus its genesis is coincident with the core of the Romantic period. So too, its distinguishing feature and source of its working title alludes to an explicit return of Hellenic qualities (just as Shelley in more erudite, literary ways championed throughout his life and embedded at the center of his “Defence of Poetry” 1821). Beethoven told a music critic in 1822 (the year that Shelley drowned and was cremated on the sands of Italy in the form of a pagan rite dictated by incipient modern strictures of hygiene) that

“Vocal parts would enter gradually – in the text of the Adagio Greek Myth, Cantique Ecclesiastique – in Allegro, feast of Bacchus.” (Life of Beethoven, Alexander Thayer, Plantiga) *

This great work highlights not only the spirit of an age of transformation into another age, an era of intense identity questioning, examination, doubt and hysteria (“The Pains of Sleep,” Coleridge 1803; “Christabel” 1797-1803, its publication, like “Dover Beach” delayed more than a decade by the author’s discomfort with his work) but the beginning of triumphant and increasingly explicit regression in Western representations. The cult of progress is profoundly regressive and traumatic as works like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness show. Indeed, as I’ve written, this penultimate and ultimate (postmodernism) stage of Western devolution is, like image-work itself, inherently traumatic. Beethoven began writing the work in 1818-19, the year the Shelley’s moved to the continent to stay and that Shelley began writing Prometheus Unbound his epic “lyrical drama” of a world restored by joy and in harmony. Those years he also wrote the multi-leveled query on his identity, personal, social and literary hopes in “Julian & Maddalo.”

The Ninth Symphony and especially in its definitive movement whose chorale was the source of the idea for the work, a work conceived in the year of maximal terror (1793). “Symphony with Final Chorus on Schiller’s ‘Ode to Joy’” was Beethoven’s working title for this magisterial work of demonic pathos and crushingly exultant release debuted in 1824 the year that Byron died of fever in Missolonghi in the Peloponnese while helping organize the Greek war for independence from the Turks, a mission to which he was all but shamed by the example and enthusiastic works (that mixed praxis and poetics, The Liberator, intended as a quarterly, and poetic, Hellas) and two years after Shelley drowned in a storm after negotiating the introduction of Leigh Hunt and Byron so that the political-literary projects could begin and proceed. The eloquence, urbanity and far-reaching social idealism of Shelley, or the dry wit and proud despair of Byron, much less the resigned sensuality and yearning of Keats for a quiet satisfaction and morsel of joy in Beethoven becomes a stampeding chorus as dogmatic as it is exhilarating. One cannot but thrill to its magnificence of harmonies, of the interplay of individual and choral voices, to its soaring cadences; and unless one identifies totally with its spirit and the alternately universal and elitist dictates of Schiller’s verses, one can hardly leave unterrified. ‘Accept it, accept us, join us or be crushed’ the music and the ode declares in its oceanic rhetoric and harmonic sweep. This is not Coleridge (1772-1834) or Shelley; in the 9th, the essence and climax of Beethoven in his social orientation, joy is not a hope, plea or an ideal of social reorganization or private inspiration directed toward teaching (“Frost at Midnight”) but a demand that threatens in its Dionysian exhilaration. The maenads and the Nazis and the endless contrived attrition, the “formless wars of the era of world peace” (Spengler), that is, the wars of the “socialist world collective” (H.G. Wells), the “war of terror” of our days explode in the barely contained delirium of this Symphony, the ne plus ultra of a Europe that was “in form.” The Symphony with Final Chorus on Schiller’s ‘Ode to Joy’” like Beethoven’s oeuvre as a whole announces the shattering and bursting decay of a Culture and the birth of the modern age first identified by Matthew Arnold as “this strange disease of modern life” (“The Scholar Gypsy” 1853). Its strains, the conflict between the surface glamour and the undertone of grief, loss and horror is even more explicit in “Dover Beach” (1851), a marital poem that announces the loneliness of the couple and individual, the onset of ‘gender war’ and the end of all certainties. The diverse civilizational apocalypses of Tennyson (Idylls of the King) and Wagner (Ring of the Nibelung or Ring Cycle) composed in the quarter century following Arnold’s prescient work, like Mozart and Beethoven an expression of a new and transformational historic age and stage drive home the dual elegiac despair and cultic rhapsodies (Wagner’s paean to the dawning “Age of Aquarius,” of the woman and ‘peace’ akin to theosophy’s Isis Unveiled). A culture of image work, of magike tekne, imago-shades and imagination, at last, of the mediated cult of the spectacle in which virtual reality displaces life is the core of the West and plays out its dynamic trajectory from idyll-idealization, to the apocalyptic displacement of the generative host by the image or fiction; to the final highly ordered, rigidifying, formal spectacles of nostalgia and envy of the therapeutic State that is the social form of our days, the era of fiat, impossibly leveraged derivatives of identity and value in all fields.

It is a profound irony that goes to the core of Western identity that the thundering desire of the chorale, the key that can sustain Joy is to find “a loving father above the stars.” “Surely there dwells a loving Father above the stars” Schiller writes: “World, do you know your Creator? Seek Him in the heavens!” Here he articulates not just the key Romantic mix of hope and doubt but posits it in the Jewish conception of the Eternal One as Av HaRachaman, “The Father of Mercy” (c.f. Exodus 34:5-7 for His ‘thirteen names of Mercy’) above the stars and all representation. The Creator who negates the coercive impulse of a manipulated collective and its idols becomes the goal of a mobilized collective. All the inner contradictions are in this magnificent work as in Romanticism itself, the epitome of Western twilight. And then Europe rushed to the climax of its primordial project of destroying and displacing the people to whom it looked for an answer to Classical inability to cohere and its embedded hostility and fear between father and son as shown in the theogony and ur-myths like Oedipus. I have treated this topic extensively elsewhere; it goes to the essence of Western dynamism, despair and self-destruction which also finds an epitome in the obsessive envy and compulsive manipulations of Melville’s John Claggart (“Billy Budd, Sailor”).

The West has no future. Its climax is centered on the grand crowning fiction of a “European Union” almost as impossible a conceit as “the world community” that is the fig leaf for its power games and compulsive manipulations and excoriating of all valuations, replacing them with the principle and practice of fiat. This is the frenzied spectacle of coercive joy as organized by “collective solutions for international governance” that declares itself in the power and pain, the “stretching” and enormous panting resolution of the magnificent and terrifying 9th Symphony. It heralded and heralds the “stage the follows history” into which the enlightened of today are pushing the world and the human. As Adorno wrote, “the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity” [3] and we live in the era of triumphant fictions when the concealed goals of an oligarchic shadow State make “lying [is] a universal principle” (Kafka, The Trial, chapter 9); the period when “the past is erased; the erasure forgotten and the lie becomes truth” (Orwell, 1984 chapter 7). Beethoven would be horrified by the terror and tyranny of it but it was announced in his Symphony on triumphant joy.

To return to the broad sweep of cultural-civilizational dynamics with which this essay began: the relentlessly coercive digitalized exhortations to commoditized fulfillment that are the stape of ‘screen-world’ derive from Schiller-Beethoven’s organization of rapturous collective fraternity. The “stylized barbarism” and relentless, stunning ubiquity of postmodern culturetainment from news to sports is rooted in the straining “demand for beauty” and joy of the Greeks, of this Ode and its magnificent symphonic setting by the master through whom the European twilight appeared first. The strictures on joy aniticipate the flogging of “quality,” ‘happiness’ and ‘fulfillment’ (as in ‘fulfillment centers’) by which “any traces of spontaneity” and genuine joy are “steered and absorbed…into sponsored events of every kind,” that is, into centrally approved spending [4]. The fact that these forms degrade and stupefy the participants serves the masters of “the culture industry” who cooly seek to manage herds. No participation in public rapture for them. The have “satanically rendered obselete… all distinctions between genuine and artificial” in an “impoverishment of aesthetic material” that fulfills the degeneracy implicit in Wagnerian total art works [5]. Nothing is permitted to exist outside the circle of an industry whose “routines” are presented as the nature they travesty [6]. This is the imprisoning global colisseum of culturetainment whose early forms Adorno termed “the culture industry.” Beethoven’s life and within it, his magnum opus marks the fulcrum at which Western Culture became “the great petrifact” Civilization. The demands and pitiless exclusiveness for the sufferer (“whoever is lonely must creep away from our circle”) typify this elegiac era when, increasingly, whatever is not mandatory is forbidden.

1. Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West (1910-21; 1962 English edition by Alan Helps arranged from the one-volume German edition of Helmut Werner translated by Charles F. Atkinson), 24-33; 375-413

3. Theodor Adorno & Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944; Stanford University 2002, Jephcott translation), preface and 1-3

2. This quote is embedded in a fine article by Bonnie Koo, 1997. I found it while writing this essay at

4. Adorno op cit, 97-106, “Enlightenment as Mass Deception”

5. ibid

6. ibid


One Response to “Thoughts on Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and Cultural Crisis”

  1. Matthew Morgan March 1, 2013 at 9:32 am #

    An awesome piece, I really enjoyed reading it. I haven’t read your blog before, but, like the eagle gutsing himself on Prometheus’ liver, I shall be back for more!

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