August 6th 2020

The Bringers of Beethoven

This is a curiously poignant work to me that I doubt I will ever be able to communicate. I found it about fifteen years ago, along with a friend who I am quite regrettably no longer in regular contact with, so there was some deeply complicated nostalgia entangled with rediscovering it today.

So what might I say about it instead? For me, one tell-tale sign of 'good' art is that you can find something new in it — or yourself — each time. In this sense, despite The Bringers of Beethoven being more than a little ridiculous, it is somehow 'good' music to me. For instance, it only really dawned on me today that the whole poem is an allegory for a GDR-like totalitarianism.

But I also realised that it is not an accident that it's Beethoven himself (quite literally the soundtrack for Enlightenment humanism) who is being weaponised here, rather than some fourth-rate composer of military marches or even one with an already-problematic past. That is to say, not only is the poem arguing that something generally recognised as an unalloyed good can be subverted for propagandistic ends, but that is precisely the point being made by the poem's regime. An inverted Clockwork Orange, if you will.

Yet when I listen to it again, I can't help but laugh. I think of the 18th-century poet Alexander Pope, who first used the word bathos to refer to those abrupt and often absurd transitions from the elevated to the ordinary, in contrast to the concept of pathos, the sincere feeling of sadness and tragedy. Today, I can't think of two better words.