Beethoven and the Sound of Revolution in Vienna, 1792-1814

Rhys Jones. The Historical Journal. Volume 57, Issue 4. December 2014.

Upon his arrival in Vienna in 1792, Beethoven confessed to have contracted a ‘revolutionary fever.’ The symptoms, as he later explained in the Stammbuch of Theodora Johanna Vocke, included: ‘To do good whenever you can; love liberty above all else, [and] not to deny the truth, even before the throne.’ In a language reminiscent of the French First Republic, Beethoven had boldly aligned his political credentials—and his compositional voice—with the revolutionary atmosphere of the age. Yet this image of the composer as street-fighting sans-culotte has not persisted. By 1814, scholars have instead found Beethoven sat before his piano, becoming ever deafer and politically distant, cautiously counting his coffee beans and fulminating against the absence of political ‘stability.’ In recent historiography, this erstwhile ‘revolutionary fever’ has given way to accusations of a creeping conservatism, if not outright collaboration. It is alleged that the music, far from rallying revolutionary sentiment, rings with the sound of reaction. This article argues the contrary: it suggests that, despite the politically muted outcome of this music in Vienna, the sonic and rhetorical properties of the French Revolution were absolutely central to the Beethovenian sound world.

The deterioration of Beethoven-as-revolutionary began with his Romantic reinvention during the nineteenth century. The author E. T. A. Hoffmann, in his landmark analysis of the Fifth Symphony, Op.67, declared that Beethoven’s true artistic achievement had been the revelation of ‘an unknown realm, a world quite separate from the outer sensual world surrounding him, a world in which he leaves behind all precise feelings in order to embrace an inexpressible longing.’ This abstract assessment did not remove Beethoven from the political fray, of course, it simply made his musical legacy susceptible to reappropriation. As such, Beethoven spent much of the subsequent century being enlisted to a variety of contradictory purposes. According to the political theorist Carl Schmitt, the politics of the revolutionary and the reactionary were, in the Romantic context, essentially interchangeable: the Kaiser was ‘no less occasional’ than Robespierre as a font of artistic inspiration. The source of this political slipperiness was the belief that ‘every political activity’ (from revolution to restoration) conflicted ‘with the essentially aesthetic nature of the romantic,’ meaning that subjective experience and artistic imagination were, for the Romantic individual, simply ‘dissolved into an interesting ambiguity.’ The culmination of this aesthetic apoliticism was simple prostration: an unconscious submission ‘to the strongest and most proximate power.’ Political Romanticism was thus the terminus point of conscious political activity.

Unlike Hector Berlioz—who, in between composing his fourth Prix de Paris cantata, regularly rushed to the barricades in 1830, ‘pistol in hand’—or Giuseppe Verdi—who inaugurated the Roman Republic of 1849 by conducting the premiere of his operatic ode to Italy, La battaglia di Legnano—Beethoven’s revolutionary tendencies were strictly superficial (if they existed at all). When Beethoven did care to behave politically, the outcome was scarcely subversive: witness the tub-thumping overture and cronyistic cantata composed in honour of the recrudescent kings at the Congress of Vienna. In citing these works—Wellingtons Sieg oder die Schlacht bei Vittoria, Op.91 and Der glorreiche Augenblick, Op.136, amongst others—Nicholas Mathew has located the composer’s political voice with the line of least resistance: ‘Beethoven was always in some sense a collaborator.’ Stephen Rumph, meanwhile, has recast Beethoven’s late style as an active embrace of counter-revolution, anti-Enlightenment mysticism, and medieval nostalgia, situating the music in an historical and philosophical trajectory much indebted to Schlegel, Novalis, and Müller. As early as 1809, writes Rumph, Beethoven was forced ‘to reconsider and temper his revolutionary enthusiasm.’ Vitally, however, both accounts have repoliticized Beethoven—Mathew, in particular, by aligning Beethoven’s authorial voice with ‘the vulgarities of politics proper,’ and by highlighting the ambiguous interaction between the composer’s canon and his ceremonial works.

But what of Beethoven before 1814? Whereas the Romantic critique actively sought to place the composer outside the stream of ordinary time, and the modernist revision of this view attempted to locate the music in a pre-revolutionary universe of enlightened classicism, this article instead argues that Beethoven was a man of the tumultuous moment. In its conception and reception, his music was framed by the revolutionary backdrop of the era—and specifically by the musical legacy of the French Revolution. Even the Kaiser was conscious of the fact. According to the recollections of the composer Karl Holz, ‘Kaiser Franz wollte von Beethovens Musik nichts wissen,’ reportedly telling the court: “Es steckt was Revolutionäres in der Musik!” This does not mean that Beethoven was viewed as some kind of musical Marat. Rather, it suggests that the political note of the music was—unlike the claims of recent revisionism—far from a sop to the status quo. The picture is more complex than that: this article seeks to understand the rhetorical and intellectual interaction between compositional-political intent and the nature of Viennese musical reception prior to the Congress of 1814-15. It is an attempt to rediscover the revolutionary in Beethoven. Whereas others have searched his music for clues to his mind, this article seeks to explore contemporary review literature and the reported listening experiences of audiences in order to excavate the political potential of the music.

The perceived similarities between the soundscape of the French Revolution and the sound world established by Beethoven were predicated upon musical and rhetorical mimicry. Beethoven’s ‘revolutionary’ sound was derived from the forms, motifs, and rhythmic innovations of Luigi Cherubini, Étienne Méhul, and the other composer-laureates of the Revolution. It is possible, as one scholar puts it, ‘to say that Beethoven’s entire instrumental style…is a transfiguration of Cherubini’s, with its balance of structural masses, its combination of rhetorical melodic thrust with seething orchestral textures, its sharply contrasted dynamics and intense rhythmic energy.’ Viennese critical reception made the same connection. Reviews of Beethoven also developed an unusual descriptive vocabulary, one that seemed to mirror the imagery of natural violence that so coloured the rhetorical experience of the French Revolution. Volcanic eruptions were depicted as expressions of popular will; thunderstorms became emanations of revolutionary justice: for Robespierre and his acolytes, little of the destructive, terrifying capacity of nature was beyond allegorical use. This vocabulary was thus pregnant with revolutionary meaning, and the ‘volcanic’ and ‘thunderous’ aspects of perceived Beethovenian rhetoric soon became entrenched in critical discourse. The result was a compelling portrait of revolutionary politics in music. As Robin Wallace has noted in his contextual assessment of Viennese music criticism: ‘these reviews, with the exception of Hoffmann, provide no evidence that Beethoven’s contemporaries accepted the views of early Romantic philosophers.’ Instead, in seeking to comprehend these sonic effects, contemporaries reached for popular readings of sublime aesthetics, an undertaking that would itself reinforce the connections between naturalistic violence, the French Revolution, and musical rhetoric. Under the rubric of the sublime, critics and audiences appeared to experience Beethoven’s music as an emanation of terror. It was ‘oppressive,’ ‘related to pain,’ or simply ‘sublime’ – all of which pointed to a conceptual vocabulary that emanated from a ‘dialectic’ between Kantian and Burkean explorations of the beautiful and sublime. Both literally and rhetorically, then, the sound of revolution seemed to resonate in Beethoven.

The political implications of this ‘revolutionary’ sonic appeal have lost much of their prominence. Far from fomenting revolution from the orchestra pit (and unlike the Fêtes of the Revolution, which depended upon the musical evocation of political radicalism as an incitement to political action), the Viennese reaction to Beethoven’s compositional output prior to 1814 was muted. The reason, as this article suggests, is that Beethoven established a sound world that both awakened and satisfied the revolutionary energies latent in the Viennese public sphere. Through myriad compositional, instrumental and narrative devices, Beethoven’s musical mimesis not merely reinforced, but actually enacted the sort of political participation inspired by the ideological appeals of French revolutionary rhetoric. It did not spill over into the streets, but instead remained contained in the concert venue. Rallying his audience to the figurative barricades was, of course, implausible: as the writings of Schlegel and Hegel make clear, the psychological and political make-up of Vienna at this time lent itself to a merely internal indulgence in revolution. For contemporaries, that which constituted the sound of revolution—an emanation of the sublime and terrifying violence of nature, according to most Viennese music criticism—infiltrated their minds. But that is where it stayed. To comprehend properly the revolutionary sound of Beethoven’s music it is first necessary to assess its political ancestry, which is steeped in the compositional practices of the French Revolution; second, to excavate the complex relationship between Beethovenian musical rhetoric and the listening behaviour of Viennese audiences; and, finally, to decipher the political thought that underpinned it all: popular appreciations of the sublime in music.

‘Il était toujours brusque,’ complained Cherubini. Whilst Beethoven may have regarded him as the greatest composer in Europe—excluding himself, of course—the sentiment, it seems, was far from mutual. His entire manner and music, Cherubini explained to Anton Schindler in 1841, was ‘rough’ and ‘impetuous’—the overture to Leonore (1805-6), for example, was so riddled with tonal incoherence that he could scarcely ‘tell what key it was written in.’ A brief meeting in 1805 at the Viennese home of librettist Joseph Sonnleithner had left the Italian composer with a similarly surly impression of his German counterpart: ‘Un ours mal léché,’ he later told the Baron de Trémont. Despite this harassment, Beethoven’s admiration did not dissipate. In a letter to Cherubini sent as late as March 1823 he gushed: ‘I value your works above all other compositions…I too am enchanted whenever I hear of a new work composed by you, and I take as much interest in it as I do in my own works—in short I honour and love you.’ So strong was his fondness for Cherubini—the man whose music had essentially formed the soundtrack to the French Revolution—that Beethoven appears not to have been averse to occasionally appropriating his stylistic traits.

The first four notes of the Fifth Symphony do not belong to Beethoven. In reality, they possess pre-existing revolutionary credentials: the triple-note upbeat, followed by a single, pulverizing downbeat—buh-buh-buh-buh—forms the rhythmic frame of the l’hymne du Panthéon, composed by Cherubini at the height of the Terror in 1794. If Beethoven was not aware of this work—an unthinkable possibility, according to Arnold Schmitz—then the presence of the four-note rhythmic cell upon which it is structured was scarcely a rarity. This musical configuration swarmed the revolutionary soundscape: from Republican songs such as l’heureuse decade (1793) and La liberté des nègres (1794) to Méhul’s G-minor Symphony (1808) and the anthem of the Revolution itself, La Marseillaise. In fact, so ubiquitous were these four notes that they rapidly became the rhythm of the Revolution—a kind of ‘Jacobin’ leitmotif that conjured images, initially, of liberty, then, of rattling tumbrils. As we shall see, these four notes developed ‘Jacobin’ attributes not merely by association with revolutionary ceremonies and celebrations, but because they appeared to convey the rhetorical and intellectual flavour of radical French political thought. By the time Beethoven had appropriated them for his C-minor Symphony, they were thoroughly embedded in the rhetorical vocabulary of the Revolution. Hoffmann may have seen the Fifth in abstract terms—’the wonderful spirit kingdom of the infinite’—but the political provenance of the four notes that define the symphony suggests that this music, especially the incessancy of its opening motif, could easily have equated to ‘a musical translation of a revolutionary festival.’

It was the Revolution, of course, that had made music a ‘legitimate and respectable’ means of radical political expression. In the wake of 1789, Parisian mobs were fed a host of revolutionary hits—from the blood-soaked La Marseillaise to the patriotic Ça ira—that made musical dissent a regular, even commonplace, aspect of revolutionary participation. Popular tunes such as these, remarked Louis-Sebastien Mercier, were often hummed and whistled by ‘the workers of the Champ de Mars,’ and gave ‘a striking example of the power of music’ in revolutionary Paris. So pervasive and disruptive was this music that it sent Danton into despair: ‘Le Bulletin de la Convention n’est point du tout destiné à porter des vers dans la république, mais de bonnes lois rédigées en bonne prose!’

Although full-frontal in the Fifth, these four notes are absolutely everywhere in Beethoven: as an expansive, lyrical fragment in the Sixth Symphony, Op.68; as an introverted keyboard signature in the Fourth Piano Concerto, Op.58; scored throughout the Piano Sonata for Four Hands, Op.6; and in one of Beethoven’s most political works, the Egmont overture, Op.84. It is highly probable that the French revolutionary facets of this motivic configuration reached Beethoven’s attention through his close association with the radical networks of Vienna during the 1790s. Under Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, the French embassy in Vienna became a notorious rendezvous point for radicals, subversives, sympathizers—and Beethoven (whom Bernadotte regularly received for social calls). The firebrand violinist Rudolf Kreutzer was another prominent member of Bernadotte’s circle, and Beethoven’s Sonata for Piano and Violin, Op.47, which was deliberately named for him, undeniably reflects the revolutionary influences that radiated from this political retinue. The ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata was, according to one review of 1805 in the Allegemeine musikalische Zeitung, a kind of ‘Art des ästhetischen oder artistischen Terrorismus!’ Most tellingly, however, is that Bernadotte’s library—which was well known to Beethoven—included an entire shelf of volumes documenting the ceremonial music composed for the Fêtes. Could Beethoven really have taken a configuration of such suggestive revolutionary heredity, plotted it throughout much of his musical catalogue, and still have remained naïve to its potential political impact?

Of course, without Beethoven’s final word, this claim remains unprovable—but it is scarcely improbable. The clues are manifold. In a city where spies and state informers festooned every tavern and Kaffeehaus, Beethoven regularly denounced the machinations of Metternich, keeping up appearances in the clandestine ‘Josephinist’ circles that opposed the retrograde regime of Franz I. In her diary entries, Therese Countess von Brunswick recalled visits by Beethoven to her Hungarian estate in the years leading up to 1800, during which time he was initiated into ‘the circle of chosen spirits who formed our social republic.’ There, they would regularly plant trees—an act that vividly recalls the planting of ‘Liberty Trees’ by the Jacobins of the French Republic. If later works such as Wellingtons Sieg or Der glorreiche Augenblick were produced for the glorification of individuals and institutions that he once claimed to despise, then it is quite possible that the dire economic circumstances of Restoration Europe necessitated such an approach. It might also explain why Beethoven seriously considered the court position in Kassel offered to him by the parvenu prince, Jerome Bonaparte. Beethoven was most likely protected from political reprisals by his many well-connected patrons. He was certainly aware of the dangers of dissent: ‘You dare not raise your voice here or the police will take you into custody,’ he told Nikolaus Simrock in 1794. In any case, publicly affirming an affinity for Cherubini—a man who had willingly conducted a corps de musique in 1796 to celebrate the decapitation of Louis XVI—suggests that Beethoven was, even in paranoid Vienna, unafraid of radical gestures.

Beethoven’s historical audience were in little doubt of his indebtedness to Cherubini and the stylistic and rhetorical strategies of French revolutionary composition. It was in his ‘searching and striving for the unusual,’ wrote Amadeus Wendt, that Beethoven had most ‘in common with Cherubini.’ ‘Both, instead of being wonderful, are often strange.’ For Hoffmann, too, it was the use of ‘oboes, trumpets, and kettledrums’—all of which enabled ‘the reader [to] sense the terrifying effect of the dissonant C’ permeating the Coriolan overture, Op.62—that ‘reminded the reviewer strongly of Cherubini.’ The stylistic similarities between the revolutionary composers (Cherubini in particular) and Beethoven are striking. Like their operatic overtures, Beethoven’s incidental music typically opens with large, ominous slow introductions that gradually give way to prolonged passages of furious tonic-dominant: the overtures to Egmont and Les deux journées (1800) by Cherubini, for example, both close on a miniature Siegessymphonie.

Beethoven was not, however, engaged in a simple process of sonic appropriation: the music also appeared to possess a specific political resonance. It was the cataclysmic scale of the French Revolution that forced participants and spectators alike to present the political turbulence of the period ‘not as the embodiment of the general will, but as nature’s handiwork.’ Volcanic eruptions, lightning storms, tectonic disintegrations, oceanic tempests: the natural world quickly became the only common comparison in contemporary political discourse. According to Mary Ashburn Miller’s recent study of revolutionary rhetoric, this ‘logic of the natural world offered revolutionaries a crucial means of explaining and justifying transformation and violence that, at first glance, seemed inexplicable.’ As the political temperature—and severed head count—of the Revolution rose, however, the severity of this natural imagery was enhanced. When the Committee of Public Safety assigned the radical Jacobin, Joseph Fouché, to quell the rebellious citizens of Toulon in 1793, he vengefully announced: ‘Exerçons la justice à l’exemple de la nature…frappons comme la foudre, et que la cendre même de nos ennemis disparaisse du sol de la liberté!’ Nature had become more than a mere explanatory device; it was increasingly understood as a motor of revolutionary justice and an instigator of political purification. Jean-Paul Marat—ever eager to see the streets running with blood—believed that the purgative capacity of natural convulsion, if directed under a regime of political terror, could purify the body politic just as an electrical storm could cleanse the night air. The imagery of natural violence and the conceptualization of the Revolution thus developed prominent intellectual associations.

From plays to political speeches, natural violence was omnipresent in the early rhetoric of the Revolution. It was nowhere more prominent, however, than on the operatic stage. The protagonists of Cherubini’s Lodoïska (1791), Eliza (1794), and Médée (1797), for example, are invariably assailed by firestorms or avalanches, which were intentionally constructed to draw rhetorical parallels between the dramatic action of the stage and the political tumult of the street. One Parisian reviewer of Eliza claimed never before to have witnessed ‘as faithful a picture of the greatest phenomena of nature.’ Even the text to L’hymne du Panthéon—one of the works that most likely brought the ‘Jacobin’ leitmotif to Beethoven’s attention—mirrors this embrace of naturalistic violence:

Sur votre cercueil héroique,
nous jurons tous le fer en main,
de mourir pour la République
et pour les droits du genre humain.

Though popular in France, the Viennese were not ignorant of Cherubini’s work: Lodoïska and Les deux journées, for example, were both performed to high praise at the Theater an der Wien in 1802. Their influence upon Beethoven was obvious and Cherubini’s ‘rescue operas’ undeniably provided the model for Beethoven’s early versions of Leonore. ‘There is little in [this opera],’ remarks Winton Dean, ‘that cannot be traced directly to the rescue operas of the Revolution…Beethoven’s model for the music and overall design was undoubtedly the Cherubini of Lodoïska.’

The relationship between the Revolution and Beethoven’s ill-fated opera, however, is contentious. Premised upon the original Léonore, ou l’amour conjugal (1798) by the anti-Jacobin J. N. Bouilly, Beethoven’s libretto necessarily acquired Thermidorean dimensions: Bouilly’s imagery, after all, is not that of the Bastille, but the post-Jacobin liberation of imprisoned aristocrats. The origins of Leonore may not have determined Beethoven’s subsequent interpretation of the ‘rescue opera’ form, but the narrative device of prison liberation certainly locates the opera within the topos of French revolutionary theatre. Indeed, Paul Robinson is right to note that, ‘in 1805 one would need to be politically illiterate not to know that an opera trumpeting the idea of freedom would automatically be associated with the Revolution.’ Yet, the association with the French Revolution is not made tout court in Leonore—a problem further compounded by its numerous subsequent alterations. It is undeniable that Beethoven’s reactionary later revision of Leonore reinforces the belief that his authorial voice was in transition after 1814. Yet, whilst Fidelio (1814) draws upon an aesthetic that Mathew has termed ‘the Handelian Sublime’—music that operated as a means of social cohesion and political manipulation much exploited at the Congress of Vienna—Leonore nevertheless retained a radical hue. Whereas Fidelio deploys Don Fernando, a minister of the good Prince, to free the imprisoned Florestan, Beethoven’s original opera places agency with the angry crowds who, in a musical reminiscence of the Bastille, storm the dungeons and demand the punishment of the jailor, Pizarro. Even after the revisions of 1814, Beethoven retained Florestan’s wife and saviour as the moving emblem of the struggle against injustice: ‘Leonore is the essential agent of the opera’s liberating action, just as the Third Estate was the essential agent of the French Revolution.’

Despite its ambiguous politics, then, Beethoven’s operas of 1805 and 1806 remain unimaginable without the ‘essentially democratic principle’ inherent in the French Revolution, locating as they do ‘significant historical agency in the popular domain.’ Not that this in any way shaped its reception in Vienna. Premiered in November 1805 to sparse audiences (and even less sympathetic reviews), the opera undoubtedly suffered as a result of Napoleon’s occupation, which began just eight days earlier. The opera’s initial impact, unlike that which greeted Fidelio at the Congress of Vienna, was therefore minimal. It nevertheless indicates Beethoven’s early indebtedness to certain ideological tropes of the French Revolution.When the antagonists of French revolutionary opera were not being struck down by thunderbolts or drowned in tempests, they were usually being incinerated by lava. During the Revolution, the volcano became a prominent allegory for political activity: seething magma trapped beneath the earth’s crust represented the radical social energy suppressed by the ancien régime, which, when subjected to immense tectonic pressure, was spewed forth in a transformative and liberating eruption—the Revolution. Nature thus became ‘the guise’ under which abrupt political change could be comprehended. This was scarcely a benign political trope. After all, the geomorphic behaviour of the volcano suggested that regeneration could only be attained through an intensification of violence, which meant that the image of the volcano as ‘politically constructive’ soon became coterminous with ‘the positive connotation of terror.’ Dark, sulphuric clouds thus gathered over the blissful dawn of Wordsworth’s fond imagination as the revolutionary conception of the volcano took a lurch towards the terrifying. Saint-Just summarized its sinister political potential: ‘Où siége la Terreur.’Reflecting upon the previous revolutionary decades from a Germanic vantage point, the poet Ernst Moritz Arndt, writing in 1814, noted how ‘a volcanic movement’ had broken forth in France, ‘one whose fiery and bloody convulsions are yet to be subdued.’ The Revolution, he claimed, had ‘unleashed a flowing ocean of fire for the spirit.’ In exactly the same year, the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, in a review of Beethoven’s orchestral effects, came to an uncannily similar conclusion: ‘his great instrumental compositions…are to a certain degree like volcanoes that pour their rivers of fire in all directions.’ Only with the fall of Robespierre did volcanic activity lose its viability as political analogy; its equation with violent political change, however, did not dissipate. As late as 1814, natural disaster remained firmly embedded in the popular imagination as a revolutionary signifier. Its continued use as an allegorical device to describe the sonic effects of Beethoven’s music is therefore highly suggestive. Volcanic eruption denoted political radicalism, the irresistible liberation of an unjustly repressed people: why did Viennese reviewers reach for the same imagery in their criticism of Beethoven?

Whilst Beethoven may certainly have sounded like Cherubini (an imitation that was undeniably intentional), it seemed to many contemporaries that his music also sounded like the Revolution itself. Through Viennese review literature, the musical evocation of natural violence became, in the ears of the Viennese audience, both evident and comprehensible. Indeed, the extent to which contemporary reviews discussed Beethoven’s compositions using the sort of language more commonly reserved for the description of revolutionary events is staggering. The music was depicted as a ‘faraway thunder’ or the ‘almighty breath of nature.’ The recurrent use of revolutionary vocabulary suggests that an intellectual (or perhaps a subconscious) association was being made between Beethoven’s compositional style and the rhetoric of the Revolution. Of course, the use of naturalistic imagery in music criticism was nothing new, but here the descriptive emphasis was. Mozart may have been ‘a sun, which shines and warms, without ever leaving its established path,’ as the pianist Váklav Jan Tomásek concluded in 1798; but Beethoven could only be compared to ‘a comet, who marks audacious paths without ever establishing order.’ The metaphorical vocabulary of the post-1789 moment imbued contemporaries with a framework of thought that equated the violence of the natural world with the conceptualization of revolution. Just as the Parisian revolutionaries ‘consulted the book of nature’ in order to articulate the intellectual parameters of their undertaking, so Viennese reviewers borrowed the exact same imagery in their bid to comprehend Beethoven. Under the glossary of Revolution, the events in France and the sound of Beethoven’s music seemed to become synonymous.

Johann Friedrich Reichardt’s judgement of the premiere of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in December 1808 was brief and brutal: the concert was too long, the theatre too cold, the music too difficult. This opinion, featured in his Vertraute Briefe (1810), has long formed a standard impression of the Beethovenian concert experience. Yet, elsewhere in his documentary of Viennese musical life, Reichardt remarks upon a performance of ‘Beethoven’s overwhelming, gigantic Overture to Collin’s Coriolan,’ which ‘destroyed the whole pleasant impression’ of the concert: ‘My brain and heart were almost shattered by the blows and cracks.’ That concert, Reichardt noted, was filled with a large group of people from all social backgrounds; and, unlike the premiere of the Fifth, was a genuinely invigorating experience. Yet, still, the Viennese audience remained stony-faced and silent. Agitation, it seems, was simply not their style. As early as 1794, Beethoven had noticed this strange situation: ‘[I]t is said that a revolution was to break out—But I believe that so long as an Austrian can get his brown ale and his little sausages, he is not likely to revolt.’ If music could catalyse revolution in other contexts, or become central to its performance, as in Paris, then why did Beethoven’s ventriloquism of revolutionary music provoke such a muted reaction in Vienna?

The answer lies in what Marcel Brion once termed the ‘natural turbulence’ of the Viennese. In a public sphere dominated by the outward appearance of political passivity, the mental make-up of early nineteenth-century Vienna remains relatively unknown. The public sphere of this period, ‘not least as it was delineated through music,’ was a tightly regulated ‘space of coercion’ that lent itself to manipulation by the forces of reaction. Viennese musical culture of the early nineteenth century was rooted in the courtly, ceremonial traditions of the late eighteenth. ‘The Austrian Government,’ remarked the émigré Charles Sealsfield, was ‘afraid in any manner…of raising the spirits of its subjects.’ In such a musical city, cultural regulation proved to be a potent tool of surveillance; the timetable of Viennese life, after all, was regulated by the routines of the theatre and the opera house. The Gassenpolizei and Geheimepolizei were thus ably assisted in their task by the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (the upper echelons of which ‘were barely distinguishable from the lower tiers of government’). The political timidity of the Viennese is typically seen as a product of both an inherent cultural conservatism and this general atmosphere of repression; less often is it noted that the infrastructure of the city, ‘through various public and semi-public associations,’ enabled the Viennese ‘to sublimate political expression through…music.’ Indeed, many of the underground Jacobin clubs of the 1790s socialized through song, gathering at the houses of Viennese revolutionaries like Andreas Riedel and Johann Hackl to sing the La Marseillaise and Ça ira. External stability, then, was little more than a mask for internal volatility.

The revolutionary period had witnessed a general political crackdown, but, following the assassination of August von Kotzebue in 1819 by a radical student activist, political repression across the Habsburg lands went into overdrive (culminating finally in the Carlsbad Decrees of 1824). A year later, in 1820, petrified by what he believed to be the ‘spiritual unrest festering in Vienna,’ Friedrich Schlegel published the first in a series of political tracts entitled Signatur des Zeitalters. ‘The inner lack of peace (innere Unfriede) that, within the reign of a strongly and securely founded outer peace (aussern Friedens),’ remarked Schlegel petulantly, ‘is yet breaking out everywhere!’ His diagnosis for this political illness was simple: European society had been unnecessarily dragged into metaphysical speculation by the ‘reckless pursuit of abstractions’ of the French Revolution.

Unlike the French, however, Viennese reactions to the Revolution were not accompanied by popular cries of ‘Aux armes, Citoyens!,’ but had instead provoked a political and intellectual Innerlichkeit. In a similar survey of the political landscape, Friedrich Hegel, in his Lectures on the history of philosophy (1827), noted how ‘in Germany this principle had burst forth in thought, spirit, Notion; in France in the form of actuality.’ The Germanic view of 1789 ‘assumed no other form than that of tranquil theory,’ whereas the French seemed intent upon giving it ‘practical effect.’ Despite his attempt to erect a firewall between these two phenomena, Hegel had nevertheless aligned German philosophical thought with French revolutionary action—and it was their potential political imbrication in Vienna that exercised Schlegel. For Hegel, this peculiarly introspective mentality was a product of the Reformation and the way in which Luther had very helpfully ‘detached German consciousness from external authority and forced it to rely on itself.’ The French, meanwhile, bereft of their own Reformation, possessed a fragmented spirituality and lacked any capacity for interiority. In short, the German people did not require—and were not intellectually disposed towards—revolution because ‘since the Reformation’ their situation ‘had never been comparable to French prerevolutionary conditions.’

Whilst this may have made revolution an inconceivable act, it did not make it politically unthinkable. Far from it: the Revolution, after all, was the tinderbox that, at any moment, could detonate the Viennese innere Unfriede that so perturbed Schlegel. Perhaps most incisively, Schlegel realized that the threat was not purely political. The ‘great tendencies of the age,’ he wrote, included not only the French Revolution, but also ‘Fichte’s philosophy and Goethe’s Meister’: ‘Whoever cannot take any revolution seriously that isn’t…materialistic, hasn’t yet achieved a lofty, broad perspective on the history of mankind. Even in our shabby histories of civilization…many a little book, almost unnoticed by the noisy rabble at the time, plays a greater role than anything they did.’ Just a ‘little book’? How about a symphony? Or a concerto? The philosophical treatise and Bildungsromane could now be called upon ‘not only as historical witnesses, but as historical agents, whose meaning for the era was equated with the French Revolution,’ which meant that the entire political arena had been opened to manipulation by artistic expression. In Beethoven’s time, writes Richard Taruskin, it was music that most ’embodied visionary philosophy [and] provided audiences with a medium in which they could live vicarious emotional lives.’ It was in this context, then, that musical works were both endowed with, and robbed of, their potential political agency by the listening practices and participatory behaviour of Viennese audiences.

In his Critique of judgement (1790), Immanuel Kant ridiculed the mere ‘pleasure’ of music, relegating it to the position of philosophical ephemera, because, as it was apparently ‘without concepts,’ it seemed incapable of marshalling human reason. It was aesthetically imprecise: ‘music proceeds from sensations to indeterminate ideas.’ These claims were connected to the thoughts he sketched on the sublime—a phenomenon that he believed capable of elevating the human spirit by confronting mankind with the moral and spiritual chaos inherent to nature: ‘[B]old, overhanging and, as it were, threatening rocks, thunderclouds piling up in the sky…volcanoes with all their destructive power, hurricanes with all the devastation they leave behind, the boundless ocean heaved up.’ For Kant, however, the sublime was also restricted to nature. Whilst art (and music in particular) could certainly imitate beauty, they could not convey sublime sensations. And yet it was ‘precisely in Kant’s time,’ as Theodor Adorno argued, ‘that we see artists consciously adopting [this] ideal of sublimity.’ ‘The prime example of this tendency,’ he continues, ‘may be Beethoven.’ It is no coincidence that this conception of the sublime also littered the writings and orations of Robespierre and his revolutionary retinue. Discussions of the sublime in Paris and Vienna found an intellectual confluence in Beethoven’s music.

In his treatise, A philosophical enquiry into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and beautiful (1757), Edmund Burke expressed a deep concern over the potentially horrifying, destructive political dimensions of the sublime. It was, he wrote, located in ‘whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects’; it excited ‘the ideas of pain’; operated ‘in a manner analogous to terror.’ Such sensations, which were lent added potency through an aesthetic representation of nature’s tempest, found their apotheosis in auditory experience: ‘excessive loudness alone is sufficient to overpower the soul, to suspend its action and to fill it with terror.’ Despite their differences, both Kant and Burke recognized a common problem with the sublime: scale. If the sublime transgressed its boundaries, wrote Kant, then it became ‘monstrous,’ and the sublime object so overwhelming that it obliterated the elevating purpose that it was supposed to possess, thereby rendering its comprehension by the human imagination an impossibility. For Burke, the issue was one of aesthetic distance: if the gap between the subject and the sublime object was minimized, ‘pleasure’ became outright dread.

The aesthetic parallels drawn between the chaos of the natural world and revolutionary politics invested the musical sublime with an intellectual force more commonly reserved for epic political events. Thus, a symphonic expression on the scale of the Fifth—which, as even Hoffmann noted, ‘sets in motion the machinery of awe, of fear, of terror’—acquired the power not only to provoke amazement but actually to incapacitate its listener. Far from encouraging, through the application of Terror, the ecstatic moral edification of the masses that Robespierre had prophesized, the sublime simply inspired awe, not action. ‘No passion,’ Burke warned, ‘so effectively robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning.’ When translated into political syntax, the Fifth Symphony was therefore capable of provoking similar sensations as the Terror of the French Revolution, pulverizing the subject into submission.

The first four notes of the Fifth achieved their overwhelming effect through ‘a pilling up of sonority’ that permeates the entire symphony, imbuing it with an obsessive, convulsive, repetitive rhetorical trajectory. Recent scholarship has detected a similar propensity towards repetition, rhythm, even incantation in the oratorical techniques of the revolutionary demagogues. Speeches delivered to the National Assembly were replete with ‘sudden exclamations and incongruous juxtapositions; repeated patterns and formulas; the deployment of sequences of short phrases; and dynamic call and response patterns.’ Robespierre’s oratory, according to Patrice Guéniffey, both ‘terrorized and…annihilated’ by deploying doses of ‘suspense and equivocation’ when fingering traitors, and by establishing a cadential monotony when ‘confronting the hostility of the Assembly.’ What followed was a deliberate inundation of the senses that resulted in the activation of terror. Hooting, finger-pointing, outright panic: the reactions to this rhetoric in Paris were effusive and public. ‘It was no longer applause,’ remarked Jean-Baptiste Louvet, ‘but convulsive stamping.’ The effects of the Fifth Symphony—its subversion of all melodic narrative, its obsessive redeployment of the opening rhythmic fragment—are, in many respects, musically congruent with the oratorical techniques of the Revolutionaries. Like Robespierre, Beethoven valued rhetorical rhythm over the melody of argument. It is interesting, therefore, that in Wendt’s critical parallel of Beethoven and Cherubini the vocabulary employed is not dissimilar to that commonly used in descriptions of revolutionary rhetorical strategies: ‘both touch upon monotony and bizarreness, and become thereby, as well as by a prodigal use of dissonance, devoid of melody.’ Even the joyous coda to the Fifth’s finale is a pummelling auditory experience: eleven bars of relentless tonic-dominant, followed by a staggering twenty-nine bars of pure tonic C-major chords; endless hammer blows, unexpected brass incursion, and arresting sforzando. The revolutionary composer, Jean-François Le Sueur, was so discombobulated by the force of the Fifth that, following a performance in Paris, he was reportedly seen running in fright from the concert hall: ‘I was so moved and disturbed [by it] that when I attempted to put on my hat I could not find my head!’ Decibel levels, too, were magnified beyond all previous apprehension by the first symphonic appearance of the trombone and piccolo. Beethoven gleefully explained to the Count Franz von Oppersdorff: ‘The last movement of the symphony has three trombones and a piccolo—and, although it is true, there are not three kettledrums…this combination of instruments will make more noise than six kettledrums!’

Viennese audiences were set in political suspension by the sublime effects of Beethoven’s ‘revolutionary’ compositions. As the public premier of another symphony—the Eroica—came to a close, the audience, according to one critic, had been so ‘oppressed’ by the ‘violent transitions…and continuous tumult’ of the symphony, that they left the auditorium with ‘an unpleasant feeling of exhaustion.’ In Paris, the Revolution brought about popular upheaval; for the Viennese, by contrast, the result was controlled, internalized explosions. The intellectual dimensions of these revolutionary experiences may have been congruent, but their expression was not: Paris had the Terror, Vienna had Beethoven.

As Mathew notes, it was ‘the music of the French Revolution’ that had brought this monstrous conception of the sublime into ‘the less philosophically rigorous context’ of political and critical discourse. Contemporary criticism of Beethoven is crammed with allusions to the terrible tempest of nature and its awe-inspiring effects. The difference in Vienna, however, was that Beethoven’s emulations of Cherubini, which evoked a commonly understood conception of the revolutionary sublime, were coupled with rhetorical gestures that satiated latent revolutionary sentiment. This was not simply the result of the Innerlichkeit of Viennese audiences: it was also Beethoven’s fault. Despite its inherent ‘terrorism,’ it is the triumphal finale of the Fifth—that ‘concluding movement,’ as one critic wrote, in which ‘the sun shines joyously forth, and defeated are the masks and monstrosities’—that redeems the audience, leaving them not only victorious but also in some sense satisfied: ‘the most joyous life stirs [again] in every pulse.’ This Beethovenian variant on the French revolutionary musical sublime incorporated the listener’s sensitivity to the violent and naturalistic attributes of the Revolution as a constructive aesthetic element, to such an extent that many of his orchestral works performed ‘their own participatory reception.’ In a review of the Fourth Symphony, Op.60, the critic Ludwig Rellstab compared the music to ‘an oppressive storm’ that ‘slowly and solemnly draws near’ and ‘resounds through the mountains with an awesome beauty,’ before adding that ‘anticipations fill us more with terrible forebodings than does the reality of danger.’

The performance of revolution was thus inspired by, but also culminated in, the music. According to Berlioz, the fourth movement of the Pastoral Symphony—marked Gewitter, Sturm—was such an ‘awful cataclysm, the universal deluge—the end of the world,’ that it ‘literally produces giddiness; and many people, when they hear this…can scarcely tell whether their emotion is one of pleasure or of pain.’ This storm sequence is the Beethovenian locus classicus of the Burkean sublime; more important, however, is what follows it. Like its sister symphony the Fifth, the penultimate movement of the Pastoral glides to its symphonic conclusion without cessation, effortlessly transforming chaos into clarity. But as the clouds part, the sense of sublime terror is overcome by a similarly naturalistic musical optimism. The screeching piccolo and thunderous timpani rolls, which are repeatedly interrupted by flashes of brass fanfare, gradually subside as the source of harmonic disturbance, D flat major, is replaced by the home key of F major and thence the sunshine of the Hirtengesang. Menace thus overcome, the music, which once pulverized, now appears to salute the audience. As Scott Burnham has noted of the Eroica, the Sixth Symphony (like the Fifth) appeared to perform the beginning, middle, and end of musical cataclysm, thereby robbing the listener of all agency by making itself the revolutionary actor. Likewise, the Egmont overture, he notes, ‘simultaneously enacts and narrates.’ Consequently, these ‘revolutionary’ compositions did not demand the sort of audience participation one might expect: Beethoven simply did all the work.

The naturalistic, violent, and sublime facets of the music are thus simultaneously suggestive and misleading: the music may have been compared to a lightning bolt, but it was, in reality, a lightning rod—a charged expression of political radicalism that grounded, not energized, revolution. Like the Terror itself, the Fifth Symphony inspired fear, rigidity, but also revulsion. For the Viennese, it was simply not ‘beautiful.’ According to one critic, ‘it has many moments that are so baroque and wild that they seem…contrary to good taste.’ Just as the excesses of the revolutionary decade had culminated in the calculated apoliticism of Bonapartism, so Beethovenian musical rhetoric seemed to create a sense of political weariness. This is not to overlook the contrasting political tempers of the Parisian and Viennese audiences. Beethoven, unlike the musical propagandists of the French Revolution, was faced with a public unacquainted with the etiquette of revolutionary receptivity. The ‘public mind’ of the Viennese had been made ‘dull and torpid’ by the highly policed nature of cultural life: Sealsfield blamed Metternich personally for allowing ‘trivial pastimes’ as the ‘only objects of their thoughts and desires.’ In Paris, the sublime—as experienced through the many orgiastic festivals of the Revolution—had transformed awe into action; in Vienna, the result was incapacitation. As Alice Hanson has noted, only artistic expression could provide ‘a socially acceptable outlet for the communal release of violent emotions [in] a society whose political regulation and etiquette did not tolerate personal excess.’ So it was when listening to Beethoven. ‘We feel as though everything that follows comes from within ourselves,’ remarked Rellstab, ‘[the music is] created out of our own innermost soul, for the oppression that now grips our breast is expressed so truly in the notes cast off by the orchestra.’ Conditioned by their mentality of Innerlichkeit and by Beethoven’s peculiar brand of terrifying, auto-performative musical rhetoric, Viennese audiences could live only vicarious revolutionary lives through this music.

Did Beethoven’s music therefore reinforce the politically retrograde nature of Viennese life? As Mark Evan Bonds explains, since the 1790s the perception of (especially Germanic) symphonic language had altered, fortifying the emergent idea that ‘the performance of symphonies…represented a kind of ritualized enactment of community.’ The symphony, he continues, was particularly susceptible to this reading for ‘it was never performed without an audience’—in fact, in terms of its very existence, ‘the symphony demanded a listening audience.’ As a mode of communication, then, symphonic music held unique ‘implications that [reached] far beyond the walls of the concert hall.’ For Mathew, Beethoven’s ‘political’ music incorporated this aestheticization of communality by ‘performing the sublime power of the monarchs assembled at the Congress’ of Vienna. As such, it was an ‘authoritarian sublime’ that legitimated, through music, the Restoration. True, compositions such as Der glorreiche Augenblick do indeed sing with the sound of power; they develop ‘static’ and ‘pictorial’ impressions of their subject which thereby frustrate the tempestuous and erratic musical strategies deployed in the Third, Fifth, and other symphonies. Yet, the performativity and receptivity of Beethoven’s ‘occasional’ pieces were not so dissimilar from those of his radical compositions. Unlike the political rallies and Fêtes of the Revolution—in which participation, according to their director Antoine Christophe Merlin, was dependent upon the crowd becoming ‘actors’—the nature of the spéctacles of the Congress were ‘enacted before rather than by’ the gathered onlookers. The Fêtes were to be musical levées en masse; Der glorreiche Augenblick, in contrast, was an intentionally vicarious evocation of ‘community.’ In the highly curated public sphere of Vienna, participation was sanctioned—but only if it took place from a solely sedentary position.

Like Beethoven’s revolutionary music, the compositions that accompanied the Congress displayed an uncanny ability to perform the audience’s own participation. The key difference, however, was of political flavour: the outcome of the Fifth Symphony and Beethoven’s cantata were similar; the political intent and musical ingredients of these pieces were radically different. In Vienna, then, there seemed to be a thin line separating the revolutionary sublime from what Mathew has termed the authoritarian sublime in music. As Jean-Paul Sartre later wrote: ‘Rhetorical, moving…Beethoven gives us, with some delay the musical image of the Assemblies of the French Revolution,’ before adding, ‘It is Barnarve, Mirabeau…[but] sometimes, alas, Lally-Tollendal.’

A challenger or champion of power? Beethoven’s complex political legacy continues to confound: this article has attempted to clarify the historical clutter by placing emphasis upon the contemporary reception and critical discussion of the music. It is scarcely conclusive, but this assimilation of evidence is highly suggestive. It is clear that the Viennese concert venue, far from forming a potentially radical sphere of instigation, became a site of revolutionary containment—a phenomenon encouraged by both an internalized experience of revolution and a Beethovenian musical rhetoric that apparently indulged it. If Beethoven, as Mathew claims, ‘was always in some sense a collaborator,’ then prior to 1814 this accusation can only be labelled as accidental. Likewise, Rumph identifies two important turning points: 1809 and 1789. The former foments Beethoven’s drift towards political Romanticism; but the latter, he writes, ‘seems to have been a key factor in converting Beethoven from an epigonous artisan into a maverick bent on infusing the high Viennese style with the headiest mixture of philosophy, poetry, and political thought.’ It is my contention that this ‘heady mixture’ was primarily derived from, and critically understood as, a musical transcription of the French Revolution. The music was not revolutionary because it carried explicit political messages; the music was revolutionary because of the sonic associations it made with that Revolution. The Viennese—from Kaiser to Kritiker—heard in Beethoven a music that made this association palpable. Yet, they did not act. In Vienna, the music was more catharsis than a call to arms. This did not make it any less revolutionary, of course; this outcome simply betrays the ambiguous relationship that existed between the musical reception and transcription of political events. In his affection for Cherubini, his mimicry of revolutionary musical motifs, and his critical association with sublime aesthetics, Beethoven could convey, as late as 1814, ‘a dynamism foreign to Restoration propaganda.’ Little wonder Nietzsche could later conclude that, without the French Revolution, ‘Beethoven is unthinkable.’