Beethoven Beyond the Prisonhouse of Nations: Music, Feeling, and Social Relations, without Nationalism

Nicholas Mathew


This paper argues against a commonplace scholarly assumption, widespread in music studies, that social relations predicated on popular feeling are viable only in the context of ethno-nationalist accounts of political community. With reference to several examples of popular print circulation around 1809, as well as some of the better-known public compositions from this year, I will suggest that Beethoven's music (and the music of his contemporaries) helped to sustain complex networks of shared political feeling distributed over vast distances -- networks that were nonetheless not in any meaningful sense "national," and instead predicated on transnational, imperial, and aristocratic models of obligation and dependency, which had been gradually formalized by the Habsburg state during the second half of the eighteenth century. Thus, rather than reify the crude opposition of "court culture" and the modern "public sphere" and its national or proto-national contexts, I will argue that older forms of social relation should not be considered constraints that emerging national cultures came to resist, but as the very conditions for the "national feeling" that supposedly supplanted it in the later nineteenth century. This partly accounts for the ambiguous relation, in traditional music historiography, of Beethoven's music to a supposedly emergent pan-German nationalism. And, in the Napoleonic period, this also suggests that music might be considered a distinctive form of social relation not easily assimilable to the schematic historical categories of ancient court culture and modern nation.


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