Don’t roll over Beethoven
Serious music started for me with Beethoven. I remember listening with wonder to the record of Fifth Emperor Piano Concerto I was given as a Christmas present in 1974. Shortly afterwards came the symphonies which remain some of my favourite works and which kindled a lifelong interest in and passion for classical music. However many times I have listened to them they remain works which never fail to move me.
It is only more recently, however, that I have got know very much about Beethoven the man and the details of his life, most significantly in reading Jan Swafford’s superb biography and visiting over the last couple of summers some of the places most associated with the composer.
The story of Beethoven’s life is a story of the sublime and the ridiculous and a story of how some of the most moving and majestic artistic creations of all time were born in the midst of much personal sadness and distress.
He was born in 1770 in Bonn, the son and grandson of a musician. It is still possible to visit his birthplace, full of fascinating artefacts from his life. His family was Flemish in origin hence the “van” rather than “von” in his name. He had a youthful talent although one which was not promoted with the success of Mozart. Nonetheless he gave his first public concert at the age of 7 and was heavily involved as a teenager in the music of the court of the Elector of Cologne. The Bonn in which Beethoven grew up in the 1780s was a centre for Enlightenment (Aufklärung) and the values of the Enlightenment are a lodestar for Beethoven’s view of the world. Nowhere is that more in evidence than in the famous Ode to Joy in his 9th Symphony.
In 1792 he left Bonn for Vienna, never to return. Vienna home to Haydn and, until the year before Mozart, was the centre of the musical world and the most likely place where a budding talent such as Beethoven would find opportunities for performance and patronage. However, while it was his home for the rest of his life Beethoven never developed a love for the city or its inhabitants, commenting “from the Emperor to the bootblack the Viennese are worthless.”
Beethoven was relatively successful first as a piano virtuoso and increasingly as a composer, attracting the interest and the financial support of a number of wealthy patrons. His talent, unlike that of some composers, was recognised in his own lifetime although it never made him a wealthy man, especially later on in life when he was supporting his nephew Carl.
It was in the first decade of the 19th century, in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars that Beethoven started writing the works which changed the shape of music and established his reputation as one of the greats. The seminal work was probably his Eroica Symphony, premiered publicly in 1805, a symphony initially meant to have been dedicated to Napoleon and unlike any orchestral music which had come before conveying an unique sense of power and tension. In a remarkable period of creativity over the next decade he followed it with many other signature works in many different musical forms, orchestral symphonies, an opera, piano sonatas, string quartets all of which remain some of the most significant works in the whole of the classical repertoire.
It was as well that Beethoven was a successful musician because in few other ways was he a happy or fortunate man. His mother, to whom he was devoted, had died before he left Bonn after a long and painful illness. His father, a mediocre musician who took out his disappointment and a fair amount of the family income in drink, died shortly afterwards. He remained close to his brothers, but his relationships with them and their families, as with many of his friends and associates were difficult, full of misunderstandings and fallings out. Beethoven, who remains one of the greatest exponents of the idea of humanity, struggled with the day to day challenges of human relationships. He never married. Finally the adoption of his nephew Carl, the wrangling for custody with his sister-in-law and Carl’s eventual attempted suicide provided the ultimate tragedy of his life.
He suffered too from bad physical and mental health for much of his life and from the early 1800s began to lose his hearing. Beethoven frequently suffered from depression and in a remarkable surviving document, the Heiligenstadt Testament, addressed to his brothers but never sent, he hints at a desire to take his own life but ends with a commitment to live with suffering for the sake of his art.
In his later years Beethoven was for various reasons less prolific but there stand out a number of works which are amongst the greatest masterpieces of the western canon. His 9th Symphony is perhaps the most famous with its choral finale based on Schiller’s “Ode to Joy.” When it was first performed in Vienna the totally deaf Beethoven had to be turned to see the audience applauding his creation.
The 9th Symphony was composed in Baden, a picturesque little town, just outside Vienna where Beethoven went for a number of summers to compose. We visited Baden last summer and the beautiful Helenental along which Beethoven himself would walk his mind full of the music, which he could only hear in his head. It was a very moving day to follow in the footsteps of a musical genius and hero.
Franz Schubert, himself no slouch as a composer, said “Who can do anything after Beethoven?” In literature it is probably Shakespeare who most sublimely captures the essence of the human character and condition. In music, without a doubt, it is Beethoven.