Bernie & Beethoven
by David Yearsley, June 15, 2016
When Bernie Saunders informed Rolling Stone last year that he “really loves music” and that his tastes were “eclectic,” I believed what he said. In his short interview with the magazine there was no evidence of the insidious focus-grouping, algorithmning, and playlist-consulting that went into the fabrication of Hillary Clinton’s musical image. In spite of these subterfuges, all knew that hers was a transparent campaign to glom onto young people’s music and thereby pull the sonic rug out from under the Vermont senator’s pre-disco feet. She wasn’t hugging her opponent according to the usual Clinton choreography. She was trying to take him down. As her handlers might well have predicted, however, the ploy had the opposite effect, coating the now-presumptive candidate in yet another layer of smarmy establishment glaze.
In contrast to these dance floor triangulations and their essential corollary (never let a Clinton hug you, on the parquet or off it), Bernie’s listening habits appear forthright and honest. The first and only composer he mentioned to Rolling Stone was Beethoven. Bernie wagged his iPad, stating, rather than boasting, that the composer’s complete works were on the computer, implying that he listened to the stuff regularly. The eclectic element of his musical proclivities came by way of Motown—the Temptations and the Supremes, hardly the up-to-date fodder doled out by Hillary and her DJs.
As for Beethoven, Bernie didn’t offer particulars on which monuments and lesser-known corners of the massive oeuvre were among his favorites. One doesn’t plow through 138 opus numbers and some 200 lesser WoOs (Werke ohne Opuszahl — works without opus numbers) of an evening or even a long bus ride across Iowa.
Does Bernie get fired up by Beethoven’s Fifth before a stump speech? After a tough day on the campaign tail does he go in for a late string quartet or a songful stretch of An die ferne Geliebte? Or is it the bombastic idealism of the Ode to Joy that floats the Bernie boat?
Such ruinations make me think that a Bernie & Beethoven interactive board game could be fun. Which of Ludwig Van’s hits plays when your birkenstocked little figure lands on the “Presidential Campaign Announcement” square; or that for “Debate Night”; or the “Smoke Filled Room” or “Rollover Beethoven: Concession Speech.”
As a playlist propaedeutic for this good clean form of family fun we start with some general inquiries into what might be the Vermont senator’s favorites. And to hone in these we begin by fitting musical tastes to political image. Of course, the relationship between a politician and his or her musical affinities is often unpredictable, even oxymoronic. Who would ever have thought that the ruthless Dick Nixon, the best presidential pianist ever to tinkle the ivories, was such a soft-focus Romantic at the keyboard, as his first “concerto” confirms. The same goes for Donald Trump’s admitted fondness for Michael Jackson’s greatest hits.
Beethoven is an odd, maybe even ill-advised champion to embrace. His is the music of the symphony hall in whose foyers are engraved the names of the one-percenters and corporate behemoths. Yet this apparent contradiction only seems to confirm the honesty of Sander’s musical inclinations, since Beethoven is unlikely to send anything but an elitist message out to the masses, though Obama’s 2008 declaration of devotion to the Bach cello suites offers precedent. Perhaps as a result of the presidential embrace these unlikely works are now experiencing a global renaissance.
Nonetheless, if we allow Bernie’s avowed political views to guide us through the Beethoven catalog we might land first on the third Symphony—the “Eroica.” As the title declares this is heroic music animated by outsized striving against the gravest of forces: Beethoven the Battler, Bernie the Battler. The symphony was originally dedicated to Napoleon, then First Consul of France and a symbol progressives like Beethoven of anti-autocratic, even democratic ideals. But after learning that Bonaparte had crowned himself Emperor in 1804, Beethoven flew into a rage and declared: “Now he too will tread under foot all the rights of Man and indulge only his ambition … [and] become a tyrant.” In one of the most famous acts of music history, Beethoven then supposedly grabbed the score to the symphony and, according to his student Ferdinand Ries, tore off the title page. Yet we know that Beethoven retained huge admiration for, and later lamented the death of, the Frenchman, often described as diminutive, but in fact at least a couple inches taller than Beethoven.
Whatever the historical truth and political meaning of the symphony, the bottom line is this: through the work the composer is heard to speak truth to power. Therefore it can count as Bernie’s theme song each time he passes “go.” The Vermonter, still sporting wild Beethoven hair, marches to the dais emblazoned with the red, white and blue of liberté, fraternité, and egalité to the slashing opening chords ofEroica, its first movement, like Bernie himself, militantly refusing to follow tidy classical paradigms, instead sallying forth into the face of intense opposition and launching its own epic campaign against the ranks of evil. Bernie tears the cover off of Hillary’s pseudo-populism to reveal the Queen of Wall Street in her rampant monarchic splendor. And after the excitement of the confrontation, the symphony’s celebrated funeral march can intone the aftermath of the California Primary.
Or what about another of brace Beethovenian heroism from a few years later: the overture he composed for a Viennese production of Goethe’s tragedy Egmont. In this scenario transposed to the Democratic National Convention, Bernie is the Dutch freedom fighter resisting Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s Duke of Alba, the ruthless oppressor. The hero does not survive, and even his beloved takes her own life. But what resolve in the face of insurmountable odds! Like Bernie’s own struggle, the work troubled by dark and foreboding clouds from the start. But in the end the music triumphs: even if the protagonist dies, his message reverberates far into the future.
But come the end of July in Philadelphia I fear not a real clash of enemies, not a Waterloo moment, but a more sinister of closing of ranks. Instead of Egmont queue-up Wellington’s Victory, a work commemorating the allied forces’ victory in 1813 over the French at the Battle of Vitoria in Spain. Originally commissioned for a mechanical orchestral machine, Beethoven expanded the piece into a full orchestral maneuver, even equipping the work with simulated musket and artillery fire. Bernie is no pacifist and when it comes to routing Trump, he’ll light the cannon’s fuse himself.
Wellington’s Victory was a huge hit in its day, though subsequent music historians pilloried it as nothing but debased pandering: mere depictive battle music, rather than the sublime abstractions of the symphonies: it is about men in action rather than about music itself. Yet at the Viennese premiere in 1813 it was paired with another warhorse of the heroic style, Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, suggesting that both works are animated by the same musical ideology: Beethoven the symphonist and Beethoven the tub thumper were not as different from one another as many would like. Wellington’s Victoryhas been banished from the concert hall since it fiery heyday in the Napoleonic Era. Now it is mostly to be heard in outdoor concerts like the Battle Proms in Britain, events where fighter planes do tricks and historic bloodbaths are reenacted.
Into the bloody tableau Beethoven worked in popular militaristic songs such as Rule Britannia — another tactic that earned the disapproval of later commentators. He was forbidden from weaving in theMarseillaise, however, since that revolutionary tune was banned in Vienna. Certain things cannot be said at the rituals of empire, be that empire Hapsburg or American. Certain things cannot be said or sung when the shooting war begins.
After the rockets of Philadelphia have glared redly and died, Bernie will return home to Vermont with his laptop in tow and perhaps then click on Beethoven’s late quartet, op. 135, the last large-scale work he finished the year before his death. The score of the final movement is titled “The difficult decision”; Beethoven then asks “Must it be?” and answers the question: “It must be!” The soul-searching of the slow introduction gives way to sprightly music that ends in a light-hearted, even humorous vein. Perhaps it was all a joke: especially that bit about the Super Delegates.
(David Yeasrsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org )