Philip Hensher: Why Beethoven is bang up to date

The authorities will exploit him, but we are free, too, to find our own meanings in him
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The Independent Online

From Sunday, BBC Radio 3 is embarking on an unusual enterprise. It's clearing the schedules entirely, and for six days, is going to broadcast the complete known works of Beethoven. There's no anniversary, nothing in particular to instigate this mammoth adventure. Somebody, it is fair to guess, just felt like it.

From Sunday, BBC Radio 3 is embarking on an unusual enterprise. It's clearing the schedules entirely, and for six days, is going to broadcast the complete known works of Beethoven. There's no anniversary, nothing in particular to instigate this mammoth adventure. Somebody, it is fair to guess, just felt like it.

It's unusual these days to embark on such a project; but it is exactly what Radio 3 was set up to do. The station, which even 20 years ago was more or less solidly devoted to Western art music in the great tradition, has ventured further and further away from that.

These days, world music and jazz have made a claim on the schedule. The avant-garde is heard a fair amount, but it needn't be a big new piece for orchestra in the long line from Schoenberg to Birtwistle. It may, instead, be the sort of sonic experiments which can't easily be fitted into the Great Tradition.

So it's odd to see a project like this, which does not merely fulfil the spirit of Lord Reith's principles, but which his own controllers might very well have come up with. It is hard to think of anything more uncompromisingly improving than the work of one of the three or four indisputably greatest composers in European tradition, broadcast complete. But why Beethoven?

Every age has its favourite composer, and, in the 20th century, it has rarely been a contemporary one. If Wagner wrote the soundtrack to Nazi Germany, other composers have seen their stock rise at less explicable moments.

Bach had a strange rise to mass popularity during the 1950s and early 1960s, not entirely due to Jacques Loussier's jazz arrangements; there was something about the cool rationality of the style which suited the period's conscious egalitarian opulence.

But more recently, the composer who has seemed to suit us best has been Mozart. Beginning with Peter Shaffer's play, Amadeus, and reaching a peak around the composer's bicentenary in 1991, a quite incredible wave of popularity settled on Mozart. He was repeatedly referred to as the greatest composer who ever lived.

Parts of his gigantic oeuvre which had been lying in well deserved dust since their premieres - the masses, the works for glass harmonica, or the canons - were brought out and recorded, often repeatedly. A complete Mozart edition was a most unlikely best-seller, and is still, 15 years later, in the shops. When I was younger, I never expected to see that unspeakably tedious opera, La Clemenza di Tito on stage: by now, it is part of the standard repertory, unfortunately.

Why Mozart? Perhaps it was something to do with the constraint of the expression. The passion and even violence of the music is expressed within safe bounds; the dissonance is aching, but never crude. Basically, the good taste which the 1990s perceived in Mozart suited its aspirational face. And the divine, mysterious perfection of the style discouraged active participation.

Mozart is the one composer where, even at his simplest, the audience can't see how it is done; a composer who discourages anything like argument. You sit through even the D minor piano concerto, and marvel safely from row G in the stalls. That was very much the spirit of the 1990s.

Stravinsky said that Mozart's working method was ultimately mysterious. On the other hand, he thought he knew how Beethoven composed. He could argue with him too - "I do not understand how a man of such powers could lapse so frequently into such banality".

Beethoven has been exploited by every European political regime you can think of, for its own dubious purposes. One of the casualties of the French referendum is that the theme of the variations in the Ninth Symphony may not, now, become the "national anthem" of Europe. It was played, by Leonard Bernstein, to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Eroica, on the other hand, was performed at another famous concert in Berlin, in 1945, as the city fell to the Russians; members of the SS stood at the exits with baskets full of cyanide tablets.

The authorities will exploit Beethoven, but we are free, too, to find our own meanings in him. And he seems uniquely sympathetic now. The massive outbreaks of violence in the Grosse Fuge or the Hammerklavier sonata are still shocking. The death of ideals, the blunders and fury of the Eroica are not just the music of the end of the Enlightenment, but for all time.

And those extraordinary last pieces where incompatible voices slam against each other seem more pertinent than ever. The strange sequence of the C sharp minor string quartet, or the marvellous late piano bagatelles; the bizarre collage of the Ninth Symphony's finale is music for a confusing world. And when the distant sounds of war enter into the last pages of the Missa Solemnis - the greatest thing Beethoven ever wrote - they are not just the guns of Waterloo, but those of Iraq, too.

At the moment, Beethoven, even without an anniversary, seems like the right composer to be listening to. He is frightening in a way which needs no explanation; many of his greatest pieces, like the finale of the Hammerklavier sonata, still seem as difficult to listen to as Stockhausen. Radio 3 has found a good moment to throw him at us in bulk; he reminds us that the world - even the world as found in one remarkable mind - cannot always be subdued to our own small pleasures.

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