Abstract

This article argues for a number of hitherto unrecognized continuities——stylistic, aesthetic, and ideological——between Beethoven's marginalized ““political music”” from the period of the Congress of Vienna and his canonical symphonic works. It rereads his œœuvre against the background of the popularity and ubiquity of the ““Handelian sublime”” in early-nineteenth-century Viennese public life——that is, the aesthetics and social practice of grand choral singing, associated primarily with some of Handel's oratorios, but also with the late choral works of Haydn. Presenting new archival research into Vienna's politicized choral culture, the article argues that contemporary theorizing about the power of the musical sublime became the theoretical wing of music's changing social status, as it was mobilized by the state during the Napoleonic Wars more than ever before. These new, Handelian contexts for Beethoven's music lead to three conclusions. First, the choral aesthetic background to Beethoven's symphonies has been largely overlooked. With reference to original performance contexts as well as the topical character of Beethoven's symphonies, the article argues that the symphonies are often best understood as orchestral transmutations of the grand Handelian chorus. Against this background, the appearance of an actual chorus in the Ninth might be reconceived as a moment when the genre's aesthetic debt is most apparent, rather than a shocking generic transgression. Second, the distinction, commonly elaborated by Beethoven scholars, between the mere bombast of Beethoven's political compositions and the ““authentic,”” Kantian sublime of human freedom supposedly articulated in his symphonies cannot easily be sustained. Third, the cultural entanglement of choral and symphonic music in Beethoven's Vienna reveals something not only of the political origins but also of the continuing political potency of Beethoven's symphonies. With reference to Althusserian theories of power and subjectivity, the article speculates that the compelling sense of listener subjectivity created by Beethoven's most vaunted symphonic compositions (noted by Scott Burnham) comes about in part through the music's and the listener's transformation of external, choral reflections of political power into internal, symphonic ones——a transformation that leaves its mark on the topical character of the symphonies, which, especially in their most intense moments of subjective engagement, are replete with official topics and gestures: marches, hymns, and fugues. This might explain why the music has so often been heard as simultaneously browbeating and uplifting, authoritarian and liberating.

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