Imagining Beethoven in India

This month marks the 250th birth anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven.  In ordinary times, Germany, Austria, and a good part of the world beyond Europe would have been ablaze with celebrations:  as the opera composer Giuseppe Verdi, a man whose reputation in some circles would be just as great, remarked: “Before the name of Beethoven, we must all bow in reverence.”  However, in India, even without the coronavirus pandemic, there would not have been much of a stir.  Beethoven’s name is by no means unknown, and India doubtless has its share of afficionados of Western classical music.  Fifty years ago, the Indian government even issued a postage stamp in his honor.  But it is an unimpeachable fact that unlike in China, Korea, and Japan, where Western classical music has over the decades gained enormous ground, there has never been anything more than a miniscule constituency in India for such music.  A few years ago the German violinist Viktoria Elisabeth Kaunzner wrote that a “performance by the Seoul Philharmonic conducted by Eliahu Inbal of Shostakovich’s Symphony no.11 prompted the same kind of enthusiasm from the audience that one sees after a goal is scored at the FIFA World Championship”.  This would be unthinkable in India—even, to be quite clear about it, in Russia, Germany, or elsewhere in Europe or the United States.

Ludwig van Beethoven: undoubtedly the most famous portrait of him, by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820.

It is generally supposed that India did not furnish a hospitable ground to Western classical music owing to the fact that its own “classical music” traditions are almost unfathomably deep; at the other end of the argument, Hindi film music’s monopoly on Indian musical tastes is seen as nearly total, at least in north and central India.  We need not be detained by considerations of why Western classical music, even say the pleasant-sounding music of Vivaldi or Mozart in contrast to the demanding music of Shostakovich, Arnold Schoenberg, or Olivier Messiaen, has not able to take root in the fecund soil of India or why it has been so readily embraced in East Asian countries.  Yet, as is true of so much in India, the name of Beethoven is also inextricably linked up with the name of someone who is inescapably present in nearly every conversation—Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.  This is as unlikely a pairing as any that one might ordinarily think of, except perhaps in the sense that both Gandhi and Beethoven are what may be called “world historical figures”.  They are, quite simply, “giants”—but by this reasoning they could be paired with many other giants, men and women of altogether exceptional stature.  The difficulty in bringing the two together, on grounds that would be less flimsy than their extraordinary place in the course of human affairs, is that, at least in the common view, Beethoven was an “artist” who created music that transcends the everyday and the political, while Gandhi was fundamentally immersed in the political life. 

Such a view of Beethoven cannot withstand even elementary scrutiny, as students of the social, cultural, and political history of music know all too well.  Biographers of the great composer unfailingly recount the story of his tortured relationship to the figure of Napoleon. Like many others in his time, Beethoven initially held Napoleon, the First Consul of France, in great esteem and likened him to “the greatest consuls of ancient Rome.”  He had intended to dedicate his Third Symphony, which Beethoven finished in early 1804, to the great statesman, whom he deemed as a liberator.  He wrote “Sinfonia intitolata Bonaparte” (“Symphony entitled Bonaparte”) on the manuscript.  But before the Eroica (“Heroic”) Symphony, as the piece is known, had received its inaugural performance, Napoleon declared himself Emperor of France.  Enraged by this act of betrayal, Beethoven, a radical democrat in his own fashion, struck Napoleon’s name from the title page.  As he told a friend, “So he too is nothing more than an ordinary man.  Now he will trample on all human rights and indulge only his own ambition.  He will place himself above everyone and become a tyrant.”  That the political can be read into his music is nowhere so amply demonstrated than in the uses, explored with marvelous dexterity and admirable scholarship by Esteban Buch, to which Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony has been put by people with all shades of political opinion, from Romantics and idealists to the Nazis and the advocates of apartheid in South Africa and the erstwhile Rhodesia.

But what of Gandhi, who, among many other things, has been charged by the likes of Nirad Chaudhari and V.S. Naipaul with being wholly indifferent to the arts?  It is commonly supposed that his leadership of what in India is called the “freedom struggle”, his painstakingly detailed and rigorous commitment to the constructive programme, and his attention to myriad other issues—among them, social reform, the condition of Indian villages, the eradication of Untouchability, the Hindu-Muslim question—left him with no time for poetry, music, painting, and such emerging art forms as cinema.  Many of his critics, however, aver that this is a prosaic and rather forgiving view of his shortcomings.  They hold that Gandhi was without an aesthetic sensibility and that he had no appetite for art or other things that he took to be rather frivolous. The more astute of his critics, aware of Gandhi’s fondness for hymns such as Narsi Mehta’s “Vaishnavajana To”, think that too much has been made of “the music of the charkha”.  On the other hand, even as Gandhi is increasingly coming under attack for some of his views on race, caste, and sex, many scholars are moving closer to the view that he was fully engaged with the arts and had a distinct aesthetic sensibility.  “Mahatmaji may not be an artist in the same sense that we professional artists are,” wrote the highly regarded Santiniketan-based artist Nandlal Bose, “nevertheless I cannot but consider him to be a true artist. . . .  His mission is to make Gods out of clay of men.  I am sure his ideal will inspire the artists of the world.” When Abanindranath Tagore was bed-ridden, Gandhi dispatched his secretary Pyarelal to convey the message that Abanindranath must continue to live so that the supreme gift of his art would not be lost on India and the world.  The scholar Cynthia Snodgrass’s 2007 massive doctoral dissertation, The Sounds of Satyagraha, should put to rest doubts about Gandhi’s fondness for music—and this apart from the fact that the music of Beethoven, as numerous biographers have noted, moved him very much.

The story of Mirabehn, in this connection, cannot be told often enough.  It was Beethoven, of course, who brought the aristocratic Madeleine Slade to Gandhi.  She venerated Beethoven and in the mid-1920s paid a visit to Romain Rolland, a celebrated French novelist, dramatist, and essayist, and an eminent scholar of Beethoven.  Rolland appeared to her as someone who could perhaps help bring her into the presence of the divine.  He advised her that, if she was in the quest of a genius to whom she could offer her adoration and service, she might think of someone living—a skinny Indian known as the “Mahatma”.  Rolland would have known:  though in 1929-30 he would go on to write biographies of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda, he had as early as 1924 penned a book on Gandhi describing him as “the man who became one with the infinite.”  Why yearn for an understanding of greatness through the dead, Rolland seemed to be saying to her, when the greatest man alive in the world can dazzle you with the music of his spindle no less than you are swayed by the violin of your revered composer.  Just how the daughter of an English Rear-Admiral wound up spending most of her adult life as the companion of Mohandas Gandhi for two decades is a story with turns and twists that leaves most good fiction looking impoverished.  Mirabehn’s autobiography, The Spirit’s Pilgrimage (1960), tells it all but no passage is as priceless as her description of her first meeting with Gandhi when she is ushered into his presence:  “As I entered [the room], a slight brown figure rose up and came toward me.  I was conscious of nothing but a sense of light.  I fell on my knees.  Hands gently raised me up, and a voice said:  ‘You shall be my daughter. . . .  Yes, this was Mahatma Gandhi, and I had arrived.”  Only a decade after Gandhi’s assassination did she depart—heading for the Vienna Woods, where she eked out the remaining twenty years of her life, stalking the trails taken by Beethoven, listening to his Pastoral Symphony (No. 6), and working on The Spirit of Beethoven, left unfinished at her death.

Gandhi on a visit to Romain Rolland at his home in Villaneuve, Switzerland, 1931. Rolland played “Moonlight” on the piano for his guest.

It may yet be possible to take a more complex view of the transcendent links that brought India to Beethoven and in turn augur what one hopes will be a new phase in the long narrative of India’s propensity to parley with the infinite.  India occupied a very prominent place in the German imagination in the late 18th century and early 19th century and the names of Goethe, the philosopher Schopenhauer, the philosopher, poet, Indologist, and linguist Friedrich Schlegel, and the Sanskritist August Wilhelm Schlegel, to name just a few intellectuals, come up frequently.  Beethoven has seldom been mentioned in this connection, but his Tagebuch, or notebook which he kept from 1812-1818, suggests that Beethoven’s interest in India was something far more than perfunctory and possibly just as profound as that of his peers.  It is now clear, as studies of the Tagebuch have shown, that he had an intimate familiarity with Kalidasa’s Shakuntala, upon which Goethe had lavished encomiums and which was quite the rage in Germany, as well as with Charles Wilkins’ translation into English of the Bhagavad Gita (to which Warren Hastings added a preface as remarkable as any ever penned by a member of a ruling class to a work belonging to the colonized), the writings of Sir William Jones, and William Robertson’s An Historical Disquisition Concerning the Ancient Had of India (1791).  The deaf composer found inspiration, too, in the blind Homer, quoting from the Iliad (22: 303-5):

Let me not sink into the dust unresisting and inglorious,

But first accomplish great things, of which future generations too shall hear!”

Stunningly, this quote from the Iliad is preceded in Beethoven’s notebook by an excerpt from the Gita that he took to be its central teaching:

Let not thy life be spent in inaction. Depend upon application, perform thy duty, abandon all thought of the consequence, and make the event equal, whether it terminate in good or evil; for such an equality is called Yog, attention to what is spiritual.

A few years after the notebook’s last entry in 1818, Beethoven would go on to write what are justly viewed as his greatest musical compositions and quite likely among the most sublime works in the entire repertoire of Western classical music.  In their own day, the late string quarters (numbers 12-16 and the Grosse Fuge) were viewed askance, as nearly incomprehensible and confused works. Beethoven’s contemporary, the composer Franz Schubert, was almost singular in recognizing that the late string quartets were perhaps an expression of the ineffable in human existence and the search of the soul for the transcendent.  Listening to the String Quartet No. 14 in C minor (Opus 131) for the last time, just before his own death a year after the passing of Beethoven, Schubert exclaimed, “After this, what is left for us to write.”  Opinion would begin to swing the other way many years after Beethoven’s death, but what is singularly striking is that musicologists have been loath to consider how Indian philosophy may have contributed to carving out in Beethoven’s frame of thinking a space for the melancholic longing for the liberation that the Buddhists describe as nirvana and the Hindus as moksha. After the Upanishads and Shankaracharya, Ramana Maharishi and Sree Narayana Guru, India must recognize that Beethoven has given us the music of advaita.

First published at abplive.in on December 30 as “Imagining Beethoven in India: Serenade to Advaita“.

14 thoughts on “Imagining Beethoven in India

  1. This discussion of the deep connections between Beethoven and Indian philosophy and Gandhi and Beethoven is utterly fascinating. With regards to the first part of the essay about the constituency for Western classical music in India being rather small, it seems that, consistent with India’s cultural history of being able to absorb a multitude of cultural practices from other civilizations into the Indian fold, there are elements of Western classical music that have been incorporated into some Indian musical genres, including film music. Indeed, this is not new as the violin, a component without which Carnatic music now seems inconceivable, also came to India from Western classical musicians and has gradually gotten seamlessly incorporated into Indian classical music. It brings to mind the proverb about how the plant that stands firm and stubbornly breaks in harsh winds but the plant that is able to bend survives the wind storms.

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    • You are absolutely right about Western classical music having, to some extent, been absorbed into popular music. But we should not overestimate that: popular Hindi film music is still largely based on ragas (especially during the ‘classical’ period of Hindi cinema); and, secondly, most listeners do not recognize as such the ‘Western’ element in such music. Your observation about the violin in similarly correct, when one thinks of M S Gopalakrishnan, L Shankar, N Rajam, and many others and what they have brought to Carnatic music with the violin. In a longer version of this piece which will be coming out shortly, I mention this. But here again the indisputable fact that Western classical music as such has, especially in comparison with East Asia, a miniscule constituency in India. Your comment ends with the wonderful proverb. Thanks, once again, for your very thoughtful observation.

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      • Thanks for this reply. Indeed, the relative popularity of Western classical music in India is minuscule. In film music as well, the fact that music is still based on ragas but dance has had a somewhat different trajectory is very interesting.

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  2. Hi Prof. Lal, this post indeed provides a very insightful opinion on the relationship between Indian culture and philosophy and the classical Western music. It is interesting to make the assumption if Beethoven is in India. Western classical music never becomes really prevalent in India. The monopoly of Hindi film music on Indian musical taste is considered almost entirely, at least in northern and central India. At the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, India occupies a very important place in the German imagination. Goethe, philosopher Schopenhauer, philosopher, poet, inddologist and linguist Friedrich Schlegel, and Sanskrit names were all created by Austria. Named by August Wilhelm Schlegel. Only a few intellectuals, they often appear. Beethoven’s contemporary composer Franz Schubert is almost unique in realizing that the late string quartet may be an expression of powerlessness in human existence and the pursuit of transcendent souls. I think this actually somewhat corresponds with the Indian philosophy and culture in India.
    Best,
    Tingyu

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  3. Hello, professor. From the relationship between India music and the West music, I have some ideas in my opinion. The heart of Indian music is the raga, which is a mood, a sentiment, expressed by differentiating scales. There are many different ragas, each with its own mode and its own differential interval, based on what is called the natural sequence of overtones, the natural arrangement of overtones. However, for the last 100 years or so, Indian music has been influenced by foreign systems of sound that are not based on natural overtones. This is the western system of sound, which influenced Indian music mainly because Indian musicians adopted western instruments with fixed pitches. Harmonium, in particular, is an example of this situation, and is now extremely popular and widespread in India. However, the Western musical system is now dominant not only in the world but also in India, and the differential scale inherent in the raga is in danger of being lost. Many scholars of Indian music believe that this development is highly regrettable, not only because Indian music is an art form, above all, raga was originally intended as a way of nurturing consciousness. As the original differential scale is replaced by an approximation of the Western scale, inherent strength and intensity of the raga is lost not only for theoretical reasons, but first and foremost for empirical reasons. 

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  4. Hello Professor Lal. As a music major here at UCLA studying to get a degree in classical performance, I’m a little dismayed that I have never once heard of Beethoven’s (or any composer’s, really) connection to philosophical or other teachings outside of their Western context. In examining the flow of trade and culture between nations as we have over the course of this quarter, never once had I stopped to think about my own profession in that context. After reading this essay I actually messaged a few friends of mine in the graduate program here at the school of music, who had all taken a class on Beethoven specifically this year. I asked if they had ever heard of Beethoven’s influence by the teachings of Indian philosophy and only one had. Even after spending upwards of 4-6 years in school, learning all about classical music, my peers had not heard so much as a whisper about non-Western influence in Western music. Even as an underclassman undergraduate, I have more than once had to examine the influence of Western music on other cultures; not once were those roles reversed.

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  5. When I read about classical music and discover something new about famous composers like Beethoven, I realize that art and politics are closely related. I am studying History and every time I read about artists and musicians, my first step takes me to learn and research the time periods they lived in and the political situations in their countries. As for Indian music and Western music, I feel like political turmoil and certain individuals affected the creations of their stories, like for Beethoven’s or the translation of Bhagavad Gita. The fact that Beethoven in the 19th century was interested in India is an indication that colonized countries had their superficial places or interests in the artists’ lives.

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  6. The quote “Mahatmaji may not be an artist in the same sense that we professional artists are, . . . nevertheless I cannot but consider him to be a true artist. . . . His mission is to make Gods out of clay of men.” raises a question of what exactly can be considered art. Does art always have to be a physical product, such as a painting, piece of writing, or music? Obvious forms of art seem to follow that trend, but I don’t think there’s anything preventing ideas and abstract concepts from being considered art. As Nandlal Bose says, Gandhi can be considered an artist because of the ideas he proposes and the physical effect that they have upon people, and I’m wondering how exactly art can be defined if the impact of an idea can classify that idea as art. Maybe everything can be considered art as long as there is an apt argument for what kind of impact it has upon its audience.

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  7. This topic in its entirety is something I have simply never been exposed to. I suppose that’s a societal failing, so it’s only fair I take some culpability: I have never even considered that the art of Beethoven and his contemporaries was influenced by Indian philosophy (or, at least, their own interpretation of Indian philosophy). The world can be so large and yet so interconnected, and it’s realizations like these that can fill me with wonder.

    We so frequently (and properly) analyze colonization through the lens of how modes of thinking from the colonizer pass to the colonized. Since colonization is inherently a violent activity, it logically follows that psychological effects of the relationship naturally are dealt by the colonizer and received by the colonized. But of course, colonization is a two-way relationship (one where one party is guilty of causing suffering and the other is not, but 2 parties nonetheless). So it makes sense that ideas flowed from India to Europe. At least, it makes sense that they flowed to Europe. I still find it surprising that the ideas made their way to Germany and made an impact. But there’s that sense of wonder again!

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  8. I am unfamiliar with Indian music or art. However, I am at least familiar enough with Beethoven to have listened to his compositions. But I have never once thought of his political dealings. I was just a fan of Beethoven for his music. I was intrigued by how Beethoven’s influence was able to reach India, and the story of how Mirabhen came to know Gandhi through Beethoven was new to me. It had never occurred to me that Beethoven played a role in uniting a daughter of a Royal Navy Rear-Admiral. It is surprising to me that the daughter of someone so high up in British society would choose to devote her life to India. When I originally read the title, I thought this would be about music, but this essay has shown me quite a few new things about Beethoven and his political dealings.

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  9. It had never occurred to me to be able to dross examine the lives of Beethoven ad Gandhi, finding the influence of politics in the work of an artist, and looking for the influence of art in a revolutionary. The story of Mirabehn is also quite intriguing, imagining how connected both Gandhi and Beethoven already were, that after listening to his music, Mirabehn had the opportunity to meet Gandhi, and she then dedicated a portion of her life to being around him and his influence in India. With such a story, comes the realization that through the arts, the people were able to be connected to its roots. Beethoven took inspiration from political figures, and his scholar, had ended up being a connection between Mirabehn who adored Beethoven’s music, and Gandi, a revolutionary. Similarly, Beethoven’s heavy influence from political surroundings, is what allowed him to compose such beautiful pieces. It’s a wonderous connection.

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    • Correction – the first line should say “It had never occurred to me to be able to cross examine the lives of Beethoven and Gandhi”

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