Beethoven’s belated 250th birthday celebrations
In the disco
Sometime during the gogo-booted, bell-bottomed, maxi-dressed, mirror-balled, shag-carpeted, non-manscaped harvest-gold wasteland that was the seventies, someone took the first few bars of Beethoven’s fifth symphony, set them to a disco beat and called it “A Fifth of Beethoven.”
A fifth. A mickey. Something to slip into your wide-lapelled suit jacket pocket so you could get wasted at Prom. Something in the silver plated stainless steel flask you stole from your grandad’s drawer.
Something to get your Prom date drunk with, loosen her inhibitions, so you could make out with her. Get to second, or was it third, base? I never figured out the baseball metaphor’s code. Anyway, gay men don’t have bases you get to. We just sign you up for the team, have our way with you, then trade you for another hit.
I don’t know whether A Fifth of Beethoven indicates that, fifty years ago, disco frequenters still had enough musical culture to recognize the symphony and therefore get the joke; or whether someone just needed a few more minutes of music on a recording, had no more budget for royalties and chose the first piece in the public domain that sprang to mind.
I’ve always found it mystifying when people can’t leave art alone. Art irks them. They want to cut it down to size, make it come down off its pedestal and groove with the regular, unpretentious folks. For most people, art and music don’t exist except as mirrors of their pre-determined tastes and ill-informed opinions. They rarely see what is actually there. Instead they see the inside walls of their own echo chamber.
But art doesn’t end with the artist: it needs someone to experience it to complete it. Attention needs to be fed into it, then it reveals some of its secrets, though never all of them.
We don’t get this concept anymore. We don’t learn, as an urgent need, how to listen to music and how to read art.
I’ve fired up Spotify and am listening to the first movement of the “Eroica” symphony, Beethoven’s breakout work.
“It’s so relaxing!” says my friend.
If this work doesn’t take the top of your head off, you’re not listening right. You don’t understand the language, the signals are not meeting the right neurons. You can get there, but I doubt you will with that attitude.
Art, not science, is what makes homo sapiens unique. Cave paintings from 20,000 years ago tell me that the ability to create helped us survive, otherwise creativity would have died out, via natural selection. Animals can solve problems; but only humans make symbols, speak in metaphors, engage with the problem of existence, because we know our existence ends.
If science solves the problem of death, will art still be necessary?
There is a scene being played out at the palace of Prince Lobkowitz, a patron of Beethoven’s: A grand old duchess, well into her eighties, is on her knees in front of Beethoven, literally on her creaking, arthritic eighty-year-old knees, in tears, begging Beethoven to play (he was a brilliant virtuoso pianist and improviser until his deafness put an end to his performing career).
Hard for us to imagine, but, remember: with no technology, no radio, no recordings, you have to hear music live in concert, hear the famous soloist on the rare occasion you might encounter them, and she’s eighty, she could die tomorrow! And all she wants is that the greatest, most famous composer in Europe, in all of the world, might play a little for her.
And Beethoven absolutely refuses. Refuses!
We’re at a dinner party during the time of the Napoleonic wars. One of the party, a French soldier, also asks Beethoven to play, and Beethoven, in the prince’s presence, once again, predictably, refuses.
It’s awkward. The prince tries to smooth things with a bit of a jollying along. There he is, with the hors d’oeuvres wilting on the table and the soup getting cold. He teasingly suggests that he will lock Beethoven up, hold him prisoner, until he grants the soldier’s wish.
Beethoven, enraged, throws a chair through a window, then storms out, heading home to his garret and unemptied chamber pot and stinking plates of veal schnitzel, where he breaks a bust that the prince had given him. Breaks it like a little crazy bitch having a spat with her lover.
It’s a credit to his patron, to all his patrons, that they never lost sight of the genius, never regarded him as anything but a holy madman, a frightened, lonely child, a conduit to the Divine.
An Entirely New Manner
Two thousand twenty was the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, and it is strangely appropriate that celebrating his birth was a non-event due to the pandemic.
For Beethoven, Maynard Solomon relates in his epic biography, had a mental block about his birth year, and about an elder brother, also Ludwig, who had died at six months. He insisted that this older brother and he had become mixed up, and that the dates on his birth certificate, despite all evidence to the contrary, were wrong.
He also suffered from the family romance neurosis, believing somewhere deeply in his soul that his parents were not his real parents, and that he was actually born of the nobility (“von” would have indicated nobility, but “van” could be nothing but a beet farmer in Belgium).
No one could blame him for wanting a better start for himself; he had survived a severely abusive childhood in which he was starved for love. His mother seems to have been emotionally distant, even indifferent; but his father, a mediocre musician in the Court orchestra and a sloppy alcoholic who humiliated his family with his drunken sprees, damaged him and set him up for a lifetime of bitter loneliness and isolation.
Having noted that Beethoven had some musical talent, he decided his son was going to be the second Mozart, a wunderkind child prodigy, and set about “training” him. This mostly consisted of spending the evening carousing in the pub, returning home with a drunken companion, and dragging the miserable child out of bed at three A.M. to force him to practice. Harsh blows were the reward for unsatisfactory compliance.
A family friend recounts passing by the Beethoven residence and, looking into the living room, seeing the six-year-old Beethoven at the keyboard, weeping as he played, while his father and fellow lout carried on.
Beethoven became withdrawn, a lonely child who had few companions and gazed up at the starry skies at night, silently.
As Beethoven matured, he frequently had to rescue his father from the night patrol, begging the officers to allow him to bring his wasted father home rather than arrest him. Beethoven became the de facto father of the family. It’s all too drearily familiar to anyone who’s had an alcoholic parent.
And Beethoven was no Mozart child prodigy. Mozart wrote in accepted formats with staggering proficiency and sometimes sublime beauty. He could toss off some German dances for a public ball, write a piano concerto for himself to play at paying concerts, or, with the string quartet, a configuration reserved for private gatherings of cognoscenti in the homes of the nobility, try harmonic experiments without frightening the horses.
Beethoven transformed Western classical music, through a titanic, very public struggle in which his own inner emotional landscape became the stage for the working-out of an heroic scenario: tragedy overcome through an act of will. The artist has become the protagonist in his own drama. This personal component arguably makes Beethoven one of the first Romantic artists.
Mozart, not really questioning the formal demands of classicism—balance, restraint, refinement—could, and often did, toss off a symphony en route to the concert. He became, as Glenn Gould mischievously dubbed him, a bit of a hack.
Beethoven’s work was birthed painfully, slowly, through hundreds of sketches, rewritings, reworkings, as he found his way, sometimes revisiting the printer’s proofs or even second-guessing how to end. (It is shocking to realize that, after the premiere of the ninth symphony, Beethoven was considering replacing the final choral movement!) Beethoven was a modernist, a questioner, a skeptic, an intrepid pioneer; Mozart essentially a traditionalist.
Beethoven hacked his way through virgin forest with virtually every composition, erecting signs that said CAUTION: Uncharted territory. Proceed At Your Own Risk.
Mozart just threw on his Ray-Bans, as it were, climbed into his Mercedes-Benz and roared down the Autobahn.
Mozart, his gift honed by an obsessive, oppressive father almost from the day of his birth, was cursed with facility. Music poured out of him in an endless limpid stream of invention and piquant beauty that could make orchestral musicians weep on the first play-through. But audiences felt overwhelmed, sated. The infamous comment from Emperor Joseph, “Too many notes, my dear Mozart!” was not actually the comment of a crass Philistine but, in view of the artistic standards of the time, trenchant criticism.
Mozart dumbed-down some of his work to suit the shallow and fickle tastes of the Viennese public. They were, so to speak, the original Readers’ Digest demographic, wanting something pleasant, predictable and not too demanding; middle-brow entertainment rather than high art. And Mozart, affable, gregarious, a winer and diner, a gambler, sexually driven, a good-time boy, in every sense the exact opposite of Beethoven, had a wife and son to support and had to do so by monetizing his musical skills.
Beethoven did not, could not, have the same facility as a composer, because he was breaking classicism apart with every project; his struggle was the struggle of a holy misfit whose genius was only gradually revealed; a man torn between an aching, desperate need for love, the comfort of a wife and family, and a compulsion to create a new kind of music. He was, he believed, a vessel of God, but what a cold, demanding deity this was, who asked, “What will it be, then: Happiness or Art?”
Convinced that happiness was forever out of reach, Beethoven again and again chose Art.
Beethoven did share with Mozart the desire to leave his provincial backwater hometown and the stultifying influence of family—Salzburg in Mozart’s case, Bonn in Beethoven’s—and head to Vienna, the centre of musical and cultural life.
And the young Beethoven was well aware that his musical development would require hard work, for there were serious gaps in his musical training. Once in Vienna, he made his fame as a pianist at first; wisely he held back publishing any compositions. There is a notable time lag between his juvenile publications, which at any rate had not been received as anything extraordinary; and the first mature published works, the brilliant and fame-making Opus 1 Trios for piano, violin and cello.
Trios? The canny young Beethoven knew that he needed to make his mark in a format he could call his own. String quartets would have invited comparisons with the incomparable quartets of Haydn, his erstwhile, rather unwilling teacher, and Mozart. With piano trios he could exploit his extraordinary gifts as a performer and test the waters.
The waters, as it turned out, were fine, and his career launched.
Luckily for him, the nobility of Vienna showed an almost uncanny indulgence and endless forgiveness for his social incompetence; they realized that such a gift must be bought dearly, that a man brave, or stupid, enough to break the mould would necessarily be broken himself. And they supported him financially, at one point chipping in to provide him with a stipend for life.
They fell over each other vying for the dedication of a new piano sonata or string quartet, which would be exclusively theirs to perform for a year or two before publication. This was prestige of the highest order, for by about 1810 to 1814, Beethoven was the most celebrated composer in Europe. Make no mistake—Beethoven was a superstar.
But there was something else going on here, a mystery that fed his frustration, the terrible temper, the mad, inexplicable outbursts. From the age of about thirty, he carried, secretly at first, an almost unthinkable burden: at the moment of his big breakthrough, the third symphony, the so-called “Eroica”—twice as long, ten times as loud as any symphony had ever been, epic in emotional range, so that the first audience felt terrorized by this strange, unruly music; “an entirely new manner,” as Beethoven described it—at this very first flowering of his heroic style and his fame, he realized he was going deaf.
A note addressed to his two younger brothers but never mailed, found in his papers after his death, outlines his panic and fear. How could he continue? How long could he keep this secret? What would happen to his career, his reputation, when his disability became known? Why had the Deity who he believed had chosen him as the recipient of these “divine sounds” played this hideously cruel joke on him?
In despair, he contemplated suicide; then in an act of defiance, vowed to continue—but forever in isolation, forsaking any hope of personal gratification, of finding consolation in social life, love or family. It was a bitter existence he envisioned for himself.
And in that renunciation of personal life, that refusal of happiness I see his revenge against God.
A Feminist Reading
“The Ninth Symphony of Beethoven Understood At Last As a Sexual Message,” a celebrated poem by Adrienne Rich (* my title for this post is taken from this poem)
I will now share with you a wonderfully dotty, yet still relevant, comment about Beethoven’s last five string quartets, composed in his final years, from about 1823 up to the year of his death, 1827. These uniquely intimate, lyrical, uncompromisingly modernist and transcendent works confused and amazed listeners of the time, for they defied every convention, even the new conventions which Beethoven himself had created.
One of them has seven movements played without pause; another a time-stopping slow movement, written after a brief respite from his long, debilitating final illness, in an ancient mode associated with healing, that is seventeen minutes long, and entitled “Song of Thanksgiving to the Godhead by a Convalescent”; another ends with a gigantic fugue—a complex technique, brought to perfection a hundred years earlier by composers such as Bach and Handel, in which an initial “tune” or motif is presented by one instrument, then another and another, until all available “voices” (in this case, two violins, a viola and a ‘cello) are weaving this theme together in such a way that they are completely independent melodies, and at the same time fitting together to create the expected chord progressions.
Yet this thorny, take-no-prisoners “Grand Fugue” of Beethoven’s is so abstruse, so dissonant and so taxing for both performers and listeners, that he had to be persuaded to write an alternative finale and publish the Grosse Fuge separately.
“A concert only the Moroccans could enjoy!” said one critic after the première of this Opus 130 quartet, apparently at a loss for a comment that might make sense.
In these last five quartets we hear adumbrations of Stravinksy and Elliott Carter; echoes of ancient music, of Bach and Palestrina; and, in his favorite non-heroic vein, themes and variations that don’t just decorate the original tune with layers of frills and frippery like a cake fancied up with icing, they deconstruct it like a cubist Braque, or reduce it to an essence of color and light like a Mark Rothko; all this in an otherworldly musical testament that still engages scholars and humbles listeners.
And in response to this overwhelm, a bewildered but loyal critic sums up the prevailing opinion, saying:
“We know there is something there, but we do not know what it is.”
Goethe Weighs In…
“His [Beethoven’s] talent amazed me; unfortunately he is an utterly untamed personality, who is not altogether wrong in holding the world to be detestable, but surely does not make it any more enjoyable … by his attitude.”
—Goethe, writing about Beethoven after their meeting in 1809.
From “Seven Habits of Highly Successful Musical Iconoclasts, and You Can, Too! Master Your Ill-Humor to Reclaim Your Increasingly Unfavorable Reputation, Confound the Critics and Nail that Friggin’* Countess, Dude!!”, Goethe’s deservedly little-known self-help and coaching manual.
Not, as they say, a major success.
*[abgefriggt] in the original. [zum Beispiel: “Friggen Sie immer die Fürstin Babette ab?” “Ja, das SCHMEKT!!” usw.]
The young Beethoven, newly arrived in Vienna, unknown, wet behind the ears, has been set up to study with the great Franz Joseph Haydn, whose countrified sensibility and penchant for musical “joking” he will be seen to share to a large degree. (The pedigree goes: Haydn to Beethoven to Brahms; Mozart is sui generis, a category unto himself, a little miracle with neither antecedents nor descendants.)
This is a huge honor for the fledgling composer. But Beethoven, already annoyingly convinced of his own greatness, cheats, presenting to Haydn works he composed years earlier as though they were new, and as for the exercises in counterpoint Haydn assigns him, he substitutes the workings-out of another of his teachers, passing them off as his own.
Haydn, of course, eventually discovers the deception, and is not amused.
Some time after their association has finished, Haydn meets a mutual friend of Beethoven’s in the street.
“Well then,” he asks, with tart humor, “how goes it with our Grand Mogul?”
Lust and Disgust
Beethoven had a habit of falling in love with unavailable women. Countesses. Milk maids. His sister-in-law. Egads! His delusion that he was nobly born and his desperate neediness obviously made a very bad combination.
His pupil and neighbour, Countess Babette (the name equivalent, I’m guessing, of the Brandies and Tiffanies of today) was treated to Beethoven turning up for her piano lessons in slippers, night gown and night cap.
Mostly, though, the countesses thought he was crazy, ugly, unkempt, smelly. They rejected him outright or treated it as a lark, toyed with him, then married the obviously more suitable Other Guy. More of concern, one object of his unruly affection, who was married, in a humiliating dénouement, eventually had to forbid him entrance to her home; in modern terms, he was stalking her.
You’d possibly conclude that Beethoven was deliberately choosing unavailable women so he could justify his monk’s existence, in which, like a saint gifted with the stigmata, he was a lightning rod receiving the jolts and shocks of of a new musical voltage.
Only the so-called “Immortal Beloved” tempted him. This name comes, again, from papers discovered after Beethoven’s death: a passionate correspondence of which we have only Beethoven’s contribution. In this touching, terse document we follow his path from fantasy (they will live together forever) to reality (they must put aside their feelings, the obstacles are too great) as he sees his one authentic chance for happiness with a woman evade him.
But who was she?
I won’t spoil for you the pleasure of reading Maynard Solomon’s brilliant and undeniably air-tight solution to the mystery of her identity, except to say that she and her husband were Beethoven’s dear friends, and that one summer, when they were all vacationing together, she called his bluff.
She offered to leave her husband.
And Beethoven, appalled that he might be drawn away from his sacred art, horrified that he might betray his friend, her husband, talked her, and himself, out of it.
He went downhill for a time after that. His fame misled him. Demoralized and coasting on his reputation, he pandered to his adoring public with embarrassing potboilers like Wellington’s Victory, whose first performance involved several of his colleagues in the orchestra, and cannon fire, like a nineteenth-century comedy benefit; then threw his efforts behind settings of—Scottish folk songs. The word was out: Beethoven was finished.
Groupies offered him their wives to sleep with, which raises all kinds of messy and startling Freudian speculation about homosexual urges and erotic confusion. Once in a while he visited a brothel, punishing his lapse with bouts of self-loathing.
I imagine his bitterness and disgust, his disillusionment at lust trampling over love. I imagine how he lost his way, for a time, thinking his life was over.
But it was not over.
God wasn’t finished with him; not yet.
MY FRIEND, ALSO DAVID, has dropped by so we can discuss paint colors for my apartment. David’s just out of prison and working at a local paint and building supply store. He’s a guy I met years ago, via Skype and the modern miracle of naked video chat when he was living, of all places, in Shanghai.
Shanghai! A name that transcends mere geography to summon up a trunk full of exotic, thrilling, mysterious and racist-colonial-imperial associations, and good luck with sorting out which is which; what counts as color and what will get you a smack in the head and a time-out.
I think of a Chinese movie star in a slinky silk dress slit up the sides, her nails red as a predator’s, her hair bobbed, in the 1920’s style of Louise Brooks. She’s primed for elegant butchery.
She enters an opium den, plunging from day into night, brushing aside a beaded curtain which announces her arrival with its delicate chatter. It’s dark inside, but the heavy drapes glow as they struggle to contain the full force of the noonday sun.
Her eyes adjust, and she can now make out shapes within the room that gradually solidify. The shapes are coiled, naked, in the fetal position or , shamelessly splayed, flaunting themselves and inviting the fumbling of indifferent rutting fingers. A drift of blue smoke—
—then a hand tight on her mouth, stifling even the thought of a scream. The knife blade, bright as a mirror, skates across her throat, etching a thin thread of blood that grows into a bright pink ribbon. Blood foams between the assassin’s fingers as he eases the body to the floor...
Anyway, we decided on Elegant Teal, with gloss white for the trim. It’s gonna be fabulous!
So David’s texting someone and while he does that I’m playing the Beethoven Opus 126 Bagatelles (short characteristic pieces, almost like improvs, that he churned out in quantity when he needed some pin money). But this set is special: he calls them “Zyklus von Kleinigkeiten”, a cycle of little nothings, and the key relationships and contrasts of mood indicate that they belong together and are to be played as a unit.
They were intended as pieces for talented amateurs, even beginners—Beethoven always wanted to extract the maximum commercial value from his work—but the opus (publication) number, 126, indicates that they are late pieces, written just after the Ninth Symphony, and just before he began the last five string quartets, his most astonishing and modernist legacy.
Thus, their syntax is condensed, their ideas terse and time foreshortened. Their moods, in turn, are: pastoral, conflicted, ecstatic, demonic, nostalgic, bacchic-rustic. For all his pretensions to “Grand Fugues” and posterity, when push comes to shove Beethoven loves nothing more than to join the common folk for a good old drunken village dance and a roll in the hay, even two.
For Beethoven to have written these is like Picasso drawing something on his table napkin—it’s not his most earth-shattering creation, but in the end it’s still unmistakably a Picasso.
And as I finish practising, I turn around to speak to David.
He’s naked. He’s curled up coquettishly on my sofa, (I should have put a towel down) he’s got his phone strapped into a kind of mediaeval iron maiden of pink plastic obviously designed for men in the terminal stages of narcissistic selfie oblivion, and he’s chatting on Skype while jerking his not inconsiderable chunk of man meat.
OOOOH, YEAH he says to whoever is on the other side of the iPhone. Fuckin’ hot!
There’s a faint babble of voices, laughter, dance music and static. He’s lost in his exhibitionism, totally oblivious to the fact that he’s been masturbating to Beethoven.
Well. Sooner or later, we all succumb.
For factual information about Beethoven’s life and career I have leaned heavily on Maynard Solomon’s biography, which is unparalleled for its insights into the life and music. Any interpretations of the facts are my own; also any errors. Also anything that I might have, well—just made up. DR.