Beethoven's Interest in Greco-Roman Antiquity and its Impact on his Life and Music

  • Yos Van Der Zanden

Student thesis: Phd


Beethoven had a life beyond his vocational activities. He considered it his duty to spend leisure-time improving his Bildung. A significant element of this was familiarizing himself with tangible manifestations of Greco-Roman antiquity. This study demonstrates that his engagement with this culture was deep and ongoing, and that it ventured beyond the non-committal. Reading about it was a pleasant pasttime, but the serious aspect was that he considered it in many aspects as paradigmatic and that it informed his moral compass. Drawing on a comprehensive investigation of primary sources it examines to what extent Beethoven was conversant with Greco-Roman history, art, politics and philosophy. It scrutinizes what he learned about it in Bonn and in Vienna, cities where the focus differed. It interrogates which editions he consumed of such writers as Homer, Plutarch, Horace, Tacitus, Euripides, and Greek poets. German translations, it will be shown, were available to Beethoven through the shop of publisher Franz Haas in Vienna, plausibly his most significant supplier. It is argued that Beethoven treated ancient writings as morally uplifting and advantageous for character-building. He regarded Greco-Roman culture as the epitome of intellectual, moral, and artistic perfection, as an ethical ideal he could derive benefits from. This, it is claimed, informed Beethoven’s thoughts, and it now holds one of the keys to a proper assessment of the composer’s steadfast, resolute, manly and Stoic outlook, the imperative for a ‘great man’ to carry out his duty. In addition, the study inquires into the conundrum of the extent to which Beethoven adhered to and valorized basic premises of Hellenistic dogmatic philosophy, and whether or not he entertained sentiments propagated by Platonism and Stoicism. New findings are presented about Beethoven’s republicanism, his alleged familiarity with the works of Plato, his admiration of the elderly Brutus, and his plan to utilize ‘unresolved dissonances’ in an unknown piece of music. The study discloses hitherto unknown facts about Beethoven’s subscription to a book about ancient Greece, and it introduces for the first time the performing edition of a brief vocal piece (1820) on a text by Euripides. It concludes with a comprehensive survey of compositions by Beethoven on Greco-Roman subjects, together with a hypothesis about why a projected oratorio did not come to fruition. In a concluding section ideas are ventured about tendencies and precepts that Beethoven encountered while reading the ancients in relation to his well-known disregard for formal rules and strictures in compositional practice.
Date of Award31 Dec 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorBarry Cooper (Supervisor) & James Garratt (Supervisor)


  • Euripides
  • Homer
  • Plutarch
  • Beethoven
  • Antiquity

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