- Beethoven & Freedom by Daniel K L Chua
Ludwig van Beethoven was the first independent musical artist, beholden to neither church (like his idol, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart) nor state (like his teacher, Joseph Haydn). He liberated music from the formal, generic, and aesthetic constraints of the late eighteenth century, and in doing so set the nineteenth century on a path of extraordinary, albeit often controversial, musical change. An unbroken string of personal hardships—an abusive father, several thwarted loves, and an ill-fated attempt at brokering a family through guardianship of his nephew—punctuated a biography set against the political upheavals of the French Revolution, Napoleon I, and Clemens Wenzel Lothar Metternich's Vienna. Yet he persevered, even turning—as Richard Wagner famously argued in 1870—his debilitating deafness into a compositional asset. Indeed, Beethoven's life and work seem to return repeatedly to the idea of freedom, be it from tyranny, convention, or creative and physical barriers. In fact, his enduring position as classical music's most visible figure may well come from his ostensible ability to embody freedom in all its philosophical and practical complexities.
Rather than shy away from such complexities, Daniel K L Chua addresses [End Page 122] them head on in Beethoven & Freedom. Over the course of four chapters—or, technically, an introduction and three "movements"—Chua processes an enormous collection of philosophical tracts through some of Beethoven's most liberating music, especially the "Eroica," Fifth, and Ninth symphonies, Fidelio, the Missa solemnis, and selected piano sonatas of the middle and especially late style periods. In "plotting … coordinates between sound and thought" (p. 4), Chua is less interested in providing comprehensive, definitive insights into these works than he is in exposing holes in Beethovenian mythologies, picking away at—and in some cases, resuscitating—analytical, philosophical, and historiographical systems that have developed or derailed since the late eighteenth century and generally exploding inherited binaries into scattered fragments whose directions he sometimes pursues rigorously, other times insouciantly or even not at all. In short, his is a methodology where "history and philosophy must be held in tension in order to reflect the complexity of both the Enlightenment in its many local manifestations and its development over the course of two hundred years" (p. 190n4).
In this regard, Chua's most direct philosophical muse is Theodor W. Adorno, whose lifelong engagement with Beethoven was most compellingly chronicled in a set of sketches that he began soon after his immigration to the United States in 1938, left unfinished at his death in 1969, and which were finally collected, edited, and released by Rolf Tiedemann in 1993 as Beethoven: Philosophie der Musik; Fragmente und Texte (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1993; see Edmund Jephcott's excellent English translation as Beethoven: The Philosophy of Music; Fragments and Texts [Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998]). Chua does not review details of Adorno's practices or summarize seminal texts in the introduction but rather only explains how Adorno serves as methodological model of ongoing "movement of thought that enables the motifs of freedom to connect in unexpected ways" (p. 9). Thus, readers looking for a clear introduction to Adorno's ideas and approaches may wish to consult Michael Spitzer's Music as Philosophy: Adorno and Beethoven's Late Style (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006); more specifically, Naomi Waltham-Smith's "Adorno's Augenblick and the Ethics of Late Beethoven" (PhD diss., King's College, London, 2009) is invaluable in parsing Adorno's Augenblick (roughly translates as "instant" or "moment"), a concept to which Chua repeatedly returns.
The first movement of Beethoven & Freedom, entitled "Nothing—Presto—più forte," focuses on absolute music, whose claim of referential purity suggests a music of ultimate freedom that opera, program, and other kinds of "relative" (p. 196) music can never attain. Characteristic of most of this book's case studies, Chua begins obliquely, with an extended discussion of Beethoven's Choral Fantasy, op. 80. A texted work, the Choral Fantasy fails...