* Hermann Hesse, the Nobel-Prize-winning novelist, in Steppenwolf, contrasting Mozart to Beethoven (and to Kleist, who committed suicide at age 34):
“You have lent a deaf ear to those that plumbed the depths and suppressed the voices that told the truth of despair, and not in yourself only but also in Kleist and Beethoven. … [Mozart's] The Magic Flute presents life to us as a wondrous song. It honours our feelings, transient, as they are, as something eternal and divine. It agrees neither with Herr von Kleist nor with Herr Beethoven. It preaches optimism and faith.”
* J. W. N. Sullivan, the art critic and mathematician, in his classic study, Beethoven: His Spiritual Development:
“To Beethoven the character of life as suffering became a fundamental part of his life outlook.”
“To compare the ninth symphony with the fifth is to realize how greatly this man had grown in stature. That early, almost boyish idea of fate has become a much profounder conception in this first movement. Fate is no longer personified as some sort of powerful enemy that sufficient courage can defy, even if hopelessly. It is now a truly universal destiny, too complete to evoke any thought of resistance. The brooding mystery from which the theme emerges is, like the primeval darkness that preceded creation, something that conditions the human world, but which is not part of it. And this extra-human power, as presented to us here, has nothing benevolent about it, necessary as it may be for the moulding of the human soul. As the answer to this fate theme Beethoven gives us no more than submission and resignation.”
* Ayn Rand, the novelist and philosopher, responding to a question, What do you think of the work of Beethoven?:
“He is a great composer, but I can’t stand him. Music expresses a sense of life — an emotional response to metaphysical issues. Beethoven is great because he makes his message so clear by means of music; but his message is malevolent universe: man’s heroic fight against destiny, and man’s defeat.”
I am not a music professional, but I can report that I always find Beethoven’s music to be both very powerful and very saddening. At the same time, his music has surging and uplifting elements with great energy, and I respond positively to those elements. So, like many others, I wonder how that fits with the experts’ claim that his music is negative and pessimistic.
My only contribution is a philosophical hypothesis in two parts. One is that Beethoven’s music engages with the great themes, and when we listen we too engage with those themes, which elevates us as humans. We respond positively to any profound statement or experience of the human condition, even if we do not agree with it fully intellectually or emotionally.
The other part is that philosophical art involves two interrelated elements: a deep theme (a metaphysics) and an evaluative response to that theme (a value judgment). Beethoven’s major music combines two elements: an expression about the truth about the universe and an expression of his human response to that truth.
Suppose that Beethoven’s music tells us that the universe crushes everything, as our sensitive critics above suggest. That’s negative metaphysics. But how does one respond to that negative truth? That’s a value choice. Does one give in quietly — or moan and groan and bitch about it — or divert oneself with other activities — or take on the universe in glorious battle?
Interestingly, while our critics agree that Beethoven’s musical universe is malevolent, they differ over his value response: Hesse speaks of despair, while Rand speaks of a doomed, heroic fight against destiny, while Sullivan speaks of suffering, hopeless defiance, or resignation depending on which period of Beethoven’s music one is considering.
Compositionally, the longer pieces develop the elements separately (e.g., movements about Fate manifesting itself, other movements focused on gathering one’s strength and resolve), and then bring them together (e.g., movements in which the battle is joined). So it makes sense that one would respond positively to the positive elements when experienced in isolation. We respond humanly to the approach of great challenges, inner strength’s waxing and waning, the give-and-take of an all-consuming battle. All of those are powerfully expressed in Beethoven’s music, and any vital human will respond affirmatively and even thrillingly to them. What Beethoven adds, though, is an ultimate resolution of defeat, and that is the broadest framing context for his major music.
My label for music like Beethoven’s is romantic fatalism. One is condemned to a tragic fate, but one accepts it and asserts oneself against it, all the while knowing that one will be crushed. Dying while fighting a hopeless cause is the greatest value, and life is the most hopeless cause of all. But one simultaneously asserts one’s life and embraces its dissolution.
 Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf (Modern Library, 1963), pp. 106, 107.
 J. W. N. Sullivan, Beethoven: His Spiritual Development (Alfred A. Knopf, 1927), pp. 43, 143. A e-version is online here.
 Ayn Rand, Ayn Rand Answers, p. 226.
 A clear example is the opening of the Fifth, which Beethoven referred to as “Fate knocking at the door.” This excerpt works with a graphic representation of each instrument group.
 Nietzsche’s amor fati strikes me as a philosophical expression of the same theme as Beethoven’s music.
Related: Other music-related posts.