12 Nov


In 1811 Ludwig von Beethoven went to the spa in the Bohemian town of Teplice. Among his companions was the 26 year-old writer Bettina Brentano who would, then and there, marry the Prussian Count von Arnim, also a writer. Romantics all. Von Arnim was in his early 30s, Beethoven, his early 40s: Romanticism’s elder statesman. These were interesting generations. They would be. The times were, as the Chinese say, interesting.

“The Coronation of Napoleon”, 1807
Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825)

Seven years before, Napoleon had crowned himself Emperor of France. This bitterly disappointed Beethoven. Beethoven was a teenager when the Bastille was stormed tolling bells for the ancien régime. The wearily familiar cycle of revolution followed: euphoria, hope, bickering, political struggles, bloodshed. But then it was the first time.

Napoleon had brought order finally to a Battlefield France and appeared to many liberals to be the avatar of hope. He vanquished privilege and instituted meritocracy. He erased archaic and superstitious modes replacing them with administrative systems and techniques founded on reason and designed to work in the material world at optimum efficiency. He was the North Wind of modernity. Yet, finally he ‘sold out’, re-instituting the old world order: rule by hereditary right.

As in poetry and music, there is genius in war. And by the year 1811 Napoleon had torn up Europe fulfilling his. Now he was preparing to launch his disastrous offensive against Russia, feeding French men to a great maw of starvation, pestilence and slow death all in the name of liberty and reason. Soon Bonaparte would be defeated and exiled on Elba only to escape for one last duel with the Duke of Wellington. But this year, in the resort of Taplice, Napoleon’s defeat had not yet happened. In 1812 as French armies marched east to disaster Beethoven met the great German writer Johann von Goethe.

Goethe was in his 60s. His taste in music conservative, he didn’t care for Beethoven’s brash new style. It forced you to actually pay it attention. Goethe was of the generation of Jacques-Louis David, born in the 1740s. It was people of this era who are most associated with what is called ‘the Enlightenment’. By 1812 they were past it. Like David, Goethe supported Napoleon. He had grown up in a world of strict hierarchies amid a culture that took for granted the necessity of monarchs. Beethoven thought them parasites. Despite their differences the men found each other’s company agreeable.

Bettina von Arnim recalls that one day Johann and Ludwig were walking in a garden when they were confronted by the entourage of Austrian empress Maria Ludovica. Napoleon had disinherited Ludovica when he invaded Italy. She’d fled to Vienna and there married the Emperor of Austria/King of Hungary Francis I much to the consternation of Machiavels like Metternich. She was younger than Bettina, but she was also arch-conservative. Ancien régime all the way.

So here they were at the spa, the great man of letters and the great composer confronted by the Empress and her sycophant crew. An historical confrontation illustrating the human spectrum as early 19th century Europe found it. It was a minor confrontation, non-violent, but significant. According to that era’s standing orders Beethoven and Goethe were unvalued persons. They were obliged to stand to the side and bow as Her Majesty passed by with the various Highnesses and Eminences. This Goethe did, removing his hat, bowing low. But Beethoven was known to be furiously disagreeable at times and this was such an occasion. He not only refused to doff his hat and bow, he stormed thru this posse of ponces making a point of pulling his hat down; afterwards chiding Goethe for servility. Was he right? This arrogant creature who established the template purchased by a thousand spoilt rock gods? Arsehole musicians are now a cliché. What significance in this ungraceful gesture?

The imperative requiring one stand aside and bow was one amongst myriad obligatory rituals that underscored the strict heirarchy that had guaranteed whatever peace Europeans had enjoyed until then. If everyone knew their places on the world’s stage and acted according to the lines and direction given them by tradition a certain tranquility obtained. But this halcyonic artifice also lay waste to uncounted human potential. After all what had Maria Ludovica done that would stand next to the music of Beethoven or the poetry of Goethe? Why should they have to abase themselves by submitting to the whims and petty privilege of those whose only accomplishment is a dubious birth-right claim?

Two hundred years later there are people who work in restaurants, in hotels, as personal assistants, in court-rooms and on film sets who have grown accustomed to Beethoven’s arrogance. The irony now that this arrogance blends well with a new set of rituals of self-abasement required in the presence of a new kind of aristocracy: the Hollywood Star, the Rock God, the Rap God, the Supermodel back full circle to such as Paris Hilton who’s only accomplishment is the aristocrat’s inheritance mated to a complete absence of decorum.


Last night I went to see some Beethoven. And I wonder if people go simply to sit in one of the last places in this country where courtesy is a rule and not a marketable skill. Between movements there were coughs, not from boredom but because the (mostly elderly) audience have stifled the itch in their throat whilst the quartet play.

Outside, such self-governance has become as quaint as Goethe and his bow. The convention that requires one to walk on the right-hand side is, like the Pirate’s Code, a mere guideline. People push thru other people like pigeon zombies. Polite negotiation of urban space is a rare skill these days. We live at the omega point of a process that began with Beethoven’s surly storming thru of the Empress Maria’s entourage. Beethoven’s arrogance was creatively destructive. His heirs have nothing left to destroy.

This is our problem.


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