Beethoven: Decomposition

Battle of the Futurist and the Ocean, Olga Rozanova

You can pick a Beethoven: surface or depth. Admire the rosy sheen or embark down the rosy path. Hear a classical composer or a romantic. Obey and enjoy divine protection or eat and know.

Not that it is easy to choose. And not that the right choice will make you or your baby smarter. Music generally refuses all distinction between seeming and being. Odd among the arts, music has the most rigorous semiotics, with its scales and modes, but eschews all semantics. That was how Schopenhauer saw in music’s oddity an unmasking of Maya, humans’ best shot at a pure encounter with the energy beyond Being and Nonbeing. Beethoven, belonging to one of the first generations of composers to compose unmoored from religious patronage, moved dukes and lords with a musical style especially alert to the potential of the medium. Wagner called Beethoven “The Master,” recognizing a kinship in an un-Christianness that they took in very different directions—humanism and tribalism respectively. The core of Beethoven’s mastery is that he made music—through its very messagelessness—take a position on a classical problem of philosophy, on the underdog side of sophism against Platonism.

Let’s look at one example, maybe the best, the beloved anthem of the European Union, the Ode to Joy, that earworm from the Ninth Symphony—which not only progresses in wormlike small intervals but in which the chorus actually sings a line about worms. Like great snakes and worms of lore, Beethoven’s Ninth undoes commandments. The first movement feels expansive like a lone wanderer surveying the land, and the second like a much more harried beast, exposed in its nakedness. That much we can probably agree on. It is the way these first two movements fit together compositionally—that wanderer, that worrier—that is undecidable. Do they fit at all? Is Beethoven forcing them to fit? Efforts to verbalize an answer are greatly aided by hewing closely to the words of Friedrich Schiller’s poem, An die Freude. The beginning of the poem sounds harmless, and the text becomes impossible to make out anyway by the time the fugue section brings us to the poem’s navel, where it was ripped from the poet’s figurative womb of figures. The navel is the stanza where the metaphor of joy as unifier is said to bridge not only angel and worm, all human beings, etc., but also good and evil:

Freude trinken alle Wesen
an den Brüsten der Natur,
Alle Guten, alle Bösen
folgen ihrer Rosenspur.

Here is that stanza as splendidly rendered by the embezzler-poet William Wertz:

Joy is drunk by every being
From kind nature’s flowing breasts,
Every evil, every good thing
For her rosy footprint quests.

“Rosy footprint” is a very subtle translation. A Spur could be anything from a path to a trace. The Book of Nature has rose-scented pages in the joy-bringing passages. Evil actions are thus justified by the fact that they were just smelling the roses. This line of justification is useful for any rich nation to make lighter of its imperial looting. No wonder the Soviet and Nazi leaders played these lines at rallies as proudly as today’s European Parliament does.

The symphony exposes the very frailty of dialectical logic that made Karl Popper call it unscientific. A dialectic says: “If opinion x is true, then at least one of the opinions, x or y, is true.” That point is unassailable and gets us as far as the second movement. At which point we break for a signature boring third movement that feels like it was written by someone else, namely by the same composer who wrote all of the even numbered symphonies. Only after this sleepy hiatus does the dialectic resume its cunning whir and rattle, like a caged fox: “Opinion y is incompatible with opinion x. And opinion x turns out to be false. Therefore, free-rider y must be the true one. And x is still true in a way—or at least retains some of its former truth. Suspend disbelief.” By the time “Ode to Joy” is sung, the dialectic has slyly removed the criteria for evaluating the argument at all. It makes disagreement a form of validation for both sides.

A kind of musical verisimilitude, this seeming logic creates a politically efficacious beauty. In peaceful moments, what person or nation does not want to hear that all is well? Schiller’s text An die Freude says nothing more and nothing less than that there are no boundaries, even the enemy can drink with us on the Maginot Lines at Christmas, for all are one in their passion for “Freude:”

All good, all evil,
follows its rosy path.

While Nietzsche argued the same basic ethos for artists, aristocrats, gamblers, and anti-liberals generally, Schiller tries to pass joy’s erasure of differences off as a small improvement on Kant.


The poem’s amoral, Dionysian core spoke to me as a teenager. It said, “Learn German. Learn to smell the roses. Don’t be afraid of evil.” Eventually the rosy path leads to French and Baudelaire, but the first stops for me were Weimar, Bonn, Salzburg, mostly Berlin and Vienna.

The 9/11 air and media attack occurred a month after I left for Berkeley at eighteen, completely naïve about politics and everything else besides Buddhism, weed varietals, and whatever could be learned in AP classes. Easily convinced by frantic young activists that the US government was behind the attacks, I begin attending meetings of the Schiller Institute. It was a group of down and out Americans of a wide range of ages, who idolized great German and Greek men, like Beethoven and Friedrich Schiller. As Joachim Winckelmann urged contemporary artists to abandon originality and take to imitating the “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur” of Greek art (the topic of my honors thesis), the Institute urged us degenerate Americans to train our minds on the likes of Schiller, Leibniz, Riemann. For German geniuses had discovered the discovery process itself (“the logic of scientific discovery” as Karl Popper called his discovery). The key to society’s way forward would involve thinking down Schiller’s rosy path until we were developing nuclear fusion plants, building railroads across the Bering Strait, and colonizing Mars. Among the living, the Schiller Institute had only one sage: Lyndon Larouche. Larouche was concerned about culture and science, and he encouraged his adherents to read Schiller’s poetry in German, and, if you found a way to make Schiller speak English, his massive vanity press might publish your translation. The massive operation published some of the best distributed translations of Schiller’s poetry to this day. Despite the Institute’s expensive preference for print operations, William F. Wertz’s translations of “Ode to Joy” still come up first on Google searches in 2020. Wertz served time in federal prison for tax fraud along with many other Larouche followers of that generation (the FBI stung them once again this century). But Wetz’s translations ride high on lofty hyperbaton and evoke the Institute’s love of all things archaic:

Joy is drunk by every being
From kind nature’s flowing breasts,
Every evil, every good thing
For her rosy footprint quests.

Even before college, I had come to think about Schiller’s words as drunken Dimitri did in the garden scene from The Brother’s Karamazov. It’s a shame to be the worm sung of in the line. Where fire-drunken Wertz, waxes archaic with “To the worm were given blisses,” the hard-hitting Constance Garnett translates so that Dimitri gets to the gritty point:

To insects—sensual lust.

“I am that insect, brother,” says Dimitri. But how ashamed can you be, after all, as long as your goal is the same as everyone else’s? It recalls David Halperin’s reading of Prior Analytics: if the desire for sex is better fulfilled by being loved than by sex itself, then the lustful have nothing to be ashamed of. Theirs too is nothing but the desire to be loved expressed otherwise.

Beethoven thinks feelings otherwise, as pure enthusiasm. Hostility is entirely sublimated on the rosy path. Diminished fifths need not hide in ascending thirds or the other apologetic ploys of classicism, because they are transmuted into the pleasure of frenzy. Like the rocks on which the Sirens’ victims lay disemboweled, the bloody suggestions of the devil’s chord land on the earth in the exact shape of rose petals.

Beethoven belongs to that pantheon of larger than life great men—like Schiller himself, like J.S. Bach, Immanuel Kant, Leibniz, Newton, George Washington, Napoleon, or Gorbachev, Charlemagne, Genghis Khan, or Hammurabi—to whom it is difficult to attribute ordinary emotions. We receive these men as husks of flesh filled with world-historical importance. If we don’t inflate a concept like joy to the breaking point, so that it includes everything from lust to the sense of duty, we simply have no way of understanding these impenetrably great men’s lives at all. Are they insects or angels? It doesn’t matter: they toasted to Joy at its heavenly altar.


My parents were both classical pianists. The framed, pink etching of Beethoven’s portrait on the wall awakened alertness in me. Alertness, in the sense that the Pyrrhonian skeptics idealized, means holding oneself back, potentially indefinitely, until one finally arrives at a supreme view of the whole, ill, childless, nearly friendless except for an extraordinarily patient few, but hopefully having composed the Ninth Symphony or equivalent.

Ambition was no ersatz pregnancy for Beethoven. In his twenties and thirties, Beethoven courted several women, two of them named Therese, a princess name. At forty-five, he was still unmarried, and the custody of his nephew Karl (his right according to his brother’s will) became his passionate cause even though his nephew’s mom was alive. Discord is more distressing than dissonance, and Beethoven was a rageful father—especially when Karl announced his plan to join the military. Wrong masculinity. Not humanist. The nephew tried to shoot himself, and Beethoven allowed him to join the military. Dialectics in vivo. An individual cannot simply decide to modulate between composition and parenting. Individuals are shoved around—the cosmic custody battle is between two unknown parents, two nurturing abysses.

My father moved like Beethoven across the piano and throughout the house, a man apart whose passion is to create. My mother entered Beethoven’s heavenly temple of joy, unmistakably fire-drunken, but without the identity of the great male artist: Beethoven in traffic, in translation, underway between page and ear, between driving children to school and accompanying a ballet rehearsal. My father may have exempted himself from duties to family now and again, whenever the duty to art called him to perform internationally. That arrangement could not hold a marriage together. My father followed in Beethoven’s footsteps: fighting passionately in custody battles. If gender mattered in custody disputes, it also decided who got to be Beethoven and who got to play Beethoven. And even a Beethoven cannot will himself into a feminist on cue, forcing maturity, like he modulates the key of the horn section.

As if not already masculine and godlike enough, Beethoven became a kind of hypermale Helen Keller by losing his hearing. Now not only must a great poet be blind, but a great composer must be deaf. The deaf composer is somehow more fully apart from his art than the blind poet since vision only informs about the world of longing, heroism, and beauty. Sound is not some superficial medium that conveys information to the composer, it is the sign and the signifier, it evokes and is what is evoked—and Beethoven is missing all of it. Thus, the deaf composer has a pathos fit for film (see the finale of Immortal Beloved). Roland Barthes fully exposed this great myth, which has led droves down its rosy path. It cannot be disentangled from the admiration of the Master’s art: when Beethoven, completely deaf, writes music that he cannot possibly hear, it is no longer ephemeral human music. It is the pure ideal of music as writing. It is not music that could have first be tested out, known empirically, in a space where sound travels to the mortal body’s tiny stirrup and anvil. It is music fully internalized, like the silent conversation between me and I, Plato’s account of thought. It is music deconstructed: divine in its pure potentiality.

And yet Beethoven is not some peaceful Deist God the Clockmaker. The songs bang with the wrath of the God of Ezekiel: closer to the proud rantings of Yeezus than to the homilies of the masochistic Jesus. Beethoven performed none of the gentle, geometrical floating of a gavotte. His are the lucubrations of a nineteenth-century ambition for Absolute Knowledge, writhing with the costs of the sacrifices that ambition demands. Hence, in her programmatic forays into feminist musicology, Susan McClary could liken Renaissance music to the multiple female orgasm and accuse Beethoven’s crescendos of sounding like a rapist trying to bang down the door. Beethoven’s brotherly love does not include all equally:

All humans become brothers
where your soft song hovers.

And if you are a woman, you will stand out as an odd-looking brother indeed. But Beethoven is not there to protect you. In a gorgeous Viennese apartment, he is brooding alone, lost in a chord whose dissonance he will feel so deeply that it will cost him a year of lifetime. Before he writes it down, he will stare at the other decorative houses through his window on the Probusgasse, thinking, “am I haute-bourgeoisie now?” relishing the privilege, while hating inequality. He wishes he were a real god for a moment. Unlike Goethe, he knows he is not making history like Napoleon. And the difference hurts. He is writing a superb symphony, but he knows it is just music. Music cannot stop people from hurting each other because nothing turns out the way it is composed to.

Either that or he is dead now.