Beethoven: a personal tragedy amid overall brotherhood

On December 17th, 1770, Ludwig van Beethoven, this titan of music and life, was baptized in the Catholic Church in the city of Bonn, part of the Prince Electorship of Cologne, which was an ecclesiastical principality of the Holy Empire of the German Nation. The composer-to-be’s ancestors in the paternal lineage were of Dutch (Flemish) origin. His father was a singer at local Prince Electors’ court, while his mother was a chief cook’s daughter. So, he was a typical commoner by birth. Incidentally, the most outstanding musicians of that epoch were not of noble origin, which determined the peculiarity of their social status and was a source of numerous troubles for them.

As had been the case with Mozart, Ludwig’s first music teacher was his father. Accordingly, he took pains to make the second Mozart out of his son and taught him intensely to play the harpsichord and violin. Ludwig’s first public performance took place when he was 8, and it was not quite a great success. Father soon lost the professional interest in his son and turned his training over to his fellow musicians. In the process, Ludwig also learned to play the organ and viola.

In 1780 the well-known organist and composer C. G. Neefe came to Bonn. When Ludwig was introduced to him, Neefe immediately recognized his outstanding talent. Neefe became for the young Beethoven the first serious advisor and guide in the world of music. At the age of 12, Beethoven already worked as an assistant to Neefe, who held the position of court organist. And when he was 13, his early clavier works were published.

Neefe was a widely educated man and a Freemason, like Mozart. Under Neefe’s influence, Ludwig started to learn foreign languages, including Latin, Italian, and French. He also became keen on literature, and, then, philosophy. Among his favourite authors were Schiller, Goethe, and Shakespeare.

In 1787, Ludwig went to Vienna, where, according to some evidence, he might have met with Mozart. But his first stay in Europe’s music capital of the time did not last long. His mother fell seriously ill and then died. So, Ludwig had to return to Bonn, where he was saddled with care of his heavily drinking father and also of his two younger brothers. To keep going, he gave clavier lessons, worked as an organist, and also as a violist in the court orchestra.

The then governor of Bonn, the Prince Elector Max Franz, was a typical enlightened monarch who attached great importance to the flourishing of sciences and arts. He founded a theatre, where plays by Shakespeare, Lessing, Goethe, and Schiller would be staged, as well as Italian, French, and German operas, among them, those by Gluck and Mozart. Beethoven would often perform in front of the Prince Elector both with his solo clavier improvisations and as a chamber ensemble player. At the same time, he continued his relentless experiments in musical composition.

Yet, Beethoven did not confine his interests to music. He would ponder the meaning of life and continued to read avidly. In 1789, he attended lectures at the University of Bonn and even joined Freemasonry. Subsequently, however, he arrived at the conclusion that “music is a higher revelation than all the wisdom and philosophy”.

In the meantime, Beethoven’s successes were outstanding. His friends and patrons pin higher and higher hopes on him. Many considered him to be the continuer of Mozart’s cause. The Prince Elector awarded an allowance for him to continue his education. Earlier, an arrangement had been reached with J. Haydn to give lessons to Beethoven. With that end in view, the latter was supposed to go to the then centre of music culture, the city of Vienna. One of his friends wrote to him in a farewell letter: “Dear Beethoven, Music is still mourning over the death of its favourite… May you spare no labour and receive the spirit of Mozart from Haydn’s hands”.

From 1792 on, Beethoven lived in Vienna. He took composition lessons from J. Haydn, but the two musicians failed to develop mutual understanding. Haydn did recognize Beethoven’s talent, but he could not accept his pupil’s excessive propensity for innovation, and also his “gloominess”. Papa Haydn would call his obstinate pupil a “Genghis Khan”, “revolutionary”, and “atheist”. Their relationship ceased before too long, and Beethoven found himself other teachers, including the well-known A. Salieri. Beethoven’s seeming “unscrupulousness” in relation to his teachers can be accounted for by the fact that theoretical knowledge added little to the skills he had already mastered at the unconscious level. Like many men of genius, he largely was a self-taught person.

In the meantime, the allowance granted to Beethoven by the Prince Elector ran out. However, Ludwig could already well manage without it. He rather shortly won himself a fame of a brilliant virtuoso pianist in Vienna and acquired a good number of well-heeled patrons. His manner of playing the piano differed strikingly from the generally accepted “gallant” style. In his improvisations, Beethoven would actively use pedal, boldly get extreme registers involved, and bring down hailstorms of unusual accords on the audience. As a result, the clavier under his fingers sounded almost like an orchestra. In many respects, he anticipated here his godson-to-be, F. Liszt.

Also in Vienna, Beethoven’s compositions came out which he marked as “Opus 1”; those were three piano trios. Their publication brought him sizable revenue. In 1795, his 1st piano concerto was premiered, which proved a great success, too. Beethoven’s financial status improved dramatically, and now he could take pleasure in helping his needy friends. The only thing that depressed him at the time was, perhaps, an “inadequate” reaction of the audience to his improvisations. He hated to see tears in the listeners’ eyes. In his view, “sentimentality only befitted women, and music must strike fire from the heart of man”.

Beethoven would often startle the public with his untidy appearance and impudent behaviour. If someone in the audience dared to converse in whispers, he could stop performing and call all those present “pigs”. He would also not miss a chance to cut his aristocratic patrons down to size, saying: “there are many princes, but there is only one Beethoven”. That was the way his “commoner complex” manifested itself. For all that, he was much loved, and his escapades only added to his popularity.

In 1796, at the age of 26, Beethoven felt for the first time that he started to lose his hearing capacity. It may well have been a consequence of a hydrotherapeutic procedure that he would take every time before getting down to writing – he would dip his head into a basin of ice-cold water, hoping it would stimulate his brain function.

Beethoven continued to compose, but now the theme of a struggle against Fate would sound more and more persistently in his music. However, this struggle would not crush man, but rather urge him to lofty meditations on the meaning of life. What Mozart would avoid and Haydn would fear did happen in Beethoven’s music. It almost completely lost its entertaining nature and stopped being a “sweet for the ears”. It became a means of expressing feelings hitherto concealed or immature. This music attacks the listener with all its merciless candour, overcoming the conditionality of art and sometimes even ceasing to be music proper. In 1798, Beethoven wrote his “Pathétique” sonata.

Despite the intensifying deafness, Beethoven continued to compose music and concertize. His works, despite the complexity of their musical language, would find a ready response in the hearts of the contemporaries. The number of printed copies of his works steadily grew and brought him extensive profits. In 1802, he gave up everything and went to the quiet village of Heiligenstadt to reflect and make a decision. At about that time, his Moonlight Sonata appeared, the 1st movement of which, a waltzing funeral march, became an unchallenged example of expressing courage and tragedy in music.

While in Heiligenstadt, Beethoven wrote a letter to his brothers known as the Heiligenstadt Testament. In it, the composer recounted his mental torments and confessed that he had been about to commit a suicide. But a love for art and the determination to fulfill everything he felt himself destined for, kept him from taking the fatal step. Still in Heiligenstadt, he started writing his Eroica Symphony. That meant that the decision had been taken – he would withstand the fate and continue his service to art, as possible. The misfortune failed to crush Beethoven. On the contrary, it only summoned his titanic character and enabled it to show in full.

Initially, Beethoven dedicated his “Eroica” to Napoleon, viewing him as a man who could implement the ideals of the French Revolution, that is, freedom, equality, and brotherhood. But when Napoleon crowned himself as emperor, Beethoven tore up the dedication. Nevertheless, the composer could never free himself from the influence of this outstanding personality; neither could he repudiate the faith in Napoleon’s liberating mission. The step of the Napoleonic troops would not give him a moment’s rest for long. It can be heard in his compositions now and then. And it was not by chance that, having heard 1st movement of his 5th piano concerto, French officers, who were present in the hall, exclaimed with one voice: “C’est l’Empereur!”

But Beethoven had composed a lot of pieces before he wrote his 5th piano concerto. In 1807, yet another masterpiece of piano music came from his pen, the Appassionata. And yet, victories won by him in his creative work, had no impact on his everyday life, where he remained absolutely helpless. Here, he had to face no end of difficulties. He never succeeded in getting a permanent job. Because of a progressive hearing loss, he could no longer teach; public performances had also to be suspended for this very reason. True, his brothers and friends helped him. But he could not abuse their generosity. Besides, his hot temper was the cause of frequent misunderstandings and quarrels even with his close ones. So, he largely lived on the money earned from selling his compositions. And as for money, Beethoven never learned how to handle it properly.

In 1808, Beethoven’s 5th symphony came into being, with the famous opening notes “Thus Fate Knocks at the Door”, and with no less famous finale picturing an outright triumph of the ideals of freedom, equality, and fraternity, of overall rejoicing, and the flush of victory.

In 1809, the Napoleonic troops again invaded Austria. Vienna underwent a severe bombardment and was again captured by the enemy. These developments caused a nervous breakdown in Beethoven’s elderly teacher, the great Papa Haydn, having hastened his death. All this made a grave impression on Beethoven. Coming to grips with a war, with all its undisguised cruelty, will hardly leave anyone inspired. Besides, Napoleon showed himself as a trivial occupant, and Beethoven’s sympathies lied wholly with the city’s defenders. Then he wrote his 26th piano sonata, the only one, to which he himself gave a title, Lebewohl (Farewell), meaning his forced departure from Vienna.

The “relationship” between Beethoven and Napoleon worsened altogether. It came to Beethoven’s marking his former idol’s first serious defeat by writing a “festive overture”. Also, he took an active part in the events related to the notorious Congress of Vienna designed to restore absolute monarchies all over Europe. In the process, Beethoven was shown much kindness from numerous kingly personages, including the Russian emperor and his wife. While glorifying the ideals of the French Revolution, Beethoven still felt more comfortable under the protection of an enlightened autocrat and would prefer the company of the nobles to that of “free citizens”.

But soon the festivities were over, and Austria, as the saying goes, “felt the difference” between freedom and non-freedom. Political life was banned, culture was placed under censorship, the prisons were overfilled with the “enemies of the monarchy”, secret agents operated everywhere sniffing out “treason”, and snitching was considered a “civil virtue”.

Beethoven again was overcome with dismal thoughts aggravated by health problems and everyday troubles. And again, he found salvation in the awareness of his mission, of his debt to Art. This time, he rose to new heights in his meditations. Truth for him, again, assumes the contours of a human person. But it is not Napoleon now. This person is of a higher order, and still closer to him; not opposed to him, but within him. Yes, it is the same God, Whom he once rejected in a titanic ardour, Who had gently been calling on him all this time, and Whose call he heard at last. Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis appeared as his response to this call. In the light of such a rethinking of Truth, Beethoven’s views on the role of art and the mission of the Artist changed. “There is nothing higher, – he exclaimed, – than to draw nearer to the Divine Being and thence spread the rays of His light among people”.

However, Beethoven’s interpretation of Truth remained broad enough. Undoubtedly, he interpreted It as God. At the same time, his idea of God was “historically limited”, as of a certain immortal, spiritual, and creative Origin of Nature. This Divine Spirit, when immersed in Nature, is meant to be returning to Himself. On this way, He had to overcome many obstacles and temptations. But Nature is ultimately His Product. So, He is bound to win and regain original freedom. It is exactly this growth of Spirit that Beethoven tried to follow and express in his last, 9th symphony. In its finale, the Divine Spirit bursts into the Song of Joy to be taken up by millions of people. Thereby, they are sure to come into communion with their single Creator and realize that they are all brothers. Subsequently, these Beethovenian philosophical and religious aspirations would be taken up by Alexander Scriabin, who would endeavor to get people join in a single Creative Source by means of his “Mysterium”.

In his chamber works, however, including his piano sonatas, Beethoven, on the contrary, moved more and more away from noisy streets, plunging more deeply into himself. Here, the motif of fatigue, bitterness, and loneliness could often be heard. And the point was not that his deafness was progressing. Moreover, Beethoven to his last breath believed in an opportunity to reshape the world according to the principles of brotherhood and justice. But somewhere deep inside, he could feel the “dead-endness” of all these folk festivals. Some mysterious force drew him into other realms. Something suggested him that true development had a continuation not in the street, but “within us”.

But the farther away he moved from the world, and the deeper he sank into himself, the farther tragedy retreated, and the lighter his music became. Though, it was not outer, not natural light, but inner, “spiritual” light by now. Solitude turned out not at all so hopeless that it had seemed to be at the start, but, again, quite salutary. Beethoven could now discover in himself entire worlds, which had previously been hidden under outer stuff. One will be seized by a similar feeling, when he finds himself high in the mountains, where eagles are nesting, where only the murmur of a brook can be heard, where fragrance wafts from alpine meadows, and where only heaven is higher.

Beethoven’s late-period chamber and piano music represents the kingdom of subjectivity. It appears cleared from external impression and is not meant to be understood by onlookers. Still, compared, say, to Schumann, Beethoven’s music is more rational than sensual. It bears the imprint of philosophical idealism, which Beethoven had been committed to from the time of his youth. This, in particular, accounts for Beethoven’s sudden and recurrent turning to the genre of fugue. And he would resort to it as the ultimate means of resolving dramatic tension, and, as a rule, in finales.

The last piece which Beethoven composed was his 16th string quartet. It was quite a traditional work, and nothing in it seemed to forebode that it was going to become Beethoven’s “swansong”. Except, perhaps, its slow movement, which the author for some reason titled “the sweet song of peace and quiet”.

Beethoven was not getting ready for death. He was overwhelmed with further creative ideas. “Apollo and the Muses, – he would reiterate, – won’t sacrifice me so easily, for I owe Them still so much… Feels like I’ve written but a few notes”.

Beethoven died on March 26th, 1827, as a result of just another illness, which at first did not seem fatal, but eventually proved to be such. Unlike in the case with Mozart, a many-thousand strong crowd gathered to bid a final farewell to the composer. He was buried in Vienna’s central cemetery, and a majestic monument was subsequently erected over his grave.

Instead of the afterword, it should be stressed that Beethoven was a piano genius, who made a great impact on the formation of the Russian piano school. The famous author of classic piano studies, Carl Czerny, was one of his best pupils. As for Czerny, his pupils, among others, included Franz Liszt and Teodor Leszeticki. The former was a teacher for Sergei Rachmaninoff’s cousin, Alexander Siloti, while the latter, for the director-to-be of the Moscow Conservatoire, Vasily Safonov. Coming from both, threads could be tracked leading to such great pianists as Van Cliburn and Murray Perahia, as well as to the modest writer of these lines.


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