The Ode to Brexit Joy

The Eroica copy in the library of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna, with the hole where Beethoven angrily scratched out the dedication to Napoleon

One of the greatest Europeans of them all hugely admired Napoleon, until one day, he didn’t. Beethoven famously wrote his Eroica Symphony (one of his many paradigm leaps) in part as a homage to the tiny Corsican, but when the latter’s superstate ambitions and ego took over, Beethoven lost the rag. He had principles that weren’t for sale.

So it’s both irksome and ignorant of the EU to claim (in 1993) the Ode to Joy from the Ninth (21 years later, from a tired and reflective genius), as some sort of superstate anthem. Beethoven would not have approved.

The nadir of this cultural appropriation was when the routinely stupid SNP whistled and gurned it to ‘protest’ about Brexit (narrator: normal Scottish people are indifferent at best to the EU, don’t believe the hype).

In the real world, intelligent EU types, particularly in the German media, have sensed that the game is nearly up. Merkel has been a disaster, ultimately, and the future without the UK’s dosh and common sense looks scary to them. As it should. Here is one such piece in the mighty Der Spiegel, published on Brexit day, and written by the prescient Romain Leick.  I have copied the whole thing.  One of the key points in the road is spelled out: “Brussels did nothing to help the lamentable Prime Minister David Cameron win the referendum”. In fact they treated him like a turd on their elegant shoes.

Essential reading and reflection:

Genius, actually

My favourite portrait of Beethoven, by Josef Stieler, in a private collection

No-one is absolutely certain of his date of birth. It was in 1770, and the first record of his existence was his baptism in Bonn. That was on 17th December, and all we know is that he was born before that, possibly the day before. Given general piety and infant mortality, there was none of that 21st century hanging around before getting baptised. It was a practical business, more than a social event.

So this year is Beethoven’s 250th birthday year – cue an explosion of commercial activity, which if it brings new listeners to the great man’s portfolio, all well and good.

It was Robert Schumann, a great composer, who in a review (his other job) of Chopin’s (another great composer) Variation’s on Mozart’s (another great composer) La Ci Darem La Mano, declared ”Hats off, gentlemen, a genius”. Well, probably. In fact all three deserve to be called a genius perhaps. But none of them compare to Beethoven.

Everyone knows at least a bit of Beethoven, starting with the opening of the 5th Symphony of course, but what would constitute the archetypal, unmistakable Beethoven? The thorny, melodic, delicate, brutal, assured, architectural, emotional and thrillingly original master.

Well, again, quite a few pieces. There are no duds. However, I’ll go ultimately with Op 106, the Hammerklavier. I wrote about this seven years ago, and I still think it reads well enough. My reason for tackling the Hammerklavier is in that piece – I was intrigued by the reference to it in Colin Wilson’s The Outsider:

There is a premonition of such a faculty in Van Gogh’s Green Cornfield and Road with Cypresses; there is a premonition in the last movement of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata, as well as certain canvasses of Gaugin, and page after page of Also Sprach Zarathustra. The Outsider believes that he can establish such a way of seeing permanently in himself. But how?

Indeed. What on earth was in that last movement? Beethoven was pretty much deaf by 1814. He would live another thirteen years. The Hammerklavier was published in 1818. He was totally deaf when he wrote it. When you listen it seems unbelievable that this was the case. How did he perceive it? The long slow movement, the best metaphor for which is an icy lake at night, feels like it reflects his isolation and likely despair. That’s always been my impression, but how to summarise the entirety of this initially impenetrable, gigantic and forbidding creation?

Well my efforts are somewhat puny. I pass you over to someone who would have a plausible claim to the title that used to crop up in the Sunday supplements, The Cleverest Man in London, were he not so modest. Polymath Jonathan Gaisman is a QC with a remarkable range of interests, and a regular contributor to the now changed Standpoint magazine. Here is his truly essential piece from 2018 on the Hammerklavier:

My first recording of it was by Emil Gilels, followed swiftly by the Chilean master, Claudio Arrau. Gilels had the measure of it, but I felt rebuffed by his long austere adagio, Arrau was more humane. The sonata arouses such feelings all the time. One thing is for sure – you have to be technically brilliant, there are no hiding places. The final fugue must sound almost impossible, without compromising pace and vitality. Here is the reliable Jed Distler’s review of your options from the most recent Gramophone magazine. It’s a terrific discussion:

Interesting conclusions. I have Bax on my list now. I already have 40 odd recordings on CD and LP. Pollini was my preferred choice for a long time, but it changes.

Beethoven however is not just found in works like this, which is just as well. In this year there will be mountains of articles added to the already enormous literature on the man, and in the non-technical category, I can do no better than to point you to fellow pianist Damian Thompson’s most recent Spectator piece:

Finally, YouTube has a huge library of classical music now. Slightly to my surprise, I was highly impressed by Valentina Lisitsa’s beautifully filmed and recorded version of this piece. Watch as well as listen, and you’ll see what a superhuman feat it was to write – and play.

We live in an era where the word ‘genius’ has been so trashed by applying it to any old hack that we have almost lost the comprehension of its true expression. Well let the great man recalibrate us all in his anniversary year…

”Hats off, gentlemen, a genius”



Poetry corner: Beethoven and Clive James

I found this in an old edition of the consistently excellent Standpoint magazine. Clive James, despite his ‘Saturday night TV’ persona is a true intellectual and a magnificent poet. In theory he hadn’t long to live, due to  leukaemia, but thankfully he is still with us. He had an affair which clearly brought great pain to his marriage, but it survived. This piece is a tribute to his wife and also to Beethoven – perhaps the greatest artist of them all. The dense, perfectly formed string quartet opus 131 is ostensibly the other subject of this terrific poem. See the videos below, for that and Pogorelich (as mentioned in the verse), himself a somewhat otherworldly artist.

How to write about music: Beethoven

One of the things I cannot do is have music I really like – or want to like – on in the background. I’m referring to classical music primarily, and in particular, Beethoven. There is so much to hear even in the early less radical stuff, but it easily goes in one ear and out the other if I’m not giving it my proper attention. It also feels vaguely disrespectful. Less so with Mozart, who for all his genius, definitely churned out a lot of filler.

Describing what you’re getting is hard to do well. Having got to know, sort of, Beethoven’s late string quartets, as they’re usually called, though you can probably never fully ‘know’ them, I’m starting from the beginning this year. Opus 18 no 1, the string quartet in F major. Here is a fine brief summary of it, by the pianist Peter Hill. I quote: “The opening of the first movement bristles with the suppressed energy and explosive contrasts we expect from early Beethoven, while the music’s continuity arises from the perpetual transformation of ideas, in particular the opening motif with its characteristic turn“. Not a bad description, and here is the coiled energy of that first movement, played by the uber precise Afiara Quartet

Wind it back to 1957 though, and here is the altogether more vivid prose of the late Roger Fiske , in the essential Chamber Music, edited by Alec Robertson, a legend of British classical music criticism:


You don’t have to be able to read music – I barely can – to get the gist of that and its  ‘philosophical point among equals’. The last phrase is exactly right: the first movement in question is indeed basically six ‘dusty looking notes’ polished to 24 carat gold. Beautiful and concise. You get the feeling Beethoven would have liked it too.

**If anyone is interested in guides to Beethoven’s amazing quartets, try 1, 2 and 3