It’s a quarter millennium this year since the birth of THE Romantic hero, the Thunderer himself, Beethoven, who claimed to have taken ‘fate by the throat’ and would never ‘let it bend me completely to its will’. Iain Matheson picks his way through Beethoven’s will and his work.
“I lived for a while without knowing how old I was”, said Beethoven in a letter asking a friend to obtain a copy of his birth certificate [letter 256]. Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn in 1770, on an uncertain date; he was baptised on 17thDecember. Other composers – James Hewitt [4.6.1770, London], Jan Matyáš Nepomuk August Vitásek [22.2.1770, Hořin] – are also marking their 250th anniversary: but they have lost their place in the music dictionaries. Among exact musical contemporaries only Anton Reicha [26.2.1770 Prague] might still earn a few column inches.
Beethoven arrived in Vienna in 1792. The timing was good for those musical genres which would dominate Beethoven’s composing career. String quartets were still a novelty (their foundations laid by Haydn) and ripe for development; the piano was establishing itself as the keyboard instrument par excellence (amazingly, Beethoven’s piano sonatas up to the Pathétique , and some beyond that, were published as suitable “For harpsichord or piano”). And the symphony, brought to a peak by Haydn and Mozart, was ready to be taken in a new direction.
But Beethoven’s Viennese career began as an anonymous viola player in the court orchestra. When he came to public attention it was firstly as a pianist – especially, an improviser – rather than as a composer. Beethoven made careful preparations to launch his composing career. He stockpiled works in several genres – piano, on its own and with strings; songs; a concerto – and presented them in quick succession in 1795. From that time his fame as a composer grew; by the time he was 30 he was known as one of the greatest composers in Europe. His celebrity was marked by such events as the vast concert of 22nd December 1808, which included the first performance of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, as well as the Fourth Piano Concerto, the Gloria and Sanctus from the Mass in C, the Choral Fantasia; and an improvised Piano Fantasia.
The tonal system was fundamental to Western music from about 1600 – 1900. It is concerned above all to establish the primacy of the home key – the “tonic”. At its simplest, the music of the Classical period – the time of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven – is a structural drama between the tonic and its dominant. Beethoven adhered to this principle all his life, often using the simplest materials of the tonal system – scales and chords. In this respect he is a thoroughly Classical composer. But the spirit of his music sometimes made the Romantic composers who followed, claim him as the archetypal Romantic, the man who set music free from 18th-century conventions.
Beethoven is sometimes thought of as a loud composer. He did write some of the loudest music of his time, although a generation later composers including Wagner and Berlioz took advantage of the expanding 19th century orchestra to write music louder than anything Beethoven could have expected. Alongside Beethoven’s loudest music there is quiet; two of his best-known themes are the start of the stormy Fifth Symphony, and the hushed opening of the”Moonlight’ sonata.
Like Haydn, he often uses changes in volume as a way of disrupting listeners’ expectations. Changes of speed are also frequent, and for the same purpose. They occur not just between movements, but within them. For instance, at the start of the piano sonata op.109, 8 piano bars are interrupted by a chord marked forte, which also introduces a new tempo before the previous one has been thoroughly established.
In string quartets too, Beethoven disrupts expectations from the very beginning. The quartet op.59/2 begins with two loud, dramatic chords, then silence: 2 bars pianissimo, then silence: the same two bars repeated a semitone higher, then silence: eleven quiet bars leading back to the two loud chords: silence again…
Beethoven put great effort into each composition to make it as excellent as possible, as can be seen in the many drafts and crossings-out which fill his sketch-books. He was unconcerned if performers and listeners found his music difficult; he wrote to a friend; “For the title of the new sonata all you need do is transfer to it the title which the Wiener Musikzeitung gave to the Symphony in A, i.e. ‘the sonata in A which is difficult to perform’… What is difficult is also beautiful, good, great… Hence everyone will realise that this is the most lavish praise that can be bestowed…” [Letter 749]
In 1815 Beethoven’s friend Johann Maelzel patented the metronome, to help players practise keeping regular speed. Beethoven was the first composer to give metronome marks indicating the speed he wanted his music played at. But he understood the need for flexibility; when adding metronome marks to the proofs of a score he wrote to his publisher: “But this must be held applicable to only the first measures, for feeling also has its tempo and this cannot entirely be expressed in this figure.”
Beethoven was an exact contemporary of Georg Wilhelm Hegel [27.8.1770 Stuttgart]. There’s no evidence that the two men met; had they done so, the oppositions in Beethoven’s life might have seemed to Hegel a perfect demonstration of his dialectic theory.
Beethoven’s unprepossessing appearance was the antithesis of his rich imaginative life.
His day-to-day life was frequently chaotic, yet his musical thought was precise.
He was often in despair at his weaknesses (especially deafness), but stubbornly determined to overcome obstacles.
In public he was known as a supreme improviser of spontaneous music at the piano; in private he filled sketch-books with many laborious drafts towards each of his written compositions. (He scorned composers who composed quickly, Rossini in particular).
One eminent man whom Beethoven did meet was Goethe. The encounter took place in Teplitz (Teplice) in 1812. Afterwards Goethe wrote : ‘His talent astounded me; nevertheless, he unfortunately has an utterly untamed personality, not completely wrong in thinking the world detestable, but hardly making it more pleasant for himself or others by his attitude.’
Goethe wasn’t the only one to point out Beethoven’s untamed personality. By all accounts Beethoven’s appearance was unkempt, with a personality to match. A young pianist, Frau von Bernhard, describes him in this way: “He was short and insignificant, with an ugly red face full of pockmarks… His attire was very ordinary and not remotely of the choiceness that was customary in those days… Besides, he spoke in a pronounced dialect and had a rather common way of expressing himself, indeed, his entire deportment showed no signs of exterior polish; on the contrary, he was unmannerly both in demeanour and behaviour.”
Yet this unmannerly man was the friend of Archdukes and Princesses.
Smetana and Fauré are among the composers who, late in their careers, became deaf. But Beethoven was a young man when he began to have problems with his hearing. In November 1801 he wrote to Franz Gerhard Wegeler, a childhood friend, now a doctor, saying that in the last three years his hearing had become worse. In the theatre he had to move close to the stage to be able to hear the actors. He was unable to hear high notes from a distance. When people spoke normally he heard the sound but couldn’t make out the words. Shouting caused him pain. His ears were filled with whistling and buzzing day and night. Even worse than these physical side-effects, he noticed changes in his personality. He felt deeply humiliated. But in the letter Beethoven also declares his determination: “I want to grasp fate by the throat, it should certainly not completely bend me.”
“If I were in Berlin,” Goethe wrote in 1829, “I would rarely miss Mőser string quartet evenings. Exhibitions of this kind have always been for me the most intelligible thing in instrumental music: one hears four rational people conversing with one another…” As Beethoven’s deafness worsened, people could only converse with him by writing down what they wished to say. The writer Ludwig Rellstab visited Beethoven in 1825: “After we had seated ourselves Beethoven handed me a slate and pencil, saying: ‘You must write down only what is most important and then I will be able to see my way clear; I have been using it now for a year.” When he went out Beethoven carried a notebook which served the same purpose, and doubled as a musical sketch-book to jot down ideas. Scholars and biographers are delighted that Beethoven carefully preserved these so-called “conversation-books”, as well as all his musical sketchbooks and papers.
Beethoven was repeatedly disappointed in his romantic life. He fell in love with a succession of unattainable women, and was rejected by others whom he plucked up courage to approach. He wrote an undated letter (6th and 7th July, but the year is missing) to a woman whom he addresses as “The Immortal Beloved”. However he was so discreet, that this letter is virtually the only evidence that he was in love at all. Most likely the letter was never sent, since it was found among his papers after his death. In 1972 scholars (mostly) agreed that the letter was written in 1812; the woman’s identity is still a subject for theses, lectures and learned articles.
Beethoven wrote another letter while he was in the small town of Heiligenstadt, outside Vienna. He had been sent there for a rest cure. The letter, dated 6th October 1802, has become known as the Heiligenstadt Testament. It is a catalogue of the causes of Beethoven’s despair: his deafness, his unsuccessful love life, the world’s misunderstanding. It begins:
“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 ever eager to accomplish great deeds, but reflect now that for six years I have been a hopeless case,… born with an ardent and lively temperament, even susceptible to the diversions of society, I was soon compelled to isolate myself, to live in loneliness…”
This is a second letter which was never sent, though Beethoven kept it carefully; it too was discovered among his papers after his death, and published in October 1827. It reflects his despair at his increasing deafness, and even hints that he has contemplated suicide:
“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…”
Beethoven’s music is sometimes autobiographical, in a way not found in Haydn or Mozart. After writing both of these letters, Beethoven’s personal crises overlapped with his musical activity.
The musical parallel to the “Immortal Beloved” letter is the song-cycle An die ferne Geliebte – “To the Distant Beloved.” Beethoven asked the poet Alois Jeitteles to write on the subject of distant love, and these poems became the text of the cycle. (An die ferne Geliebte is one of the Beethoven works which directly influenced the next generation of composers; for example Schumann quotes the last song in his piano Fantasy op.17. It was the direct model for the song-cycles of Schubert and Schumann.)
Equally, when he returned from Heilgenstadt, still alive and resolved still to compose, the first work Beethoven began was his cantata Christus am Oelberge (“Christ On the Mount of Olives”), which deals with many of the same emotions – isolation, fear of death, love of mankind – that were expressed in the Heilgenstadt Testament.
Beethoven’s religious beliefs were unorthodox but sincere. (His family was Roman Catholic.) His idea of God drew as much on classical antiquity as on Christianity; he kept on his table a quotation from Schiller’s Die Sendung Moses, which includes an account of the religion of ancient Egypt: “I am that which is… I am all, what is, what was, what will be… He is only and solely of Himself, and to this only One all things owe their existence.” In Beethoven’s letters Jesus is rarely mentioned except as a fellow-sufferer: “…as for my most gracious master, surely he can but follow the example of Christ, i.e. suffer” [letter 1316]. It is this earthly suffering Christ in the garden of Gethsemane who is the subject of Christus am Oelberge. (This piece was one of the first by Beethoven to be performed in America: “The first part of the concert closed with the sublime and majestic chorus from the oratorio of the ‘Mount of Olives’ by Beethoven” [review in The Harmonicon of a concert given by New York Choral Society, Dec. 1824])
Beethoven was the leading composer in the time after the French Revolution, and he is often seen as bringing about an equal revolution in music. His sympathies, though, were not simply on the side of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. At first, Beethoven believed Napoleon to be a champion of the poor. When Napoleon proclaimed himself emperor in 1804, Beethoven famously exclaimed: “So he too is nothing more than an ordinary man.” The Third Symphony, originally to be named Bonaparte, was published in 1806 with the Italian title Sinfonia Eroica, composta per festeggiare il sovvenire di un grande Uomo (“Heroic Symphony, Composed to celebrate the memory of a great man”)
Beethoven wrote a will in 1824, and another on 24th March 1827, two days before his death. He left everything to his nephew Karl, of whom he had been guardian since 1815.
The legend of Beethoven as Romantic Hero began to take shape during his life; it was fully formed by the time of his death, and affected the reception of his work for a hundred years after. The legend was based on qualities which were important to the Romantics; the heroic figure as Child of Nature (Pastoral Symphony), Revolutionary (Eroica Symphony), Freedom-fighter (Fidelio), Mystic and Prophet (the late string quartets). At times this led to a hero-worship which placed Beethoven, man and music, beyond criticism; he was seen as the incarnation of Schopenhauer’s definition of genius. At the same time, much of the legend did not pay close attention to the music; or if it did, only to the “heroic” pieces – the Eroica Symphony, the Hammerklavier sonata – which were held up as the “real” Beethoven. Wagner wrote a book-length essay in 1870 to mark the centenary of Beethoven’s birth, and was keen to point up what he saw as the magical, mystical Beethoven: “…I soon conceived an image of him in my mind as a sublime and unique supernatural being…” [Wagner, Mein Leben, p41]. Composers who took the trouble to listen to the music often found themselves intimidated by it. Schumann wrote:
“Who does not know the string quartets of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, and who would wish to say anything against them? In fact it is most telling testimony to the immortal freshness of their works that still after half a century they gladden the hearts of everyone; but it is no good sign that the later generation, after all this time, has not been able to produce anything comparable.”
Beethoven was still casting a shadow eighty years later. Gabriel Fauré put off writing a string quartet till his final opus, and wrote in 1923: “I have embarked upon a quartet for stringed instruments, without piano. It is a genre that Beethoven, in particular, raised to the heights, which means that it gives the jitters to all who are not Beethoven! Saint-Saens was always scared of it and only attempted it towards the end of his life. He was not as successful as he was in other genres. So you can imagine that I, too, am afraid.”
As the ideals of musical Romanticism faded, and as ideas changed concerning what a hero might be, the legend gave way in academic circles to an assessment based more directly on the facts of Beethoven’s life, and on his music. Beethoven’s music is now probably the most intensively analyzed of any composer.
But the heroic legend continues in popular culture. Immortalized in scowling busts and portraits (many of them posthumous), Beethoven has found new immortality thanks to the Beethoven ringtone. There is no shortage of films related to his life (Immortal Beloved [Columbia 1994], Copying Beethoven [MGM 2006]), and the music is co-opted for the soundtrack of films including Along Came Polly (cello sonata #2), The King’s Speech (Piano Concerto #5) and Daddy Day Care (string quartet op.18/5).
Beethoven has been enlisted in support of a variety of political causes. The Third Reich used his music in their propaganda, while the Fifth symphony, its opening motif translated into Morse code, became a symbol of Allied victory. On German radio the announcement of Hitler’s death was accompanied by the Funeral March from the Eroicasymphony; the “Ode to Joy” from the Ninth Symphony accompanied the celebrations surrounding the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Beethoven’s music survives such diverse associations, because it is complex enough, and difficult enough, to address the whole range of human emotions. It is the work of an artist who believed that “In the world of art, as in the whole of our great creation, freedom and progress are the main objectives.” [Letter 955]
Quotes from Beethoven’s letters are taken from The Letters of Beethoven ed. Emily Anderson [London, 1961]