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Beethoven’s 250th birth anniversary is right time to reappraise his interest in traditional music of all kinds

Beethoven has become associated with some of Europe’s most cherished ideals. The opening theme of his Fifth Symphony was used as a symbol for victory during World War II.

Written by Suddhaseel Sen |
Updated: December 17, 2020 8:51:26 am
Beethoven also started taking an interest in non-European music. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

The music of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) has remained, by and large, at the heart of the musical cultures of only those countries where Western art music has flourished. In India, where Western art music has never gained a strong foothold, Beethoven’s music does not have the following that comes from a broader understanding among the general public. This is because, contrary to the popular cliché, music is not a universal language. One may like unfamiliar music, but understanding it requires training. In the absence of large-scale institutional training of Western music in India, it is easier for us to go with received opinion than be able to engage with Beethoven’s works with an independent sense of judgment. Moreover, since there are no hints of Indian influence in Beethoven’s music, one may ask why we need to engage with him at all.

Strangely enough, the most neglected parts of Beethoven’s output are the works that reveal the composer’s increasing interest in different musical traditions from both within and outside Europe, from around 1809 onwards. While European composers have used their own popular and folk melodies for centuries, Beethoven’s teacher Joseph Haydn being a particularly important figure in this regard, collections of “national melodies” started to be published in Europe from the 1780s onwards. The melodies were either from parts of Europe that were then regarded as being culturally “marginal,” or from non-European countries. Concomitantly, the earliest European scholarly works on traditional music began appearing from the late 1780s. India was represented early on by Sir William Jones’s On the Musical Modes of the Hindus (first published in 1792), which Count Dalberg translated into German in 1802, with a dedication to Haydn. It remained the only German-language sourcebook on Indian music for the next 50 years or so, with later German writers basing their own writings on it. One of the earliest arrangements of Indian music, The Oriental Miscellany, by William Hamilton Bird (first published in Calcutta in 1789), does not seem to have reached Germany. No wonder Beethoven could not have been interested in Indian music — he had no opportunity to hear it.

Between 1809 and 1820, however, Beethoven published arrangements of over 200 Scottish, Irish and Welsh folk songs, in 18 groups, for the Scottish music collector and publisher George Thomson. He also published instrumental variations on 16 folk melodies from various parts of Europe (opp. 105 and 107, both from 1818-19), for piano and optional flute or violin. Together, they form a large portion of his output. Beethoven began by calling these pieces “arrangements” and initially found some of the tunes bizarre. However, as Barry Cooper has observed in his book on the Thomson arrangements, such melodies gradually became compositional stimuli, affecting the ways in which Beethoven eventually came to harmonise melodies with unusual phrase lengths and modal touches. He broadened the scope of the project by including arrangements of folk melodies from Russia, Portugal, and Spain, among others, from Group 8 (1816) onwards, and started regarding these pieces as his compositions, even as he indicated the nation of origin of these tunes. Finally, Beethoven continued to make such arrangements even after Thomson’s commission ended. What originally began as a financially lucrative commission had become something far more important.

Simultaneously, Beethoven also started taking an interest in non-European music. The poet Franz Grillparzer reports that at a soirée in which the composer Georg Joseph Vogler was improvising upon a tune that he had purportedly collected from Africa during his voyage in the late 1790s, Beethoven listened to him carefully, even as others drifted away after a while. Later, Beethoven made a rare excursion into non-European musical exoticism in the Dance of the Dervishes from his music to the play, The Ruins of Athens (1811). The French composer Camille Saint-Saëns, who regularly spent long periods in North Africa, and took inspiration from some of its music, thought that Beethoven could not have composed the dance without having any authentic example in front of him.

Beethoven’s growing interest in “national melodies” of both European and non-European provenance was, in fact, part of a transition in Germany in the first two decades in the 19th-century Germany — from Enlightenment universalism to the Romantic interest in cultural difference. “Nationalism and exoticism were opposite sides of the same coin,” as Richard Taruskin observed, and the second volume of Vogler’s collection of “national melodies,” Polymelos (1806), contains tunes of purportedly African and Chinese provenance, placed side by side with those from Norway and Bavaria. Vogler’s pupil Carl Maria von Weber produced a body of operas from which only one, Der Freischütz, features German folk tunes, while he incorporated authentic melodies from China and the Arab lands in some of his other compositions. By the 1830s, Weber came to be valorised as the creator of German national opera, while Beethoven came to be regarded as both the best of the classical composers and, at the same time, a particularly German composer. Both Beethoven’s and Weber’s compositions that did not fit the nationalist bill were written out of German musical historiography. Anglophone musicology, which traditionally has been closely aligned with the German, followed suit. As a result, Beethoven’s interest in traditional music was largely ignored, as were the compositions he wrote as a consequence.

There are also aesthetic reasons behind this biased reception of Beethoven. The line of development that came to define excellence in the German musical world is the one in which the composer spoke with a stylistically unified voice to express his innermost feelings in music of an abstract character; many of Beethoven’s most acclaimed works stand at its pinnacle. In another line of development, composers like Vogler and Weber experimented with different styles in music that were often of a descriptive or pictorial nature, and incorporated non-Western music especially in operas with exotic settings. Beethoven contributed to this tradition, too, even as he was aware of the critical biases against it. Hence, he claimed, somewhat disingenuously, that his Pastoral Symphony was “more the expression of feeling than painting,” even though some of the best music of the symphony — the storm, for example — is vividly descriptive.

Moreover, Beethoven modelled his incomparably greater work on Justus Heinrich Knecht’s Le Portrait musical de la Nature, which was dedicated to Vogler. Indeed, some of the original music that Beethoven produced in the last 15 years or so of his life came to be influenced by this second tradition, as can be seen from his imitation of a folk fiddler in the second movement of his String Quartet op. 135, or in the Dance of the Dervishes, among others. But scholars and critics have traditionally ignored the larger implications of this aspect of Beethoven’s musical development.

Beethoven has become associated with some of Europe’s most cherished ideals. The opening theme of his Fifth Symphony was used as a symbol for victory during World War II. His Ninth Symphony was performed during the Fall of the Berlin Wall, and the “Ode to Joy” theme from it has become the anthem of the European Union. But on Beethoven’s 250th birth anniversary (December 17), it is time to reappraise Beethoven’s interest in traditional music of all kinds. To do so would be to take an important step in resuscitating the history of engagement of Western musicians with non-Western traditions — one that we in India are hardly aware of, and understandably so.

This article first appeared in the print edition on December 17, 2020 under the title ‘A folk fiddler in string quartet’. The writer is assistant professor, department of humanities and social sciences, IIT Bombay

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