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Beethoven

March 3, 2011

This is part of a series of informal pieces about composers I like, why I like them and why you should like them too.

Ludwig van Beethoven, 1770-1827

My relationship with Beethoven began when, aged about nine or ten, I was given a story to read at school. It was an entirely fictional account of the composition of the ‘Moonlight’ sonata which, as I recall, involved a lake, a young woman and the iconic deaf composer. I was entranced. On the way home I naively asked my mother whether she had ever heard of the ‘Moonlight sonata’ by someone called Beethoven. She laughed and said, of course. When we got home she found the record for me and my life changed. This was not only my introduction to Beethoven but also to the power of music. Over the next few years I worked my way through the symphonies and they remain at the heart of my musical life. I listen to a diverse range of music from many times and places but it is always to Beethoven that I return in times of trouble. No other composer, I might say no other artist, speaks to me as clearly as he does.

There is some argument as to whether Beethoven belongs to the Classical style or the Romantic, but there is no doubt that he is the archetypal Romantic artist. The hero of his art is the artist himself. His love of nature, his radical politics, his belief in the power of art, his stylistic innovation and his huge, heroic personality became an ideal of Romanticism for later generations. He even died during a thunderstorm. From a musical point of view Beethoven changed everything forever. Some would argue that rather than seeing him as either Classical or Romantic we should just see him as himself. His work defies classification. Thus, the history of music goes Classical – Beethoven – Romantic. He is his own epoch.

Beethoven’s music has such appeal because he knows how hard life is but also knows why we should go on. In his own life he had two great sorrows. The most famous is his deafness. His hearing began to deteriorate in his twenties and continued to get worse until his death, possibly the result of childhood abuse at the hands of his alcoholic father. The realisation that his hearing could not be cured drove Beethoven to thoughts of suicide and would destroy his highly successful career as a performer. His second sorrow was that he never married. He could fall in love at the drop of a hat but never succeeded in finding a wife. As a young man he had one proposal turned down on the grounds that he was ‘ugly and half-mad’. The famous ‘Immortal Beloved’ letter suggests that he may have been on the verge of romantic fulfilment at one point but it was not to be. All these disappointments fuelled Beethoven’s art. The suicidal depression following the onset of his deafness gave way to the great creative revolution of the ‘Eroica’ symphony. What he gives to us is the same strength. To listen to Beethoven is to hear the psychological struggle of a man who has glimpsed the existential abyss, has stood teetering on the edge and yet torn his eyes away from the dark and raised them to the light. He continued and we can too. His art is, as some have argued all great art is, against suicide. When one of his female friends was sick and bedridden Beethoven used to visit her but, rather than speaking, just sat at the piano in the corner and played. This, she claimed, did her more good than all the doctors that came or any conversation she had with other people. Beethoven knew that music could communicate in a far more profound way than words ever can.

I want to use one example from Beethoven’s music to illustrate. In the ‘Pastoral’ symphony an idyllic day in the countryside is portrayed. Beethoven was always refreshed and inspired by his contact with nature. In preparation for the symphony he notated birdsong and the sounds of a brook as it ran past. The day is suddenly interrupted by a dramatic summer storm. As well as thunder and lightning Beethoven even portrays the patter of rain in the strings. As Berlioz commented, this storm seems to herald the end of all things: it is absolutely terrifying and seems to make us face our deepest, most primal fears. But it disappears as quickly as it came and life returns refreshed by the rain (somehow he makes us see the wet grass glistening in the sunlight) and more resilient than before. The symphony is not simply a programmatic depiction of nature like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, but a depiction of the subjective experience of nature. Beethoven knows that while that experience may be uplifting it can also contain a darker side. The contemplation of a mountain may be heartening in its beauty but a consideration of its vastness and its timelessness may frighten us in comparison to our own frailty and mortality. Beethoven knew that real joy (as opposed to the ‘feel-good factor’ which is but a cheap imitation of joy) could only come once we had faced and known that fear.

There is much more I could say about Beethoven’s character: his boisterous sense of humour, his quick temper, his generosity, his fierce integrity and his often appalling treatment of friends and family. His music though must speak for itself. If I could explain in words the effect that it has it would have been rather a waste of his time to write it. I honestly do not know how anyone lives without him.

Piano Sonata no 14 in C-sharp minor, Opus 27, no 2, “The Moonlight”

Please listen to all three movements. If the first movement is like the moon shining on a Swiss lake the third is more akin to an Alpine avalanche. (The nickname ‘Moonlight’ is not the composer’s.) This is a good introduction to Beethoven’s piano sonatas which have been seen as his most personal works and even as a musical diary. Altogether they contain a breadth of expression and profundity unmatched in many other composers’ entire oeuvres.

Symphony no 3 in E-flat major, Eroica, Opus 55

This was the piece which threw wide the door to the nineteenth century and Romanticism. It was conceived on a scale undreamed of by Mozart or Haydn and revolutionised musical language. Beethoven famously destroyed the original dedication to Napoleon on hearing the news that the Corsican general had declared himself Emperor, replacing it with the title ‘Eroica’.

Piano Concerto no 4 in G major, Opus 58

The piano concerti, in which Beethoven himself took the solo part, can be read as representations of his relationship with the world. Dramatic struggles are present in much of Beethoven’s music but perhaps the most unusual is in the slow movement of this concerto. A violent, noisy orchestra is gradually tamed by the soft lyricism of the pianist, reminding us of Orpheus, but also suggesting the isolation of the deaf artist.

Symphony no 6 in F major, Pastoral, Opus 68

See above. I would add that this is used in Disney’s Fantasia.

Missa Solemnis in D major, Opus 123

Probably the least familiar work in this list, the Missa Solemnis comes at the beginning of Beethoven’s late period. It is remarkably idiosyncratic in its treatment of the mass (it includes jokes) but this is only to be expected from a man who had a remarkably idiosyncratic attitude to religion and spirituality. It is, however, magnificent and, like most great music, requires patience and commitment on the part of the listener.

 

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From → Composers, Music

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