Why We Still Need Beethoven, p. 3

First, I think there is no reason why the traumas of the last two centuries need to obscure the accomplishments of modernity or detract from the potent truths that Beethoven reveals. Although Beethoven's splendid art made Wagner's hate-filled kitsch possible, there is nothing about Beethoven that made Wagner necessary or inevitable, no cultural Sonderweg leading from Caspar Friedrich David to Leni Riefenstahl or even from Delacroix's orientalism to the countless crimes perpetrated by the West against the "third" world.

Moreover, now that we know the damage modernity can cause, we should be able to heed the bright trumpet call that Beethoven sounds while taking care to cause no harm. Can we renounce playing Prospero to a planet of seething Calibans? I think we can. Beethoven, after all, felt sufficiently confident in his views to press on with the Bonapartist Fidelio even after his disillusionment with Napoleon, as if to say that the Emperor's abuse of truth in no way invalidated the existence of truth itself.

And what is that truth? The trick is to listen closely to Beethoven. Turn the volume up or get a good seat in the orchestra section. But above all do not let cynicism corrupt the purity of his music by imposing echoes of Wagner, "The Watch on the Rhine," and Maxim machine guns. Those things are simply not in the score. On the contrary, Beethoven created his art at a time when the world was still positively bursting with optimism. That's why we need Beethoven now, as much as ever: the optimism, the possibility of truth, the beauty of progress. Feeling and understanding these values does not require checking our historical consciousness at the concert-hall door; on the contrary, we can appreciate them more fully with the understanding we've gained in the last two centuries. If anything, the echoes that we hear in his music are the sounds of soaring human spirit, of emancipation and enlightenment. The Germans themselves detect the unmistakable tumble of the Berlin Wall, and I do not think they are mistaken. The progress Beethoven and his contemporaries dreamed of is not an impossibility, even if it is occasionally hijacked.

Post-modernism can certainly be very beneficial, for it cautions us against approaching other cultures with the same hubris that marked out treatment of the 'Other' in the past. However it lacks positive content and thus offers little with which we can combat the anti-modernism of those arrayed against us. We can and should reach back into our culture and pull forward those aspects of modernity that represent the best of us. Few things do this so well as Beethoven. May the day never come when his music no longer inspires us to sing along.

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Image: Andy Warhol, Beethoven

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