Interpreting Beethoven

Interpreting art pieces is only possible if the objective steers away from absolutes. There is not one sole feasible interpretation for a piece of art, be that of literature, painting, or music. Beethoven’s compositions, therefore, can be perfectly interpreted according to their historical context and their artistic value. Yet, there are scholars who pretend to analyze and “decipher” Beethoven’s music note by note, by matching events, metaphors, and other ideas to the score, just like Scott BurnhamScott Burnham does in his essay about Eroica.

Yes, it’s a widely known fact that Eroica was somehow inspired or dedicated to Napoleon when he was in his “democratic” prime. Knowing Napoleon’s story, one can relate it to the piece, at least with the emotions conveyed and evoked by the melody. However, this doesn’t mean that the music necessarily maps out Napoleon’s story, as Burnham tries so hard to demonstrate in his work. Inspiration doesn’t mean direct translation by the author, or composer, from reality to art.

It makes more sense to analyze the context and its hard evidences instead like Maynard Solomon does. He simply writes a chronicle, with adequate comments, of the stance of Beethoven towards Napoleon — a relationship that evolved as the latter became more and more powerful. This is the reason for the piece to develop just as wildly, powerfully, and swiftly, from grandeur to chaos, just as who inspired it. Studying the historical circumstances of the creation of Eroica allows a better appreciation of the conveyed message and its significance about Napoleon, rather than relating directly its musicality to these same events. The melody itself gives the bigger idea without the need of a note-by-note, subjective interpretation.

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