Beethoven's Music: The Link between the Individual and Universal

By Gelat, Frank | The Beethoven Journal, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

Beethoven's Music: The Link between the Individual and Universal


Gelat, Frank, The Beethoven Journal


I. Introduction

We call hermits saints and worldly people sinners. But what about those who dwell alone in the middle of the world? What about those who work among their fellow human beings, but who are lonely giants in their silence? Beethoven was one such giant. An element is found in his music that separates him from others in his arena. His music - composed from the inside out - reaches deeply into that human experience which is at once individual and universal. The thread that ties Beethoven's music to its audience is rooted in mythology; specifically, it is the hero's journey. It is reflected in almost every dimension of Beethoven's life.1

Already during his own lifetime, Beethoven began to be associated with the heroic. Symphonies such as his Eroica and Fifth ("Fate") helped to frame his image as a heroic composer. As can be seen in his music for the mythological ballet The Creatures of Prometheus, Beethoven himself was explicitly interested in those myths involving heroes. Over the past two centuries many critics and scholars have written about Beethoven's heroic character and likened him to a warrior who defied all odds to save something that is honorable or morally valuable in the eyes of society. The image is associated more with a physical and worldly aspect rather than an intimate and spiritual one. One recent study, Scott Burnham's Beethoven Hero, discusses primarily the public rather than the private heroism of Beethoven.

My discussion here involves the manner in which the myth of the hero's journey permeated Beethoven's life and his music on a personal and intimate level. I will argue that Beethoven's worldly view was a remnant of his intimate musical journey. Following a discussion of the mythical hero's journey, I will relate it to Beethoven's biography and music through sonata form. I will also look at how critics have perceived his music and show how their criticism supports the hero myth in Beethoven. Finally, I will briefly discuss some of the highlights in three fortepiano sonatas, one from each period in the standard division of his music, and relate them to the idea of the hero's journey. My aim is not to address any external programmatic tendencies in his music that narrate the hero's journey, but to show the way in which the myth permeates the life of Beethoven and the construction of his music from within, as inherent in the process.

II. The Hero's Journey and Beethoven

In his survey of world religions and mythologies, Joseph Campbell found that the hero's journey was a common theme in all of them. Campbell describes this journey as follows: "The hero adventures out of the land we know into darkness; there he accomplishes his adventure, or again is simply lost to us, imprisoned, or in danger; and his return is described as coming back out of that yonder zone. Nevertheless - and here is a great key to the understanding of myth and symbol - the two kingdoms are actually one. The realm of the gods is a forgotten dimension of the world we know. And the exploration of that dimension, either willingly or unwillingly, is the whole sense of the deed of the hero."2 The hero then is someone who has metaphorically left the world we know to discover or chart a new world or vision and to bring this vision back into the existing world. Nothing external has changed; the accent is rather on internal reformation. It is important to see how closely Beethoven's contributions to the world of music are affirmed in Campbell's conclusion that the hero "reinterprets the tradition and makes it valid as a living experience today instead of a lot of outdated clichés."3

In his article "Myth and Music," Eero Tarasti analyzes the links between myth and music. Both are fluid languages involving signs and symbols that work on local and universal levels; both are open to interpretation. Tarasti notes that "just as mythical thinking, despite considerable differences due to time and place, is manifested in similar and contrary myths which allow a return to the same paradigm, similarly certain structural equivalences in music could be observed as it were across the boundaries of musical tradition and style. …

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