An introduction to music research
An introduction to music research

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An introduction to music research

4.3 Beethoven and the Nazis

Figure 17 Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) Composing his 'Missa Solemnis' (oil on canvas) by Joseph Carl Stieler (1781-1858)

You’ve already heard a little about Beethoven’s prominent position in the celebratory events surrounding the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. This is just one of a number of instances in which Beethoven has been connected with political events or ideologies, stretching back to his reported desire to dedicate the Third Symphony to the liberating Napoleon Bonaparte and his subsequent scratching out of the dedication once he learned that Napoleon had declared himself Emperor of France.

Indeed, as David B. Dennis notes, “German political leaders have consistently associated Beethoven with ideologies they promote and actions they undertake” (1996, p. 3); however, it is also the case that it tends to be Beethoven the man that is their focus, particularly in the struggle to overcome his deafness. The political views of the composer himself, however, seem to have been remarkably ambiguous, with his attitudes towards the enormous political and social upheaval of his times unclear at best, and often seeming to swing alarmingly from one position to another (1996, pp. 23-24).

Much of Beethoven’s music was interpreted by Nazi critics as serving a German national myth marked by a certain belligerency. Arnold Schering suggested that the Fifth Symphony, for example, represented a “fight for existence waged by a Volk that looks for its Führer and finally finds it” (Dennis, 1996, p. 151) and the Seventh Symphony was described as a “victory symphony” when the Berlin Philharmonic performed on tour for German soldiers in 1940 (ibid., p. 168). Soldiers were also encouraged to listen to Beethoven’s symphonies in regular radio broadcasts to provide them with the stamina to fight better (ibid., p. 166) and even children’s books suggested that Beethoven’s symphonies were nationalistic fight-songs (ibid., p. 153).


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