Text and illustrations by Olivia Giovetti, VAN Magazine
The 1994 Beethoven biopic “Immortal Beloved” features the late composer’s secretary, Anton Schindler, in pursuit of the anonymous woman to whom one of the most famous love letters in music history was addressed. Towards the beginning of this search, Schindler is discouraged by Beethoven’s brother, Nikolaus, who insists: “Ludwig was a woman-hater!”
Of course, “Immortal Beloved” is fiction. Numerous liberties are taken with history in favor of a good story. It’s not entirely clear that Beethoven was indeed a woman-hater: He encouraged the careers of several young female soloists and composers. His only opera, “Fidelio,” features a heroine (Leonore) saving her husband, going to lengths that at once both defy and define gender roles of the 19th century.
But there is also some truth to this line. “He was horrible to his sister-in-law. He had fairly toxic relationships to real women,” said musicologist Susan McClary. Beethoven grew up with an abusive father, and often pursued unavailable women, many of whom wound up becoming close, platonic friends. And, despite being largely viewed today as a symbol of classical music at its most titanically masculine (largely through his Third, Fifth, and Ninth Symphonies), he was, and remains, the subject of admiration and inspiration for generations of feminist thinkers and artists.
Beethoven was a child of the Enlightenment, a turning point for what would by the end of the 19th century give way to first-wave feminism. He was 21 when Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1792 proto-feminist essay, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, was published. Its argument against viewing women “as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone” certainly seemed to speak to how Beethoven would later fashion Leonore in “Fidelio.”
“We have no reason to think that [he was a feminist],” said McClary, who then added that the image of Beethoven as a pinnacle of masculinity is just one facet of his musical identity, mainly contained in three of his most famous symphonies. “More of [his works] are written to counter that struggle-to-triumph trajectory than not,” she explained. Where the Third, Fifth, and Ninth symphonies present central figures that, when faced with any form of obstacle, “have to blow it up… in order to to manage to have a real sense of selfhood by the end of the piece,” McClary pointed out that almost none of his other pieces (which number over 700) work that way. “The range of subjectivities that Beethoven puts into circulation in his sonatas, in his chamber music, in the other symphonies, often are critiques of that very version of masculinity that we all identify as him.”
As Europe was reckoning with gender parity through the Enlightenment, the United States—inspired in part by the German Romantics—was seeing similar arguments come up through the transcendentalist movement. Author Margaret Fuller was at the center of many of these debates, and also one of the first people to hear Beethoven’s music on American shores. In her own words, she “never yet loved any human being so well as the music of Beethoven.”
She also bore the imprimatur of Mary Wollstonecraft. In 1845, she published Woman in the Nineteenth Century, based on an article she had written two years earlier (the same year in which she wrote a posthumous love letter to Beethoven): What Woman needs is not as a woman to act or rule, but as a nature to grow, as an intellect to discern, as a soul to live freely and unimpeded.… Let it not be said, wherever there is energy or creative genius, ‘She has a masculine mind.’ This by no means argues a willing want of generosity toward Woman.
This idea of eschewing the idea of a woman with a masculine mind would be echoed in “Getting Down Off the Beanstalk,” an essay published by McClary over 140 years later that alludes to both Fuller’s “masculine mind” and the perceptibly false ideal of the masculine composer: In order not to resemble the passive ideal of femininity, we have learned how to perform or write (how often have we gloried in this compliment!) with balls; and yet we have also learned not to play too aggressively for fear of terrifying…our patriarchal mentors.
On both sides of the Atlantic, this era of the 19th century saw an intensified divide between “masculine” and “feminine” music, creativity, and overall education. Upper- and middle-class women began to respond to this by forming ladies’ clubs, social groups that often centered on one topic of interest. Such groups allowed women of means to transcend the isolation of housewifery and educate themselves in topics that were avoided in their primary education. Writing in Etude Magazine at the turn of the century, Fanny Morris Smith implored her readers, “weary of keeping up an artificial life of cruel etiquette” to “realize and help others to realize what life meant” to composers like Beethoven. “In short, get out of yourself into that kind of helpfulness that organization best promotes.” No great surprise, then, that the women who “got out of themselves” and organized would lead to the suffragist movement in both the US and UK.
For feminist authors in the early 20th century, Beethoven also became a tool of inspiration. He factors into Dorothy Richardson’s 13-volume modernist opus, Pilgrimage, which she began to publish in 1915. The sequence of semi-autobiographical novels were among the first to use stream-of-consciousness in English. One such moment features Richardson’s avatar, Miriam, playing one of Beethoven’s piano pieces in a London drawing room. This scandalizes her audiences: Miriam perceives a “sudden loud outbreak of assertions turning into scornful disgust.” What we would now call “imposter syndrome” sets in for Miriam, who imagines her listeners “declaring that she had no right to her understanding of the music; no business to get away into it and hide her defects and get out of things and escape the proper exposure of her failure.”
It’s a moment not unlike those in the novels of Virginia Woolf, whose 1931 stream-of-consciousness masterpiece, The Waves, also takes inspiration from Beethoven. A fan of Beethoven’s late, form- and convention-defying string quartets, Woolf used the structural experimentations of Beethoven as inspiration for her own form.
In crafting the cadence of Bernard’s final speech in The Waves, Woolf returned to these beloved quartets, writing to her sister: “It’s music I want; to stimulate & suggest.” It wasn’t the only time Woolf consciously or subconsciously mirrored Beethoven in her own creative process, as her husband Leonard would later write in his memoirs. “I had always vaguely thought that the cavatina [of Beethoven’s Op. 130 String Quartet] might be played at her cremation or mine so that these bars would synchronize with the opening of the doors and the music would propel us into eternal oblivion,” he recalled. (Decades later, the late quartets would be some of the last music that Susan Sontag listened to in her hospital room before succumbing to cancer in 2004.)
The creative descendants of Richardson and Woolf who lived and worked in the age of mid-century, second-wave feminism, took a more concrete stance on women’s rights and gender parity. Like so many composers before her, Pauline Oliveros drew inspiration from Beethoven from an early age. Writing a statement on her attitude towards his work for the 150th anniversary of the composer's death in Bonn (the same year that she won the city’s Beethoven Prize), she described her girlhood fascination with the composer's portrait, which hung in her grandmother's piano studio.
In 1974, just a few years after coming out as lesbian, Oliveros paid homage to the “wild hair and the frown” that was etched in her memory in 1974 with the performance piece “Beethoven Was a Lesbian.” Produced with artist Alison Knowles, the work featured Oliveros sitting in her garden, hair long and tousled, expression concentrated as she read a book (Charles Williams’s 1945 novel of immortal beloveds, All Hallows’ Eve). Look long enough at the black and white photograph, and it becomes apparent that a papier-mache bust of Beethoven is looming over Oliveros’s shoulder, hidden among the leaves. The caption, in all caps, reads like a meme from the age of mimeographs: “BEETHOVEN WAS A LESBIAN.”
“I don't remember how that inspiration struck me, but I thought it was terrifically funny,” Oliveros later told author Martha Mockus. “I mean, who's going to prove that he wasn’t?… You know, if we don’t have any ‘great women composers’ let’s make sure they weren’t passing as men!”
Other feminists from Oliveros’s era were more pointed. Just a year before “Beethoven Was a Lesbian,” poet Adrienne Rich wrote “The Ninth Symphony of Beethoven Understood at Last as a Sexual Message.” The central figure is “a man in terror of impotence/or infertility, not knowing the difference/a man trying to tell something howling from the climacteric/music of the entirely isolated soul.” A few lines later, Rich closes out on the image: “gagged and bound and flogged with chords of Joy/where everything in silence and the/beating of a bloody fist upon/a splintered table.”
Is this man himself Beethoven? Rich didn’t specify. What’s more relevant, however, is imagining the figure conjured in this poem as the same figure in the first movement of the Ninth Symphony. McClary linked the two in “Getting Down Off the Beanstalk,” where she also called the first movement of the Ninth as containing “one of the most horrifyingly violent episodes in the history of music.”
In her original version of the essay, McClary, inspired by Rich, described that moment by writing “as the carefully prepared cadence is frustrated, damming up energy which finally explodes in the throttling murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release.” This assessment was not new; critics throughout history (as early as Beethoven’s contemporary E.T.A. Hoffmann) had picked up on this impulse. Yet, as McClary pointed out, her perspective on this as a woman carried different implications: “My transgression was, I was a woman writing about it. And I was also writing about it, not as though I were the titan, but as…the target of that violence, and not the enactor of the violence.”
The reaction to McClary’s metaphor (which was revised for “Beanstalk”’s inclusion in her 1991 book Feminine Endings), was so intense that, at one point, the police relocated her and her family. This seemed to further underscore McClary’s point: What happens if you can’t identify with the conquering hero?
McClary has never suggested that Beethoven should be retired from the canon in deference to other voices. “The canon really slammed shut at the end of the 19th century. And that wasn’t Beethoven’s fault,” McClary said, adding that his works “deserve to be performed in perpetuity, but not to the exclusion of everything else.” Likewise, Oliveros’s works shifted over time, but never to the exclusion of Beethoven. Her form of Deep Listening, still practiced today, combined meditative practice with the experience of active engagement with sound. Rather than dismantling Beethoven, it continues his ideal of music, of listening, as a tool towards a more enlightened, equal society. A more perfect union.