Wednesday, June 6, 2012

"My" Immortal Beloved: a Personal Interpretation

Image modified from Dick Strawser's blog
The German composer Ludwig Van Beethoven is considered to be one of the greatest in history. The opening notes of his fifth symphony have come to symbolize music itself while his ninth serves as the source for the anthem of the European Union. Along with Goethe, Wordsworth and Coleridge, he is counted among those who gave birth to the great Romantic Age. As such, his work is supposed to be repository of great ideas expressed through musical notes instead of words.

The stature of Beethoven has not declined in these two hundred years but the way we respond to him has probably changed to the worse. Reading the analyses and commentaries written in the nineteenth century, we feel as if their writers were using music as a tool for discovering something new in themselves. In the latter times we often find the music being interpreted as a mere personal expression - be it of freedom and human potential or of the agony suffered by a genius (as in the movie The Immortal Beloved and the BBC documentary The Genius of Beethoven).

It seems as if we have stopped asking relevant questions to the great masters (to ask Beethoven who his immortal beloved was or whether it felt really bad to be a deaf composer is indeed irrelevant to the quality of his music). If the music of Beethoven is to remain ageless, it must find in each age a new set of worthwhile questions to be addressed.

The nine questions listed by Allama Iqbal in his Persian poem 'The New Garden of Mystery' (Gulshan-i-Raz Jadeed) are perhaps just the kind of questions needed in our times. Since they were derived from a six-hundred years older text widely used as a textbook of Sufism throughout the Muslim world, a study of Beethoven's music in the light of these questions may turn out to be nothing less than asking Iqbal to build a gigantic bridge between the futures of the classical East and the modern West.

A biographical introduction to the great composer, 'Beethoven: the Music Within' appeared at this blog yesterday. I now intend to offer a weekly series of nine posts introducing a symphony of Beethoven in the light of the corresponding question from Iqbal every Thursday:
  1. Symphony No. 1 (Question 1), June 7
  2. Symphony No. 2 (Question 2), June 14
  3. Symphony No. 3 (Question 3), June 21
  4. Symphony No. 4 (Question 4), June 28
  5. Symphony No. 5 (Question 5), July 5
  6. Symphony No. 6 (Question 6), July 12
  7. Symphony No. 7 (Question 7), July 19
  8. Symphony No. 8 (Question 8), July 26
  9. Symphony No. 9 (Question 9), August 2
It may be asked why the nine symphonies and the nine questions should be considered in their corresponding orders. They need not be, but it may appear that while deriving his set of nine questions out of the seventeen classical ones, Iqbal went for a logical sequence in which the questions would occur to most people in their search for a higher truth, especially if the search is carried out from the heart:
"But the question arises as to the what and the where of the Unseen. The Quran replies that the Unseen is in your own soul." (Iqbal, The Development of Metaphysics in Islamp.108)
So, it would not be too much of a coincidence if we were to find that the Truth had also chosen to unfold itself through a similar path in the works of Beethoven. After all, as the German sociologist, philosopher and musicologist T. W. Adorno has said, ""We do not understand music - it understands us." The nine  symphonies have indeed been considered to have followed a "natural order" (or perhaps even the "supernatural", if one were to consider the 'Curse of the Ninth').

Of course, this is not to say that the questions cannot be applied to the music of Beethoven in any other way, or some other sequence, by some others. The purpose of the present series is to open a new door rather than close any.

I hope that whichever entrance we choose, we can still end up in front of a beautiful altar and behold the majesty of our unity as humankind. Collective consciousness, Zeitgeist and public opinion are insufficient expressions for naming that unity. Collective ego is how Iqbal defined it but the most appropriate phrase that may also capture the complexity of our relationship with this dynamic and constantly growing unity was given to us, incidentally, by none other than Beethoven himself: Meine unsterbliche Geliebte - my Immortal Beloved. 

What comes out through such un-suspected harmonies as those between the music of Beethoven and the philosophy of Iqbal is the unity of human existence. Much of what Beethoven wrote in July 1812, quite possibly to a special woman, is what may also be addressed to this human unity:
My angel, my everything, my very self. – only a few words today, and in pencil (with yours)... can our love exist but by sacrifices, by not demanding everything...  Oh God, look upon beautiful Nature and calm your mind about what must be – love demands everything and completely with good reason, that is how it is for me with you, and for you with me... 
Oh - There are moments when I feel that language is nothing at all... Wherever I am, you are with me... Pursued by the goodness of mankind here and there, the goodness that I wish to deserve as little as I deserve it. – Man’s humility towards man – this pains me – and when I consider myself in relation to the universe, what am I and what is the man who is called the greatest? – And yet, – therein lies the divine element in man... 
Oh God - so near! so far! Is not our love a true edifice in Heaven - but also as firm as the firmament. – thoughts turn towards you my Immortal Beloved, now and then happy, then sad again, waiting whether fate might answer us... be patient – only through quiet contemplation of our existence can we achieve our purpose to live together – Be calm; for only by calmly considering our lives can we achieve our purpose of living together.- be calm - love me - today - yesterday - What yearning with tears for you - you - you my life – my everything...
Forever yours
forever mine
forever us


  1. Most intriguing, Khurram Sahib! Looking forward to seeing the series in full.

  2. Greetings,

    Thank you for this fascinating door-opening post.

    I'm coming away from reading this feeling a certain new sense of the Divine unfolding in/through Beethoven.

    All good wishes,


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  4. VERY interesting, sir. What a novel perspective you offer here. Interpreting Beethoven in an entirely new and different way.