For this second blog entry, I decided to choose a piece of music from Beethoven’s only opera: Fidelio. There is one particular song (that is very close to my heart) called “The Prisoner’s Chorus” which genuinely made me cry the first time I heard it. But before I begin to argue why it is beautiful, let me quickly sketch out the plot line.
The story of Fidelio takes place during the French revolution where a woman decides to rescue her husband from a prison where he has been wrongly convicted. To free him is no easy feat, however, because twisted politics get in the way and threaten both her (Fidelio) and her husband (Florestan) and there is a slim chance that either will survive. Throughout the opera, one of the most prominent themes that is repeated over and over again is the notion of freedom. When the “Prisoner’s Chorus” first appears, it is when Fidelio finds her way into the French prison and manages to free all the prisoners inside. Although you would expect a lot of running, the prisoners enter slowly into the light as if they have never seen it before. They don’t remember the feeling of freedom, and they are hesitant to have it back.
I included a clip of “The Prisoner’s Chorus” being performed, but I chose not to include the closed-captions. The reason being, is that when I encountered this music for the first time without the words, I knew that there was beauty present even though I couldn’t fully understand it. The words were a “mystery” to me as described in Kant when he presents the idea of “free play.” “Therefore it can be an object without any purpose (either objective or subjective), and thus it is mere form of purposiveness in the representation by which an object is given to us, so far as we are conscious of it…” (Kant 295). Instead, it was the music that did all the speaking for me. If you are really interested in what they are saying, however, I did include a brief transcript of the words translated from German into English.
“Oh what joy, in
the open air Freely to breathe again!
alone is life!
is a grave.
We shall with all our faith Trust in the help of God!
Hope whispers softly in my
shall be free, we
shall find peace.
Freedom! Will you be given us?
O What a desire to lift your breath slightly in the open air!
Only here, only
here is life!
The dungeon a crypt.
We want to build with trust On God’s help!
Hope whispers gently to me: We become free, we find rest ALL OTHER O heaven!
Rescue! What luck!
freedom! Are you returning?”
I think it’s important to mention that Beethoven was growing more and more deaf as his life progressed. While writing this opera, he still had his hearing, but it was quickly running away from him. In this respect, this particular piece really reflects what Beethoven is struggling with during this time. -Just as a person with an affliction wants nothing more than to be healthy, an imprisoned person wants nothing more than to be free. The notes in this piece are usually around a lower register and the high notes do not last long. They are there, for perhaps a moment, but they disappear quite quickly. This reflects how Beethoven’s hearing is changing. While he is growing more and more unable to hear the high notes, the lower notes take more prominence. I think this piece really moved me (and continues to move me to this day) because I have a natural empathy for what his condition was. When I heard this piece of music for the first time, I didn’t know exactly what was going on beneath the surface of the piece. There was, however, a passing glance at something I recognized since I was going through my own form of health crisis at the time. It was not until later that I fully learned what the “Prisoner’s Chorus” meant, and how and in what conditions it was created.
This piece of music could be judged to be beautiful according to Kant in the Judgement of Taste through Moment 1 which is Quality. “If it be admitted that, in a pure judgement of taste, the satisfaction in the object is combined with the mere act of judging its form, it is nothing else than its subjective purposiveness for the judgment which we feel to be mentally combined with the representation of the object” (310). In other words, this piece of music is beautiful because it gives me satisfaction. It doesn’t provide me with something I’m craving, and it doesn’t feed me or shelter me. Therefore, it gives me pleasure and not the pleasant…. EW.
When I first encountered it, I didn’t know what the words meant, and I didn’t even know the storyline. However, when I heard it, I knew it was beautiful. My “understanding” of the piece of music was somewhat poor. I am not an Opera aficionado, although I do enjoy classical music and I’ve played a musical instrument for just over twenty years. -So, I know what good classical music sounds like. However, there is no way that I would be able to judge this piece from a logical (opera enthusiast) perspective or use cognition to determine this to be beautiful. Rather, my intuition (or imagination) has greater power when it comes to this music, and according to Kant, this is how I can judge this piece of music to be beautiful. In Moment 3 which is Relation, there is the feeling that something happens mentally when I hear this music. I didn’t fully understand what the purpose of the music was. There was a mystery in it that I wanted to solve.
Although I view “The Prisoner’s Chorus” as beautiful, not everyone agrees with me. (Which goes against Kant’s 4th Moment which is Modality.) “But the necessity which is thought in an aesthetical judgment can only be called exemplary, i.e. a necessity of the assent of all to a judgment which is regarded as the example of a universal rule that we cannot state” (Kant 301). For something to be beautiful, everyone “ought” to think the same way about it… (at least, theoretically) so a critique is a bit of an issue. Unfortunately for me, Fidelio has MANY critiques.
A recent article published in 2020 describes Beethoven’s Opera as being somewhat of a “problem child.” The author references the opinions of Wilhelm Furtwangler who says, “Fidelio is not an opera in the sense we are used to, nor is Beethoven a musician of the theatre” (SlippedDisc.com, Norman Lebrecht). Even Leonard Bernstein was filmed saying that Fidelio was an opera that, “…everyone will admit that, as operas go, Fidelio has its weaknesses” (SlippedDisc.com, Norman Lebrecht). The author of the article himself writes that there are some issues that are not really resolved until the final scene. “In two words, the opera is about love and freedom but you have to get to the final reconciliation before its disparate, barely functional elements cohere in an ending that overwhelms all doubts in a rush of human compassion” (Norman Lebrecht).
You can read the rest of the article here: Fidelio: More flaws than masterpiece? – Slipped DiscSlipped Disc | The inside track on classical music and related cultures, by Norman Lebrecht (slippedisc.com)
To counter these arguments, I would ask the question: do beautiful objects really have to be perfect? If the issues in this opera were intended to be there by design, then wouldn’t these issues only add to its beauty and the craftsmanship of the composer? In my opinion, the story of Fidelio really shows the condition of humanity. And, in order to represent humanity accurately, it needs to be flawed. If humanity isn’t shown to be flawed, then humanity is not represented in a realistic way. Also, according to Kant, all these people who are judging this opera (and the Prisoner’s Chorus in particular) probably lack disinterested judgement. Since these are people who are very much involved in the opera world, they not only depend on musical criticism for their reputation, but they are also using their cognitive (logical) abilities to determine if the opera is beautiful. Does this particular chorus and this opera have the right “opera” elements in it to make it beautiful? According to Kant this is the WRONG way of determining the beautiful.
Perhaps another argument that someone might have is that they simply do not like Beethoven…
Perhaps this is because you imagine an old person in a wig who was famous for whatever, and he lived somewhere old where he composed old music on an old piano and then died.
If you belong to this group, I would encourage you to listen to this piece of music and completely forget who wrote it, what it is about, and even close your eyes so you don’t see what’s happening on stage. This might sound crazy, but turn off the lights and just focus on what is happening in your brain when you hear this chorus being sung.
What I hear is pure magic… and you should “ought” to hear it as well!
Perhaps as a side note, I HIGHLY encourage you watch some films and read some articles if you just don’t get Beethoven. In many ways, Beethoven was a rebel who turned music from being something that just showed off musical technique (like Mozart) into something which represented emotions. Without him, music (even popular music) would probably sound more like an exercise book and less like the emotional stuff we hear today. According to Kant, a genius is someone who breaks the mold of the status quo, acts as a model for others to follow, and does not act on a previous plan. Beethoven not only met all those requirements, but thrived in them.
Here is one more video that will help you appreciate not only who Beethoven was, but the music he created. This is presented by Hershey Felder who is playing the role of one of Beethoven’s former friends. It’s a quick video, and I suggest watching it to the end.
I realize this was a long post…
but thanks for reading!! 🙂