Beethoven, Spirituality, and Spiritualism in 20th-Century England and America

Article excerpt

I. Introduction

Thanks to the work especially of the American nanscendentalist John S. Dwight, a Beethoven performance in nineteenth-century America was more than a mere musical event, becoming a sacralized. uplifting experience, a moment not only of transcendence but of communion with the Almighty himself. Beyond sacralization, the only step left for Beethoven was deification, and by the early twentieth century he was viewed in both Europe and America as, if not a god, at least a pure, moral being somewhere above the world that normal men inhabit. In 1925 Eugen D'Albert eulogized Beethoven:

Unassailable, spotless, immeasurably strong in the depths of his spirit, he stands alone. In his unfathomableness and sublimity he is like the ocean. See it well forth from its deepest depths, breaking into foam and calling with a voice of thunder; then, soft and gay as a little child, smoothing itself out before our delighted eyes. Such was Beethoven's elemental nature, such his pure and beautiful soul."1

In Germany, sculptor Max Winger draped Beethoven in a Roman toga and created a Beethoven-as-Zeus sitting majestically on a throne. In France, José de Charmoy designed a Beethoven monument that portrayed the composer with a bare, muscular torso and an idealized head looking down at humanity from atop a giant pedestal that resembled more a Greek god than a nineteenth-century musician. Such images in general might not sit well in a democratic American society, but would they be unacceptable as a statement about Beethoven?

The French sculptor Emile-Antoine Bourdelle cast several large bronze heads of Beethoven that similarly glorified him, one of which the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York acquired in 192.7. In their bulletin the curators proudly described their purchase: Beethoven was a great man "sufiaring, silent, grim» detemiined," the head, "majestically, broodingly embryonic . . . there is in this head something of the abbozzo [rough sketch], of the ideal unattained, of incompletlon confronted with human frailty." At the base of the sculpture Bourdelle had inscribed, "Moi je suis Bacchus qui pressure pour les hommes le nectar delicieux" ("I am Bacchus who presses for men the delicious nectar"). There is little question what the museum thought of this depiction: they placed the sculpture at the top of the main stairway of the museum.

It is no coincidence that the piece was acquired and exhibited in 1 927, for this was the centennial of Beethoven's death, accompanied by commemorative events throughout the Western world. In the United States, Columbia Records spearheaded the efforts, recruiting a committee chaired by George Eastman that included, as the label bragged, "twenty-two college Presidents and educators." The committee was in close contact with and undoubtedly took ideas from the Beethoven Committee of Vienna, which had been assembled for the same purpose.

The American committee made elaborate plans to celebrate Beethoven throughout the week of March 20-26 (Beethoven died on March 26) in 500 cities in the U.S., with performances, tributes, lectures, a commemorative essay by Daniel Gregory Mason distributed nationwide, and a sermon on "the religious aspects of Beethoven's music. "Activities in Boston and New York exemplified what occurred in most metropolitan centers. In Boston, Serge Koussevirzky served up a seven-concert feast that included all nine symphonies, the Missa solemnis, as well as assorted string quartets, fortepiano sonatas, and other chamber music Walter Damrosch, conductor of the New York Symphony Orchestra, appeared as pianist with the violinist Harold Bauer to premiere a piano-violin arrangement of the Grosse Fuge. Damrosch also conducted two performances of the Ninth Symphony.

Olin Downes, music critic for the New York Times, attempted to put Beethoven in historical perspective, only to succeed in placing him beyond history. Acknowledging rhe different schools of composition that existed in 1927 (the Classic, the Romantic, and the "vaguely term [ed] 'moderns' or 'ultra-moderns'"), Downes found Beethoven outside them all: "He stands alone, four-square to the universe, beyond either rime or classification. …