“Beethoven,” says Ian Hislop, “was very like the Beatles.” Hislop may be an accomplished historian but he is also a seasoned satirist – I wonder which is talking. “No, I mean it,” he insists. “There are lots of similarities.”
Whether you’re a musicologist or not it’s a surprising claim to make for arguably the greatest composer of the 19th century, who was born in Bonn in 1770 and famously stricken deaf at the height of his genius. But Hislop, presenter of a new documentary on Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, is ready to back the claim up.
“Beethoven was working in a period of revolutionary change, as were the Beatles. And in both cases their music picked up on this.”
If Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is like Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a synthesis of what has gone before into one work of brilliance, then the Fifth is his Revolver – a blast of new thinking that changed everything. And it begins just as Taxman, Revolver’s opening track, does with a staccato attack on the senses.
Hislop was in short trousers when he first heard the unmistakable dah-dah-dah-daaah that opens the Fifth. “We had a lesson called Musical Appreciation,” he says. “We sat around an ancient gramophone and the teacher brought out a record and said, ‘This boys is one of the great works.’ And that is just what it is.”
The rapid trio of G notes followed by an ominous elongated E flat were broadcast by the BBC across occupied Europe during the Second World War, the sound of victory over German fascism when that victory seemed far from likely. Ironic, then, that Beethoven was a German.
But as Hislop shows, Beethoven’s life is awash with irony. He was a champion of the ordinary citizen but produced much of his work for princes. A German who revered Napoleon (until Napoleon betrayed the ideals of the French Revolution and made himself emperor). And a man of great passion who probably died a virgin.
Perhaps the greatest irony is that the Fifth Symphony, where sound is celebrated as the supreme medium for genius, was created by a man who was going deaf. “The classic view is that the opening is the rat-a-tat-tat of fate knocking on the door, to tell Beethoven he’s losing his hearing,” says Hislop. “But there is another argument that says the work is actually a revolutionary call to arms. Beethoven was not lost in the Music of the Spheres, but involved in the political struggle for greater freedom.” Beethoven has long been regarded as a great romantic figure of the 19th century. The Heathcliff of the treble clef, he glares angrily out of portraits. “He’s become a sort of a Sturm und Drang statue, fossilised in the form of that bust on Schroeder’s little piano in Peanuts. But it’s time to look at him differently, and many experts now argue the romantic hero thing was overblown. Beethoven was a political artist, interested in the liberty, fraternity and equality demanded by the French Revolution.”
In the documentary Hislop joins forces with the conductor John Eliot Gardiner and his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique to show how Beethoven borrowed from popular European revolutionary songs, just as the Beatles would later borrow freely from the music of black America. “There’s one revolutionary song John plays that virtually has the dah-dah-dah-daaah in it,” says Hislop. “It shows that Beethoven was happy to lift things when he was creating a great formal work like the Fifth.”
France’s revolution led to wars that spread the new ideas across Europe but also divided the continent and Beethoven often found himself trapped in places, like the Austro-Hungarian Empire, that were the sworn enemies of the French regime he admired. In fact, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony had its premiere in the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s capital of Vienna, on 22 December 1808 in the Theater an der Wien. It was not one of history’s great first nights.
“Beethoven put it on at Christmas,” says Hislop. “But worse than that, he chose a date when all the good musicians in Vienna were playing at another concert. The venue was only half full and freezing and on top of that he put on over four hours of music. By the time he reached the Fifth, the audience had had enough. There was no cheering.”
Beethoven was used to rejection. “There are many stories about how Beethoven suffered at the hands of his father,” says Hislop. “He was made to pound the piano until the keys broke.”
This left the adult Beethoven with a serious approach to composition. When he was at the keyboard he was entirely focused. One visitor to his quarters noticed a full chamber pot under the piano. This is one of several wonderful details Hislop digs up, including the revelation that Napoleon wasn’t short. “Entirely British propaganda,” says Hislop. “He was 5ft 6in – taller than the average Frenchman at that time.”
Hislop also challenges the idea that Beethoven gave up on Napoleon after he crowned himself Emperor (Beethoven removed the dedication to Napoleon from his Eroica Symphony). “It wasn’t the end of the story at all,” says Hislop. “In a later letter Beethoven writes, ‘I may have got the bastard wrong.’ ”
Finally we learn that much of Beethoven’s famous bad humour, and his genius, may simply have been re-channelled sexual frustration.
“Lots of people I’ve spoken to said that, essentially Beethoven only wanted to sleep with the social class above him. As tehy all said no to him, Beethoven may have ended up entirely celibate.” In which respect, at least, Ludwig van Beethoven was nothing like the Beatles.
The Secret of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is on tonight at 9pm on BBC2