In a recent article on Freedom in Beethoven, Daniel Chua observes that Beethoven’s symphonies, especially the 3rd Symphony, the Eroica, is often said to hold out an image of freedom. He writes:[i]
[T]he abstraction epitomised by his symphonic works should not only be understood as an aesthetic revolution but a political one. The music itself, by being itself, speaks of freedom. Drawing a blank is the very image of liberty. And this was precisely how Adorno heard the music. For him the internal laws of Beethoven’s compositions expound a liberty as ambitious as the philosophy of Kant or Hegel.[ii] He attaches to music’s abstraction the freedom that historians often attribute to the discourses of the politicians.[iii]
We can take it that behind this thesis is the assumption that the Eroica is a prime example of an autonomous work of art, and that as such it is peculiarly apt to represent or express freedom. Chua identifies different versions of this judgment in several phases of the Eroica’s reception history, and attributes one such – quite correctly – to Adorno. In this article, I want to consider in more detail the merits of the thesis that the Eroica symphony promises freedon, and to reflect on its place within Adorno’s aesthetics of music. As it stands the thesis opens up a number of difficult and intriguing questions.
- What is meant by the autonomy of a work of art, and in particular, how is this term to be understood in reference to Beethoven’s 3rd symphony?
- In virtue of which features can and does a work of art, in particular the Eroica symphony, succeed in holding out an image of freedom?
- What kind of freedom is thus foreshadowed or promised?
- What is the relation between the autonomy of the work on the one side, and the freedom that it promises on the other?
Until these questions are answered, the very idea a piece of music by Beethoven promises freedom remains as opaque as it is intriguing.