Theory course Beethoven: Music and Ideals


Mondays, 6:30-9:30pm

Goethe-Institut New York

30 Irving Place
New York, NY 10003

Few composers have been more discussed, analyzed, or mythologized than Ludwig van Beethoven. For two centuries the power and inventiveness of his music have not only kept him at the center of the canon, but have shaped our ideas about the nature and potentialities of music itself, inspiring and provoking artists, philosophers, and political parties alike. Musical factions from the classicist to the avant-garde, and political causes from the democratic to the authoritarian, have all sought to claim him as their own, while the Romantic ideal of the artistic genius—elemental and revolutionary, standing both outside of society and above it—was conceived largely in his image. But the very factors that ensure Beethoven’s centrality make him elusive, since it is difficult to disentangle the musician from the myth: how do we decipher the meaning of an artist who has been taken to mean so many things?

In this course we will explore Beethoven’s music in the context of the ideas, art, and political struggles that shaped it, revealing a figure at once stranger and more of his time than his popular image suggests. Through a selective study of the symphonies, piano sonatas, string quartets, and Missa Solemnis—along with readings by E.T.A. Hoffmann, Thomas Mann, Theodor Adorno, and Edward Said—we will consider his relationship to the Enlightenment ideals out of which his music was born and the Romantic movement he helped to shape. And in examining the connection between Beethoven the artist and Beethoven the symbol, we will try to better understand both the singularity and the enduring power of his music—a unique and unsettling synthesis of classical rationalism, Romantic sublimity, and prophetic grotesquery that is as compelling and disturbing today as when it was written.

Instructor: Nathan Shields

Nathan Shields received his doctorate in Composition from the Juilliard School, where he also served for several years on the Music History faculty. Last year he was Visiting Assistant Professor of Music at St. Olaf College. His research interests include Romantic and Modernist music, with an emphasis on Wagner and fin-de-siècle Vienna; sacred music of the late medieval and early modern eras; and music’s relation to the history of philosophy and religious thought.