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“.

3 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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