Beethoven and the Illuminati
Jan Swafford - Dec. 8, 2008
How the secret order influenced the great composer.
In 1779, a composer, writer, teacher, and dreamer named Christian Neefe arrived in Bonn, Germany, to work for the Electoral Court. Neefe (pronounced nay-fuh) was the definition of what Germans call a Schwärmer, a person swarming with rapturous enthusiasms. In particular, he was inflamed with visions of endless human potentials that the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment promised to unleash. Like many progressives of the time, Neefe believed that humanity was finally coming of age. So he had picked the right place to get a job. Bonn was one of the most cultured and enlightened cities in Germany; the court supported a splendid musical and theatrical establishment. Before long in his new post, Neefe found himself mentoring a genius. Meanwhile, in his spare time, he signed on with a plan to, as it were, rule the world.
One of Neefe’s first students was a sullen, grubby, taciturn 10-year-old keyboard player named Ludwig van Beethoven. He was the son of an alcoholic singer who had more or less beat music into him. The kid seemed more like a charity case than a budding musician, but Neefe soon discovered that his talent could put him in the league of the musical phenomenon of the age, a child of freakish gifts named Mozart.
Overall, not bad. Compare with the following from a long-ago saved post from the Beethoven Forum (I forget the author and url):
The background to Freemasonry is best described in the essay mentioned above (well worth reading for its historical context). The main thrust of the essay in question is that even though there is no documentary evidence of LvB being a member of any Masonic lodge whatsoever, there are (to quote Solomon) ‘substantial indications that Beethoven was favourably disposed toward Freemasonry, was familiar with its language, shared some of its main intellectual interests, and, on occasion, seemed to have identified himself as a Masonic sympathizer’, this in reference to B’s friends, teachers, patrons and associates being connected with the Masonic movement (see posting above), for example B’s friend Wegeler (a prominent Freemason) who wrote the text of (an apparently well-known) Masonic song and texts for two of B’s lieder (Der freie Mann, WoO 117 and ‘Opferlied, WoO 126) for use in initiation ceremonies.
Letters between Wegeler and B seem to point up shared beliefs, as well as explicit Masonic imagery : ‘I guarantee that the new temple of sacred friendship …’ and so on. Masonic imagery seems to have come quite naturally to B, as ‘there are a variety of remarks and allusions in Beethoven’s letters […] that may have Masonic overtones.’ References to ‘fraternity’, ‘brother’ (Beethoven uses ‘Beloved and worthy brother’ in letters to Hoffmeister, Brunsvik, von Seyfried, von Treitschke …). One letter in particular to the poet von Treitschke shows clear familiarity with Masonic ritual : At the end of the letter B signs off with a standard ‘Lebt wohl’ (JB – translation please). Between these two words B drew an ascending line and a descending one, with dots (or are they dashes ?) under each line. Here’s Solomon again : ‘The sketchiness of the drawing makes a definitive reading impossible, but the figure may represent a try square, a tool used to lay out or test right angles, which is also a universal emblem of Freemasonry, symbolizing morality, truthfulness and honesty. When Masonic brothers part from one another they are said to do so ‘on the square’.
Letters to others such as the Countess Erdödy also have Masonic allusions, and so the essay continues with a host of other such examples.
At this juncture, a pause for some serious humour : I believe I have found the reason why Phoenix Is Rising has chosen her Forum name !!
Again Solomon, Phoenix ! : In a letter to Countess Erdödy of 19 September 1815 LvB refers to the Temple of Isis as the goal of a purifying initiatory process along Masonic lines :
‘…May God grant you greater strength to enable you to reach your Temple of Isis, where the purified fire may swallow up all your troubles and you may awake like a new phoenix’.
Dear Phoenix, perhaps from now on we know your real name is not Lisa but in fact Isis !!!!!
As further evidence of B’s deep awareness of Masonic symbolism, he may even have used this knowledge to mock Schindler’s sexuality (i.e. mocking his supposed ‘gayness’). Again, paraphrasing Solomon, B often referred to Schindler in letters as ‘Samothracian Rascal’ (JB, please confirm : Somotrazischer Lumpenkerl) ; ‘Samothracian’ is Masonic signifying one who is initiated into the ancient mystery cult – Cabirian – whose rituals included phallic worship.
Still with me, Forum members ? Then I’ll continue : now to the specifically musical side of the question (At last ! gasps Frits). To kick off, again Solomon : ‘Whether specific musical patterns or motifs in B’s instrumental music can be interpreted as characteristic-style topics or tropes drawn from […] Masonic musical symbolism remains an open question’. Thank you Mr Solomon, but open questions can be worth pursuing, as I explain very very briefly below.
JB, pay attention now : ‘It is true, for example, that almost all music written for use in Masonic rituals is in the key of E-flat major, the three flats [or the three sharps that JB refers to above ?] being of especial symbolic import […] But E-flat is not inevitably a Masonic key [stop smirking, JB !] [but …] Context drives interpretation in such instances ; we readily accept that such musical tropes express a Masonic symbolism when they occur in Mozart’s patently Masonic opera …’ Quite so, but given that Freemasonry’s main symbols are derived from architecture, did LvB weave Masonic motifs into the overture ‘The Consecration of the House’ ? (Op 124). The three quaver chords – as Tovey posits – could they be a Masonic symbol ? And no, JB, the tatatataa motif of B’s 5th symphony is not (in this context) remotely Masonic. Or could it be ? I have no comment to make right now about that. Only questions and an open mind.
Other Masonic allusions – the centrality of the idea of brotherhood in Freemasonry in Fidelio ? With lines added in the 1814 revision by both von Treitschke and LvB ?
Now to the Schiller (and therefore the Ninth symphony) part of the equation. I’ll attempt a brief summary : Schiller wrote ‘An die Freude’ during a period when he was in close contact with Masonic circles (though apparently not actually a lodge member). The poem however celebrates ‘Masonic brotherhood [given the] large number of musical settings of it that were composed and published in Masonic collections and widely used in the lodges’. I wonder if these settings were in any particular key ? JB – perhaps you could research this for us ? To continue, the poem can be interpreted then as a Masonic poem used by LvB ‘to represent a quasi-Masonic ceremony […].’ Is not the ‘Ode to Joy’ an affirmation of a central tenet of Freemasonry – brotherhood ? Solomon goes on to make a tasty conjecture – that if so, the whole ‘narrative structure’ of the 9th symphony would be conditioned by that viewpoint, that the finale’s great melody embodies the idea of fraternity and paints the preceding movements as a ‘journey’ to (Masonic) enlightenment, that the first three movements are in fact a series of initiatory experiences before reaching ‘Freemasonry’s highest plane of virtue’ ?
The second essay by Solomon (The Masonic Imagination) throws more light onto the imaginative impulses behind the music. Of particular importance is the Tagebuch that B kept from 1812 to 1821 and that Solomon considers ‘may permit us to expand the range of his Masonic references …’ In two entries B writes the years ‘5816’ and ‘5818’. Previous commentators have taken these dates to be slips of the pen. The dates are in fact the Christian calendar date plus 4000 – clear Masonic datings, for ‘many Masonic groups habitually placed the creation of the world (Anno Lucis) at 4000 B.C. Some Masonic documents employ other dating systems […], but the 4000-year differential is the one almost universally encountered in the lodges of France and Germany and in the records of Habsburg Freemasonry.’
To develop his argument, Solomon considers these Masonic references not ‘merely as curious remnants of B’s earlier contact with the ideas and practices of Freemasonry, but as indications of a Masonic thread …’ Solomon will ‘make a case for reading the Tagebuch as a diary analogous to those that were required to be maintained by candidates in the Order of the Illuminati. He does go on to say that he cannot assert as demonstrable B’s actual association with any fraternal society, but (BUT !) finds it fruitful to examine B’s Tagebuch for the influence of Masonic conceptions and symbols, ‘thereby, perhaps, enabling us better to understand what he believed and how his mind worked’. Thank you, my point entirely – putting aside any received ideas and prejudices about Freemasonry today, the theme is an interesting one, no ?
For example, Wilfrid Mellors (whose analytic writing somewhat turns me off, what I remember of it ) has written an extended Masonic interpretation of the Missa Solemnis (Beethoven and the Voice of God, Faber and Faber, 1983).
Back to the diary (Tagebuch) : a candidate for the first degree of the Order (apprentice or novice) was required to keep a monthly written report (apparently called the ‘quibus licet’), and those reaching the second grade required to prepare a diary, wherein should be noted things such as ‘characters and deeds of learned men of repute of ancient and recent times … elevated thoughts, sentiments, moral aphorisms …’. Sound familiar, anyone ? For six years B used the Tagebuch ‘to help him take stock of his situation, to regain his equilibrium […] He filled the diary with personal outcries … and with words of wisdom drawn from a variety of sources …’
Admittedly, Solomon says there is no compelling reason proving that B prepared the Tagebuch with a mind to some sort of initiation, but it does have the hallmarks of such a document. Again, as Solomon goes on to illustrate, the Tagebuch is filled with numerous entries that point up Masonic influences, from concepts of ‘journeys’, journeys or quests for enlightenment, or as metaphors for a rite of passage or quests for transcendent goals : his ‘art’, perhaps ? References to the points of the compass, references to many things ‘eastern’, including Hindu and Brahman religions …and of course, references to many things Greek or Hellenic.
Initiations, purification, renunciation, sacrifice – all things mentioned by B in his Tagebuch, then. Renunciation too of the feminine, the sexual. Solomon again : ‘The withdrawal from women, already hinted at in B’s letter of 6 – 7 July 1812 to the Immortal Beloved, is written large in his Tagebuch. The Order of the Illuminati required that a candidate provide an ‘account of his own conduct’ (in terms of propriety). B’s Tagebuch offers such accounts, showing his determination perhaps to overcome sexual desire :
‘From today on never go into that house - - without shame at craving something from such a person’. Or ‘With regard to T …, never go there where one could do wrong out of weakness’.
And so on and so forth. Of course the Tagebuch is also filled with other details that have no Masonic potential whatsoever : the prices of music paper, household concerns, money problems, plans for various compositions and all sorts of other jottings. The main thrust here in the argument is – and here has bearing on the music – that ‘Freemasonry was an important stimulus to B’s way of thinking. I am not calling for a total overhaul of B’s entire output in an attempt to uncover hidden Masonic messages (a sort of Da Vinci Code endeavour); no, I’m just conjecturing if there are possible Masonic ‘readings’ to certain of his works that may add to the list of other possible interpretations. Phew, that’s that off my chest, then!