(December 1770 to 26 March 1827)
There are 4 true giants of the classical canon, in whose shadow all remain. Bach, the master of complex form, is miraculous (though sometimes mercilessly boring). Mozart followed the rules (except, according to some, when he put in “too many notes”) but his dazzling musical talent, emotional intensity, daring and deep humanity brought classical music to the wider world. Wagner conceived of a new world of musical drama, and so created a new book of rules. But before the new rules, the old ones had to be broken. And work done that gloried in such risky dispensation. Hence Beethoven.
He was born 250 years ago, sometime in December 1770, (baptised on the 17th) in Bonn, but moved from that besieged town to Vienna. From a musical family, he showed early talent but not genius. His parents’ deaths brought him back to Bonn, where he played, studied philosophy, and read Goethe and Schiller. Brought back to Vienna by Haydn, he managed to prosper despite Napoleonic harassment of that city. Whereas Mozart’s genius had struck the hard rock of indifference (“too many notes”), Beethoven was luckier in the cultural swell of that city; his patrons, his commissions, and career in general. He became a virtuoso on the violin and the newly-refined piano. He taught, toured, composed and sold his works at great profit. His bilious private life attracted comment; he was always tangled up in fights with men and hopeless unrequited love with women. (His “Immortal Beloved” is still not conclusively identified). But outwardly he was and remained very successful.
Inwardly, he was a wreck. Physically and mentally ill, starved of romantic or familial love, deeply depressed (see the text below of his ‘Heiligenstadt Testament’, written to his brothers but never sent) and from about the age of 28, tone-deaf. This of course meant social isolation, and, as a musician and composer, frightened and frustrated him to distraction.
A parlour game exists among experts as what would be on Beethoven’s greatest hits album…the Agnus Dei, the 7th Symphony, Eroica, the hectic Hammerklavier, Opus 130 (the String Quartet in B flat major), Pastorale, the Fate Knocks on Door thrill of the 5th Symphony, a great opera (Fidelio), the Missa solemnis, piano sonatas (32), chamber pieces, choral works, incidental music and variations, songs, sets for string quartets (17), concertos (18) and symphonies (9) galore…We would suggest that a boxed set rather than a portion would be less controversial. Which is why the 250th anniversary of the master’s birth will yield a whole year for the playing of his work. And why not? When his incidental music enlivens a masterpiece of cinema, Picnic at Hanging Rock;
He is at times very challenging to play. For example, the intricate Grosse Fugue (which will be performed at the Adelaide Festival on 6 and 7 March 2020 by Lyon Opera Ballet) was on debut in 1826 described as “incomprehensible, like Chinese.” Many great conductors and performers regard Beethoven’s works like Le Cordon Bleu chefs regard risotto – the work of a devil.
Here’s what some more eloquent people have said about Beethoven:
I believe in God, Mozart, and Beethoven. (Richard Wagner)
He is perfectly entitled to regard the world as detestable, but that does not make it any more enjoyable for himself or anyone else. (Goethe)
…the strong, fierce, merciless coercion, with which Beethoven forces you along, and bows and bends you to his will. (Sir George Grove)
A colossus beyond the grasp of most mortals, with his totally uncompromising power, his unsensual and uningratiating way with music as with people. (Yehudi Menuhin)
It was not an enjoyable experience. First of all the piano was dreadfully out of tune, which did not trouble Beethoven in the least, since he could not hear it. Little or nothing remained of the brilliant technique which had been so much admired. In loud passages the poor deaf man hammered away at the notes crashing through whole groups of them so that without the score one lost all sense of the melody. I was deeply moved by the tragedy of it all. Beethoven’s almost continual melancholy was no longer a mystery to me. (Louis Spohr)
There is still no department of music that does not owe him its very soul. (Paul Lang)
His later years are a tale of triumph over adversity, adversity that would do down many a mere genius. He was poor, drink-addled, living in squalor, light on friends and patrons. He had depression, rheumatic fever, jaundice. His legendary grumpiness drove away those who would help him, like a greybeard complaining about his soup. His hearing had deteriorated to the extent that he conversed largely by written notes. And yet…he managed to create music of incomparable beauty not only after his hearing started to go, but after he was deaf as a post. (When he conducted the wonderful, radical, joyous 9th Symphony in Vienna, he could only beat time, unable to hear the great work he had wrought, beating time even after a movement had finished, impervious to the piece’s replacement by applause and cheering.) “Professional musicians, among whom the capacity to “hear” by looking at a score is not uncommon, see nothing strange in Beethoven’s continuing to compose after he could no longer hear music. Beethoven himself told a pupil never to compose with a piano in the room, lest he be tempted to use it. But knowing these things only gives us another way of apprehending the gulf that separates Beethoven from the rest of us. For amateurs, the idea of being able to hear an unfamiliar melodic line by reading a score is already impressive. Musicians who have the capacity to hear complex works in their heads – not just the melodic line, but the chords and the counterpoint and the way the timbre of the different instruments interact – are already operating on a plane that the rest of us find hard to comprehend. To be able to compose complex works in one’s head is a quantum leap beyond that. For Beethoven to have been enclosed in a silent world for years, and then to have composed the Ninth Symphony….”*
His life is one of the great examples of individual human achievement, but his final years are something even greater – a blessed combination of genius, grand impulse, and sheer animal courage.
“Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.”
For my brothers Carl and [Johann] Beethoven.
O you men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn or misanthropic, how greatly do you wrong me, you do not know the secret causes of my seeming, from childhood my heart and mind were disposed to the gentle feelings of good will, I was even ever eager to accomplish great deeds, but reflect now that for six years I have been a hopeless case, aggravated by senseless physicians, cheated year after year in the hope of improvement, finally compelled to face the prospect of a lasting malady (whose cure will take years or, perhaps, be impossible), born with an ardent and lively temperament, even susceptible to the diversions of society, I was compelled early to isolate myself, to live in loneliness, when I at times tried to forget all this, O how harshly was I repulsed by the doubly sad experience of my bad hearing, and yet it was impossible for me to say to men speak louder, shout, for I am deaf. Ah how could I possibly admit such an infirmity in the one sense which should have been more perfect in me than in others, a sense which I once possessed in highest perfection, a perfection such as few surely in my profession enjoy or have enjoyed — O I cannot do it, therefore forgive me when you see me draw back when I would gladly mingle with you, my misfortune is doubly painful because it must lead to my being misunderstood, for me there can be no recreations in society of my fellows, refined intercourse, mutual exchange of thought, only just as little as the greatest needs command may I mix with society, I must live like an exile, if I approach near to people a hot terror seizes upon me, a fear that I may be subjected to the danger of letting my condition be observed — thus it has been during the last half year which I spent in the country, commanded by my intelligent physician to spare my hearing as much as possible, in this almost meeting my present natural disposition, although I sometimes ran counter to it yielding to my inclination for society, but what a humiliation when one stood beside me and heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone heard the shepherd singing and again I heard nothing, such incidents brought me to the verge of despair, but little more and I would have put an end to my life — only Art it was that withheld me, ah it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt called upon me to produce, and so I endured this wretched existence — truly wretched, an excitable body which a sudden change can throw from the best into the worst state — Patience — it is said that I must now choose for my guide, I have done so, I hope my determination will remain firm to endure until it please the inexorable parcae to break the thread, perhaps I shall get better, perhaps not, I am prepared. Forced already in my 28th year to become a philosopher, O it is not easy, less easy for the artist than for anyone else — Divine One thou lookest into my inmost soul, thou knowest it, thou knowest that love of man and desire to do good live therein. O men, when some day you read these words, reflect that you did me wrong and let the unfortunate one comfort himself and find one of his kind who despite all obstacles of nature yet did all that was in his power to be accepted among worthy artists and men. You my brothers Carl and [Johann] as soon as I am dead if Dr. Schmid is still alive ask him in my name to describe my malady and attach this document to the history of my illness so that so far as possible at least the world may become reconciled with me after my death. At the same time I declare you two to be the heirs to my small fortune (if so it can be called), divide it fairly, bear with and help each other, what injury you have done me you know was long ago forgiven. To you brother Carl I give special thanks for the attachment you have displayed towards me of late. It is my wish that your lives be better and freer from care than I have had, recommend virtue to your children, it alone can give happiness, not money, I speak from experience, it was virtue that upheld me in misery, to it next to my art I owe the fact that I did not end my life with suicide. — Farewell and love each other — I thank all my friends, particularly Prince Lichnowsky and Professor Schmid — I desire that the instruments from Prince L. be preserved by one of you but let no quarrel result from this, so soon as they can serve you better purpose sell them, how glad will I be if I can still be helpful to you in my grave — with joy I hasten towards death — if it comes before I shall have had an opportunity to show all my artistic capacities it will still come too early for me despite my hard fate and I shall probably wish it had come later — but even then I am satisfied, will it not free me from my state of endless suffering? Come when thou will I shall meet thee bravely. — Farewell and do not wholly forget me when I am dead, I deserve this of you in having often in life thought of you how to make you happy, be so –
Ludwig van Beethoven
Heiligenstadt October 6 1802
For my brothers Carl and [Johann]
to be read and executed after my death.
Heiligenstadt, October 10, 1802 — thus do I take my farewell of thee — and indeed sadly — yes that beloved hope — which I brought with me when I came here to be cured at least in a degree — I must wholly abandon, as the leaves of autumn fall and are withered so hope has been blighted, almost as I came — I go away — even the high courage — which often inspired me in the beautiful days of summer — has disappeared — O Providence — grant me at least but one day of pure joy — it is so long since real joy echoed in my heart — O when — O when, O Divine One — shall I find it again in the temple of nature and of men — Never? no — O that would be too hard.] [*Charles Murray, Human Accomplishment (2003) pp. 146-147.]