By: Amin Jan Naim
This newspaper had, on August 18, 2011, carried my article on the relevance to us of Beethoven. In the pantheon of aesthetic creativity of entire humanity, Beethoven’s music is at the pinnacle. It is powerful, tender, sublime, unique, utter and stark. No other aesthetic comes anywhere near its greatness.
A musical work reflects the calibre and persona of its composer, its interpreters as well as its listeners. Even within the genre of western classical music, there are vast differences in the excellence of composers and interpreters. Some evoke a strong resonance in the hearers, while others do not.
Thus, to take some examples from my own point of view, although Johann Sebastian Bach’s music is held in immense awe and reverence, it does not appeal to me at all. As Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy and Gustav Mahler reflect the Jewish ethos in their music, it also does not appeal to me.
Robert Schuman was a composer suffering from bipolar disorder, and his music is fractious and complex. Richard Wagner was eulogised by the Nazis and his music was banned from performance in Israel. Wagner’s music is good but nowhere near Beethoven’s greatness. Rossini’s lovely melodies are highly appealing. Glinka and Prokofiev are also superb.
Besides the calibre of composers, the interpreters can make a huge difference in the effects produced. For Beethoven, the greatest interpreter of his symphonies, in my opinion, was Arturo Toscanini. His renderings are purely “classical” in form, as contrasted to Wilhelm Furtwangler’s “romantic” interpretations.
Also noteworthy are the performances by the late conductors Sergiu Celibidache and Georg Solti. I may also mention the pianist Glen Gould and the cellist Jacqueline du Pre as having been outstanding musicians.
Beethoven’s music reflects the essence of ancient Greek mythology. For example, the second movement is a venture into heavenly Elysium, while the third contains the thunder lightning bolts of Zeus. But one must not look at music in a pictorial form. Instead, it should be grasped in its intellectual and spiritual depth.
The foundation of music lies in its social aesthetic. Music is important for a society. In the present day world, there are greater affinities amongst like-minded persons in different countries, races and nations around the globe, than there is amongst those within a particular country.
It is truly remarkable that China, Japan and Korea have achieved immense and widespread success in the promotion and fostering of western classical music. Their further potential in this regard is huge.
Plato was of the view that the most effective way to change a society is to change its music. This is not as far-fetched as it appears.
The soldiers from remote parts of our martial districts were as inspired, during British days, by western martial tunes played by bagpipe military bands as any European soldier would have been. Unfortunately, this superb musical tradition of the British Indian Army no longer prevails in the Pakistan army bands.
There is a strong political element in music. The idea behind the formation of the West-East Divan Orchestra through the commendable joint efforts of the late Palestinian writer and intellectual Edward Said and the Jewish pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim was to take a step towards peace between Israel and Palestine by bringing together Israeli and Arab musicians playing together. It has achieved laudable results.
In the course of history, societies have achieved greatness by their musical geniuses and philosophers. Such greatness eventually percolates down to the society at large. But essentially, the genre of western classical music is an elitist one. The heights of artistic endeavour are an exclusive and privileged preserve. This elitism must not, however, detract from its value to humanity at large and to the achievements of human history.
In my twilight years, if I were to reflect on what has been of supreme importance to me in my life, it would undoubtedly be Beethoven and only Beethoven.