Beethoven can give us tools to criticise late capitalism

World View: Composer’s values can help us to act to change a dissociated world

“These [French revolutionary] composers have a kind of godparental relationship to Beethoven’s symphonies.”

So says the conductor John Eliot Gardiner about Beethoven's anniversary – he was born 250 years ago this week. Gardiner's Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique has reinterpreted Beethoven's symphonies in the conviction that the orchestra's period instruments provide "greater individuality of timbre, more transparency of texture and an increased dynamism once all the instruments are stretched to their absolute maximum capacity of volume and expressivity".

The resulting sense of contemporaneity is amplified by Gardiner's belief that, for example, in his Fifth Symphony in 1808 Beethoven is quoting from the French composer Cherubini's Hymne du Panthéon, with its subversive message: "We swear, sword in hand, to die for the republic and for human rights." Expressed musically in conservative and aristocratic Vienna, the message would be decoded ambivalently, since nobody could accuse him of subversion.

As Gardiner says: “It’s similar to Shostakovich writing during the time of Stalin.” That point is in turn amplified from those particular historical contexts by Stravinsky’s observation that the extraordinary Grand Fugue from Beethoven’s late string quartet Opus 130 (1826) is “an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever”.


Beethoven waited eagerly in a nearby tavern to hear news of how the quartet was received by its first audience. Told the fugue was regarded as “incomprehensible” and did not go very well, he replied: “It will please them some day.” He wrote as he thought fit and was not led astray by the judgments of his contemporaries: “I know; I am a musician.” Asked how he thought Opus 130 compared to his other remarkable late quartets, Beethoven said: “Each in its own way. Art demands of us that we shall not stand still.”

Political interpretation

These views on Beethoven and his own remarks bear out the universal appeal of his work and raise the question of how it can be interpreted sociologically and politically as well as musically. There is a huge span of development across his compositions from the 1790s to the 1820s and an immense diversity of form and style, covering instruments and voices and ranging from the popular and established to the arcane.

Beethoven steadfastly and proudly upheld the values of individualism and a career open to talent over aristocratic hierarchies and inherited castes and class. He had to rely on patronage in Vienna but strove to escape from that aesthetic cocoon. He asserted his own artistic creativity by a continuing revolutionary innovation in received musical forms, whether for the piano and string quartets or in orchestral composition.

Adorno says Beethoven criticises his own works in the name of deeper values

The sweeping changes in revolutionary France were part and parcel of that artistic achievement. The transformations of the time echo through the symphonies, including his disenchantment with Napoleon as emperor of Europe and conqueror of Spain. In that sense Beethoven not only represented but also shaped them. As the German Marxist critic Theodor Adorno put it, "the din of the bourgeois revolution rumbles in Beethoven".

Adorno’s lifelong preoccupation with the composer is powerfully expressed in his posthumous notebooks Beethoven: The Philosophy of Music. Here he struggled to understand how music relates to society.

He defined music as a non-conceptual, non-discursive language which "re-presents" the social world outside it, as Martin Jay, Adorno's biographer, says. That goes beyond simple mirroring to transcending existing realities.

Late style

Adorno developed an account of Beethoven’s late style, based on the complex work for piano, string quartets, orchestra and voices in the last years of his life from 1818 to 1827. Invoking Goethe’s observation that ageing is a gradual receding or stepping back from appearances, Adorno says Beethoven criticises his own works in the classic tradition of Mozart and Haydn in the name of deeper values. In the later work “there is a tendency towards dissociation, decay, dissolution”, but also a counterposing of early and late styles.

Arguably that is one of the fundamental reasons for Beethoven’s enduring and universal appeal. That critical spirit yields hope as well as despair and hope in despair, exemplified in the Ninth Symphony and the final string quartet, Opus 135.

These values can help us interpret, criticise and act to change a world in which humanity and nature are increasingly dissociated by a late capitalism addicted to relentless economic growth and environmental destruction. Just before his death Beethoven received a delivery of his favourite Rhineland wine. “It’s a pity,” he said, “too late!”