Friday, 26 March 2010
Beethoven's Revolutionary Symphony
Beethoven's Sixth Symphony is, on the face of it a nice, non-political piece about the countryside and the simple peasants that dwell in it.
However for Beethoven to compose about the simple peasants of Europe in 1808 was about as politically neutral as John Lennon writing a song about the simple peasants of the Mekong Delta in 1968.
The French Revolutionary Wars had kicked off 14 years earlier and the world had been stunned when the professional armies of Prussia had been beaten hollow by a bunch of farmers hastily issued with muskets. The shock to the orderly system of European monarchies can hardly be underestimated and suddenly every absolute monarch was looking at their peasants in a very different light.
Lets put this into some sort of perspective. In 1791 Prussia was the undisputed military master of Europe. Frederick the Great's army had won the Seven Years War against the odds and now everyone looked to the Germans to see how a real army should be run. Military technology was pretty much the same everywhere, so what made the krauts different was their rigid discipline.
Freddy once said that “If my soldiers were to begin to think, not one would remain in the ranks” and he was probably right. His army was 'professional' in so far as it was paid, but his soldiers were the dregs of society. In his manual on how to fight a campaign he spends rather more time dishing out advice on how to stop your soldiers running away (such as 'don't camp near a forest') as on how to beat the enemy in battle.
Revolutionary France by contrast relied on a levee en mass. A type of early conscription it simply shovelled up a large chunk of the male population and deposited them on the battlefield. With no time for rigid Prussian-style discipline to knock the individuality out of them this should by the usual rules of war have just produce a rabble, but instead the French fought and won. And won again. And again.
The world was aghast and agog. Helped by decent artillery, and a young General called Bonaparte, revolutionary fervour had beaten iron discipline. Worse, these former peasants had not been fighting for their King, but for their cause and a nebulous concept called their 'country'. This was a new and terrifying weapon, now called Nationalism, and like most of the good ideas in the world it also had the effect of making wars longer and bloodier.
And if the King of France couldn't control his peasants, what monarch could? Europe's aristocrats started to notice their peasants, possibly for the first time, and worried.
And so into all this wanders Mr Ludvig van, with his additively simple riffs and serene vision of a rural idyll. What's going on?
Well, there does appear to be a townies vision of the countryside here; a nice place for a walk or picnic with no hint of the hard work, rigid social structure and constant fear of starvation that mark the life of the real peasant.
On the other hand the sheer naivety of the music suggests that Beethoven is trying to invoke something of the 'noble savage' in his subject, the innate wisdom of country folk. A bit cliched perhaps, but Beethoven, a man of the Enlightenment if ever their was one, is probably thinking of a bit more than ways of forecasting the weather and making nice cheese. Perhaps he saw in the country folk a real equality, a true Brotherhood of Man.
And then we come to the fifth movement, the faster bit. Normally interpreted as a thunderstorm, perhaps this is where the peasants really are revolting? The movement begins with a bit of bang all right, but then builds to a swinging and magnificent climax before settling down again into the tranquil last movement. It's beautiful, it's moving, it could even inspire you to take up your pitchfork and stick it into the backside of the nearest toff.
Or maybe Beethoven just liked walking in the fresh air. Who knows?