Academic journal article The Beethoven Journal

Graecophile Beethoven: On His Interest in Greek Lyric Poetry

Academic journal article The Beethoven Journal

Graecophile Beethoven: On His Interest in Greek Lyric Poetry

Article excerpt

I. Introduction

"What has become of the intense veneration by the cultivated world for classical antiquity, some twenty years ago?"1

This was lamented in the 1830s by accomplished writer Caroline Pichler, Beethovens fellow citizen in Vienna. Times had changed, she mused. Gone were the days when the classics had been universally admired. When glorious actions and splendid virtues of Greco-Roman heroes had been conceived as the highest standards of behavior, perfect models for the young to develop character and personality. When ancient wisdom had permeated philosophical thinking. When in the visual arts time-honored principles of proportion and symmetry-together with the notion of noble simplicity and quiet grandeur-drawn from classical statues, frescoes, reliefs, and monuments of staggering workmanship and technique had been paradigmatic. And when poets and writers like Schiller, Goethe, Wieland, and Voss had proclaimed Germany's new literal ambitions by declaring the nation a second Hellas, comparable to the conception of the Romans in France.

The heyday of German Graecomanie had coincided with the Napoleonic wars. It peaked around the time of Goethe's famous 1805 eulogy on Johann Joachim Winckelmann, the founder of eighteenth-century German Hellenism. In a hyperclassical mood, Goethe had lauded the Greeks as a thoroughly healthy, noble, and exemplary people. As Homo sapiens in its purest state, ethically and aesthetically unsurpassed-godlike, as his friend Schiller had poetized in Die Götter Griechenlands}

Nonetheless, changes were in the air. Already in 1810, when Wilhelm von Humbold in Berlin boldly formulated a university curriculum on knowledge of the ancients, tentative reactions prefigured a shift of climate. With the Vienna Congress as a turning point, massive political, social, and cultural changes refashioned Europe. A complex interaction between reactionary politics, bourgeois-conservatism, Christian ethics and skepticism regarding republicanism, classic-humanist values and a pagan lifestyle, fundamentally challenged the distinctive Greek naive attitude towards reality, losing ground to romantic conceptions of otherworldliness and mysticism. In the visual arts the true-to-life ideal, realized by straightforward craftsmanship, was thrown into crisis. Universality, grandeur, and heroism, propagated by antique art and literature, lost their appeal to a newpost-Enlightenment generation. In intellectual circles, the political forces establishing and manipulating the shifting mindsets were metaphorized as an ominous "Finsternis" (darkness). Cries of indignation were expressed in Beethovens conversation books.1

II. Beethoven's Readings on Antiquity

Pichlers sigh could have come from the aging Beethoven. As with many intellectuals of his day, Beethoven felt a deep affinity with what he proudly called the "venerable intellectual treasures of the Romans and the Greeks" (herrlichen Geistesschätzen der Römer u. Griechen).4 This was no hollow phrase. His abiding interest in these treasures of the mind as spiritual nourishment is amply documented by letters, conversation books, first-person remembrances, the Tagebuch, and other primary sources.5 Antiquity was close to his heart.

Beethoven fervently read his Homer, the bible of the classics-his personal copy of the Odyssey shows many doodles and underlinings.6 He was familiar with Plutarch's Lives and he often quoted from them, sometimes even when in a rage.7 He claimed to have read Euripides' tragedies, probably also those by Sophocles and Aeschylus (although this cannot be proven).8 He ordered the Annals and Histories by Tacitus for summer reading while in the country.9 In his Nachlass were Ciceros EpistoLie.111 Memoranda in the conversation books attest that he regularly contemplated purchasing other books by ancient writers. Among these were the Meditations by the stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius, Institutes of Oratory by Quintilian, Memorabilia by the Greek general Xenophon, the poetry or Horace, and Description of Greece by Pausanias. …

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