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Beethoven’s Apollonian Beauty

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We think of Beethoven as the stormy rebel, the musical Zeus hurling his thunderbolts. But there exists also Beethoven’s Apollonian side. His music can indeed be so elegant, so meltingly tender or nostalgic. So much of what Beethoven composed projects a pastoral peace and contentment, evoking the walks in the country he so enjoyed.

Musical aesthetics in the 19th and 20th centuries was heavily preoccupied with the twin concepts of the Apollonian and the Dionysian. The Apollonian stands for Apollo, the Greek god of reason, logic, and light; the Dionysian comes from Dionysus, the god who represented the wilder passions associated with wine and fertility. Nietzsche famously explored the dichotomy in his Birth of Tragedy, and it became a common way for aestheticians to talk about the history of art. Musicologists described music history as swaying between Apollonian and Dionysian tendencies. Thus, the Renaissance polyphony of Palestrina is Apollonian—serene, balanced, ordered—while the early Baroque vocal music of Monteverdi is Dionysian—exuberant, expressive, dramatic. Bach, contrapuntal master of the Baroque, is the rational, intellectual composer par excellence, and Mozart embodies sublime melodic grace; both are predominantly Apollonian. With the Romantics, the Dionysian element came to the fore and stayed for quite a long time: Berlioz, Liszt, Wagner, ending in the outsized self-expression of Strauss and Mahler.

And then there is Beethoven. Another pair of concepts closely parallel to Apollonian and Dionysian are Classical and Romantic, and Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) historically forms the nexus between the two. Beethoven apprenticed in the world of Haydn and Mozart, perfecters of what has come to be known as Viennese Classicism. Beethoven inherited their solid forms and logical procedures of thematic development. However, he came increasingly to embody early Romantic attitudes, both personally and aesthetically. (As Donald J. Grout wisely reminds us: “He himself is neither Classic nor Romantic; he is Beethoven.”) Such works as the Third and Fifth Symphonies push through the boundaries of 18th-century decorum, both in terms of intensity of emotional statement and of sheer length. We thrill to the “daemonic energy” (Grout’s words again) of Beethoven’s mature works, its “volcanic and exuberant” qualities, its bumptious humor and demented fury.

It’s these Dionysian aspects of Beethoven that we have come to stress above all. We think of him as the stormy rebel, the musical Zeus hurling his thunderbolts. It is surprising, therefore, to realize that there exists another side to Beethoven—the Apollonian side. Putting aside for a moment Beethoven the myth and reacquainting oneself with Beethoven the composer, one is amazed to realize how elegant the music can be at times, or how meltingly tender or nostalgic. So much of what Beethoven composed projects a pastoral peace and contentment, evoking the walks in the country he so enjoyed.

The Symphony No. 4 in B-flat is often cited as a prime example of the Apollonian Beethoven. Unsurprisingly, it is one of the least popular and most neglected of his symphonies; musicologist Robert Greenberg has called it “a work in search of an audience.” The whole symphony gives an impression of power tempered with grace and wit. The Adagio is like an expansive and peaceful landscape of rolling hills. There is jovial humor in both the hide-and-go-seek of the scherzo and the comic scampering of the finale. Unlike the mighty Third (Eroica) and Fifth Symphonies that surround it, the Fourth has no victorious apotheosis, nor does it need any. Its spirit is uncomplicated geniality. Beethoven’s notebooks bear witness to intense struggle as he wrestled his musical ideas into shape, but the Fourth Symphony appears to have elicited no such difficulty. It is a flowing, effortless and effervescent piece of music, and without doubt one of his most underrated.

Compare this with the Symphony No. 7 in A and you see the Apollonian/Dionysian contrast at work. The Seventh closes with a frenzied and euphoric dance that was actually been compared (by Wagner) to a Bacchic revelry. The polarity is crystal clear: The Apollonian symbolizes reason, contemplation and restraint; the Dionysian, bodily movement and abandon.

When the Fourth Symphony was premiered at a private concert in 1807, it shared a program with another Apollonian work, the G-major Piano Concerto (No. 4). The concerto is most famous for its slow movement, a dialogue between a vehement orchestra and a consoling piano which one critic compared to Orpheus taming the Furies at the gates of Hades.

But to my mind it’s Beethoven’s violin music that especially shows his Apollonian side. (A clear exception is the fiery and decidedly Dionysian Kreutzer Sonata, which Beethoven and the black English violinist George Bridgetower are said to have sight-read at its first performance in a most daredevil style.) The Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D major is perhaps the archetypal violin concerto, and it is pure Apollo from start to finish. From the four portentous drum beats that open the concerto, the various themes unfold in both the violin and the orchestra with a serene mastery, the violin floating above the orchestra with Olympian poise. The slow-movement variations take us to a realm of pure spiritual peace as the violin soars upward (prefiguring the celestial violin solo in the Benedictus of the Missa Solemnis). Nothing could possibly conclude this better than the rustic “hunting” rondo finale six-eight time.

In 1812 Beethoven wrote his last violin sonata, No. 10 in G, Opus 96, often considered the gateway to his mystical late style. This sonata was dedicated to Pierre Rode, a renowned French violinist of his day (and an interesting composer in his own right). From what we know about Rode’s refined and lyrical style of playing, this work seems tailor-made for him. It is a dreamy, rambling meditation in spring meadows and woods. As in the Violin Concerto, Beethoven concludes the sonata in a rustic vein, with a set of variations on an almost naïve folk theme, ending in a peculiarly mellow kind of comedy. After the premiere, performed by Rode with Beethoven’s patron Archduke Rudolph at the piano, a critic commented:

“Without struggling against tempests and storms, without having to fight giants
or slay dragons, we amble along the thornless path, without a care in the world.”

So ingrained is the image of Beethoven as a wild-haired madman that his calmer and idyllic side is often forgotten—with the possible exception of the Pastoral Symphony, a perennial favorite.  Amid all the Romantic hyperbole that surrounds Beethoven, it is easy to forget that his music—in addition to much else—is a summation and amazing extension of the classic forms passed on to him by Haydn and Mozart.

Immediately after Beethoven’s death, writers on music enshrined him with Mozart and Haydn as the representatives of a Classical Period in music. This was felt necessary in order to differentiate these artists from the burgeoning Romantic movement. Haydn and Mozart in particular were cast as the paragons of classical order and restraint (even though they were probably not conscious of cultivating such qualities). Beethoven was the bridge to the Romantic age, and while his reliance on classical models was acknowledged, it was his defiance that was always stressed—the startling revolutionary qualities we hear in the Third, Fifth, and Ninth Symphonies.

But in fact, Apollo and Dionysus coexist throughout Beethoven’s work, as they do in any well-integrated artist. What is unfortunate is that a post-Romantic aesthetic has distorted our idea of what constitutes “profundity” in music. Much musical commentary seems to imply that only a titanic wrestle with Fate or an emotional cataclysm qualifies as profound, and that calm and order and a godlike mastery and control of musical technique are lesser qualities. Laying aside for a moment Beethoven the Myth and listening attentively to his works, we are reminded of the depth of emotion that resides in solidity and perfection of form, poise, and serenity.

This essay is part of a series commemorating the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven. 

This essay was first published here in February 2020.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

The featured image is a portrait of Beethoven in 1815 by Joseph Willibrord Mähler, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Michael De Sapio is Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative. A writer and classical musician from Alexandria, Virginia, he attended The Catholic University of America and The Peabody Conservatory of Music. He writes Great Books study guides for the educational online resource SuperSummary, and his essays on religious and aesthetic topics have been featured in Fanfare and Touchstone, among other publications.

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