Beethoven and Michelangelo: Colossal Utopianism

The First in an Occasional Series on Visual Arts and Opera

Tuesday, November 13, 2012 - 09:41 AM

Music, to me, is not merely one of life’s great pleasures but an essential for survival superseded only by air, water, food, shelter and education. All of these, plus music, contribute to good health, which is what survival is all about. Love is a luxury. As I write this on a chilly morning in London, I have music playing on BBC Radio Three. Bach’s second Brandenburg concerto, if you must know.

And yet there are many people who do not, as they live and breathe, consciously have music as part of their lives. Some seek to learn it and I have spent many years teaching it. Not only opera, as you would expect, but classical music.

Regular readers of my Operavore articles know that my musical loves extend far and wide and I use them to inform the way I experience opera and classical music. When I teach, though, I find that there are many people who are not even hooked in to much popular music and, therefore, I need other tools to get my ideas across. I have found, because we are such a visually-oriented world, that works of art are often used effectively to communicate comparable ideas and sensations in the abstraction that is music.

As in any subject, teaching and learning music is about knowing the foundations before going off in more exotic directions. I often catch the attention of those I am teaching, especially young people, by stating “Leonardo da Vinci is to art what Bach is to music. Raphael is to art what Mozart is to music. Michelangelo is to art what Beethoven is to music.” More experienced music lovers, especially those whose ears are much more sensitive than their eyes, may quibble with my formulation, and that is fine. But, believe me, it really works. Even if most of my students have not seen the original works of art, our lives are so saturated with imagery that it is possible to summon in one’s mind Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man, Raphael’s sublime depictions of the Madonna and Child, and countless works by Michelangelo.

I plan to write occasional articles for you about the visual arts and opera. Because WQXR is doing a special concentration this month on Beethoven, I wish to begin with him and the man who I see him connected to in so many ways, il divino Michelangelo (1475-1564). This artist was often referred to as divine during his lifetime not only for his awe-inspiring talent but for what seemed a genius linked to God and only possible to have received from God. We speak often of “God-given gifts” (being in good health; having a beautiful voice) but I think that gifts and talents are not the same thing. We must use our gifts to develop our talents. 

Michelangelo and, I believe, Beethoven were seen in their times as almost otherworldly. They were not sociable. Frequently they were dirty and unkempt, seemingly distracted from the conventions of daily life. They were not unconventional or non-conventional in the ways of Klimt or Berlioz, but so off in the realms of their own creativity and beliefs that they almost seemed to lack all cognizance of all that surrounded them. This, of course, is not true. They were brilliant and highly schooled in literature and philosophy but, as the geniuses they were, they took their erudition and produced extraordinary works of art.

Many geniuses are partially blind to the civilized subtleties around them and they concentrate on life’s major truths. They present the truth they see, feel and understand. Beethoven’s music is so life-affirming and we get a sense of the greatness of human potential in his music and in Michelangelo’s art. In the case of Beethoven, I think, this is because he did not always write for courtly types but explored his inner landscape. In a similar way, Michelangelo was among the first freelance visual artists. He did commissions, of course, but filtered them through his own aesthetics and convictions.

Among the many things that connect the Beethoven and Michelangelo I see is what I call Colossal Utopianism. Rather than my defining the term for you, better to find your own way to it by listening to Beethoven’s music and looking at Michelangelo’s art.

Ways of Hearing and Seeing: Examples

You might look at the sculpture of Moses he created for the tomb of Pope Julius II in Rome’s Church of San Pietro in Vincoli. Look at this image while listening to some of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. The sculpture and the music address human power, potential and, perhaps, limitations.

While many creative artists speak of God, very few seem to offer either a depiction of God or the sensation of what it is like to feel that you have been abandoned by God. Michelangelo and Beethoven certainly did this and, I would venture to say, so did Milton and Blake. Bach and Mozart might give a feeling of God in their music as omnipotent and consoling, but Michelangelo and Beethoven present Him as more volatile and dynamic.

To demonstrate this I often play for students Florestan’s wrenching aria at the start of the second act of Fidelio. He is imprisoned, it is dark and cold and, at first, he has little hope. Then he envisions his wife Leonore as an angel who will save him. As sung by Jon Vickers, you get the fullest sense of “Gott Welch Dunkel Hier” in its pathos and power. I like to show some imagery from Michelangelo’s Last Judgment on the wall (not the ceiling) of the Sistine Chapel. I do not show many images, but might begin with one that suggests misery followed by one that puts the image in a larger context. Then, as the music progresses, more light and optimism may enter. I will ask you to conjure your own image here rather than my providing one.

Michelangelo’s most famous depiction of God is in the Creation of Man on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (above, left). We know it so well (as we do many Beethoven works) that we forget how radical it is. This shows a strong and dynamic image of God as well as man’s potential, not just the beauty of the form. To me, this moment is about the transmission of the Divine Spark, offering opportunity but also marking humans as both perfect and imperfect. That is the story of Michelangelo and Beethoven.

As you listen to recordings or radio transmissions of music, whether symphonic, chamber, solo vocal or opera, try to do it with eyes closed. This will concentrate your perception in your ears. Do not analyze. Then, you might try to conjure or summon imagery that you know. It could be realistic, like a painting, or just a wash of color, light and abstraction. All are valid because they are your truth.

Then, take this one step further. Do not try to conjure or summon imagery. It might be that, with eyes shut, you are in total visual darkness. That is fine. Or the most amazing images might appear on their own. They are your visions, drawn from your innermost recesses. They do not require analysis (though Freud ardently studied composers and artists) but, rather, grateful acceptance. This is the Divine Spark, whether you believe in God or not. And it brings you closer to the sublime and painful experience of what it is to be a creator of something completely new.

Weigh in: What visual artists would you compare to Beethoven?

Above, right: Michelangelo Buonarroti: 'The Last Judgement,' detail. Note: This post has been expanded since it first appeared on Nov. 13.


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Comments [7]

George of Jesus from Mexico City

Incredible article.
But I think Beethoven is the greatest artist ever.
I think he is even one step ahead Michael Angelo.
No arguments are needed.
Maybe I could say that his art with his desire for brotherhood among all living humans, is more than enough, and makes the difference.
His art, his music, always from soul to soul.
Like no one else.
Thank you for what you have said.

Oct. 25 2014 11:48 AM

I wish you were my teacher, Fred.

Nov. 15 2012 02:53 PM
Lea Mendelsohn from New York, UES

Bernie is correct that Beethoven and Michelangelo were not contemporaries but the evolution of art and music was not parallel and often the most related artists and musicians were not chronological partners. Music's stylistic development was slightly ahead of that of art (which doesn't mean it was superior)so that Renaissance painting and sculpture, especially that of the first half of the 16th century was more compatible with Baroque musical works than with Renaissance pieces, although that depends on the piece of music and the particular artist to some extent. In general, however, the power and human emotion made visual in art of that period has more in common with music of more than a century later. You can test this hypothesis with other comparisons (paragone) among painters and composers.

Nov. 15 2012 11:24 AM
Scott Rose from Manhattan

There is a wonderful but rarely performed Beethoven Cantata -- Meeres Stille und Gluckliche Fahrt -- (Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage) -- that has an apt visual analogue in Fitz Henry Lane's painting "Salem Harbor," which is in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The cantata and the painting both convey -- to me -- a luminous feeling -- and, as happens, many art historians refer to Lane's style as "luminism."

Nov. 13 2012 11:16 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

ART, pictorial, is akin to the aural manifestations. Composers have always been painting in sound, sensing a visual companion to their creations. We, I am an opera composer, often identify the pitches and harmonies with colors. Painters and sculptors often have had music played in the background, live musicians in the days before recordings, to inspire their efforts. This was particularly true of the Romantic era of which Beethoven was creating masterpieces with colleagues such as Brahms, Schubert, Schumann, Wolf, von Weber, and Wagner. Beethoven's symphonies, opera, concertos, sonatas, string quartets, overtures, chamber music generally ,and song literature, is so pervasive and his world consciousness and basic humanity construct an icon unparalleled to and past his own era. At Juilliard, I studied his oeuvre and , in those days, all singers learned the concert rep of Beethoven , Schubert , Schumann, Wolf and Grieg, whether they would be opera singers or concert singers . So much of our treasured masterpiece, vocal and instrumental, are unknown quantities to most Americans. THANK YOU WQXR FOR CELEBRATING BEETHOVEN !!! Beethoven's symphonies are the ABCs of most essential single composers' oeuvre of the symphonic literature. Who ever having heard the Waldstein well performed can ever forget its beauty and nuanced scope of emotions. Wagner and his contemporaries and their successors all recognized the epic achievement of Beethoven. I am a romantischer Wagnerian heldentenor and director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute at 418A Main Street, Boonton, NJ . I have sung four solo concerts in the Isaac Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall. As part of my Ten Language Solo Debut concert at the Isaac Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall, I sang the Gott ! welch dunkel hier ! aria of Fidelio. it can be heard from the live performance on my three websites, one of which is It received rave critical notices in newspapers and magazines. Rudolf Serkin and his son, Peter are among those other great interpreters of Beethoven's piano concertos and sonatas, Artur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz, Walter Gieseking, ignace Paderewvski and Simon Barere, remarkable for their virtuosity, and immense ability to interpret from their own perspective. The Beethoven violin concerto is celebrated by its ardent interpreters Heifetz, Menuhin, Perlman, I

Nov. 13 2012 04:59 PM
Bernie from UWS

Interesting analogy. I would have thought a painter contemporaneous with Beethoven would have made for a more logical analogy though. Maybe Ingres? Or Goya (neither are German, I realize but both were influenced by the same artistic climate).
A thought-provoking piece at any rate.

Nov. 13 2012 01:03 PM


Nov. 13 2012 01:01 PM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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