How the Illuminati influenced Beethoven.

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Dec. 8 2008 6:35 AM

Beethoven and the Illuminati

How the secret order influenced the great composer.

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For every Illuminatus, the perfection of society started with the perfection of one's own moral character. Aspiring members were given piles of text to read, required to write a rigorous self-examination and to undergo ritualized interrogations:

Where have you come from?/ From the world of the first chosen.
Whither do you want to go?/ To the inmost sanctum.
What do you seek there?/ He who is, who was, and who shall always be.
What inspires you?/ The light, which lives in me and is now ablaze in me.


For all the moony mysticism, the Illuminati had a high-Enlightenment agenda, rational, humanistic, and universal. They published a monthly magazine, Contributions to the Spread of Useful Knowledge, which was partly Enlightenment cheerleading, partly practical items relating to husbandry, housekeeping, and the like. Duty was the essence of Illuminati teaching, but it was an Enlightenment kind of duty: duty not to God or to princes but to the order and to humanity.

In practice, the Illuminati amounted to a kind of activist left wing of the Freemasons, from whom they drew most of their members. The numbers were never large, but they included people like Goethe (briefly) and Christian Koerner, a close friend and confidant of Friedrich Schiller. Koerner's influence seems to be why some Illuminati-tinged ideas—universal brotherhood and the triumph of happiness bringing humanity to Elysium—turned up in Schiller's famous poem Ode to Joy, which was often set to music and sung in Masonic and Illuminati circles. The poem would later enter history via the finale of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

As an Illuminatus, an important part of Christian Neefe's duty was to covertly inculcate promising young people in the ideals of the order, then to recruit them when they came of age. Beethoven was as promising as young people get. So did Neefe inculcate this student? Surely he did. Was Beethoven recruited to the order? No—the Illuminati dissolved in 1785, when he was 14. There is also a question as to how inculcatable Beethoven was by anybody. Even in his teens, he was so fixed on his own tack that he only intermittently took notice of the rest of the world.

Not only Neefe, but then and later most of Beethoven's other friends and mentors and patrons were ex-Illuminati or Freemasons. Did those influences have an impact on his life and art? Among many other things, certainly. By the time Beethoven left Bonn, he was already planning to set Schiller's Ode to music, and he had a good idea what that poem was about, from its humanistic surface to its Masonic and Illuminati depths. By then Bonn had helped give him ideas and ideals about being a composer that no one ever had before. He wanted to be something more than an entertainer. He wanted to be part of history.

If Beethoven had come from anywhere but Bonn he still might have been a genius, but he would not have been the same man and composer. True, he was more self-made than anything else, could see the world only through his own lens. He was a legendarily recalcitrant student and claimed to have learned nothing from any of his teachers. His most celebrated teacher, Joseph Haydn, sardonically dubbed Beethoven die grosse Mogul—in today's terms, the big shot. Yet at the same time, Beethoven was by no means aloof. He soaked up every idea around him, read voluminously in classical and modern literature, studied the music of older masters and modeled what he did on them. His art drew from myriad sources, among them the extravagant humanistic ideals floating around Bonn in his youth. One of the things it all added up to was something like this: music as an esoteric language wielded by a few enlightened men for the benefit of the world. Beethoven was all about duty to the abstraction called humanity. That was what he was taught and what he lived and wrote for, through all the miseries of going deaf and a great deal of physical pain. It was people he didn't much care about. But in taking up Schiller's Ode for the Ninth Symphony, he proposed not just to preach a sermon about the brotherhood of humanity and the dream of Elysium. He wanted the Ninth to help bring those things to pass.

As for the Illuminati, call them one more example of the Enlightenment's excesses of hope for human perfectibility. Since Beethoven's day, the secrecy and world-ordering agenda of the Illuminati have made them a natural magnet for conspiracy freaks. The Illuminati actually existed only some nine years, but there are still lots of folks, including many on the American religious right and the John Birch Society, who believe the Illuminati are the mother of all conspiracies, a Jewish-dominated international cabal that has more or less run the world since they incited the French Revolution. My saying they were a short-lived and a bit pathetic phenomenon makes me, of course, part of the conspiracy—along with Beethoven. I'd like finally to meet some of my fellow conspirators. They seem like interesting people.

Jan Swafford is a composer and writer. His books include Johannes Brahms: A Biography and Charles Ives: A Life With Music.