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Music for all time: Reflections on Beethoven, on his 250th birthday …

“This wasn’t written for you!” Beethoven once stormed at string players who complained that one of his quartets was impossible to play. “It was meant for a later age!” And so all Beethoven’s works are. They are, indeed, music for all time. Please enjoy this symposium on Ludwig van Beethoven, with contributions from our distinguished panel.

Beethoven’s Music for All Time — by Stephen Klugewicz

Ludwig van Beethoven is the greatest composer who ever lived. Though an arguable point, this is a claim that no knowledgeable person would dismiss as unfounded. Certainly, there is no musical artist who towers over Western Civilization as he does. The opening notes of his Fifth Symphony—DA DA DA DUM—are familiar to all and indeed are said to constitute the most famous musical phrase ever written. (The power and mystery of the movement that these notes introduce are what captivated the present writer as a teenager and made him a lifelong devotee of the composer.) With that shock of unkempt hair, those frowning lips, and that stern visage, portraits and busts of the man are instantly recognizable to even casual music fans, and, once upon a time, to nearly everyone in the general public. He is one of those rare classical composers known well to those who only follow popular culture, a development abetted by cartoonist Charles M. Schulz, who in the 1960s created the piano-playing character, Schroeder, a blond-haired boy who is constantly bent over in rapt concentration at the keyboard, hammering away at a Beethoven work as a bust of his idol/spirit-guide watches over him.

We feel like we know, like we understand Beethoven better than any other composer. The countenance we see in artistic depictions makes him seem more human than the enigmatic Mozarts, Mendelssohns, and Mahlers of the classical world. That famous head of his bespeaks the trope of the tortured genius, and indeed Beethoven was a troubled man. Severely abused as a boy by his father—who would not only administer regular beatings but who would come home drunk in the middle of the night and rouse young Ludwig from his bed to perform at the piano for him and his friends until the sun came up—Beethoven had trouble with relationships throughout his life. Devoted to his art, he never married, though he was often in love. His poor looks (one woman whom he courted dismissed him by telling him simply that he was “ugly”), poor manners, embarrassing gastric ailments, and volatile personality hindered his romantic pursuits. We are probably the beneficiaries of his failures here: While his romantic passions often stirred him to compose, married life did not then interfere with the monastic lifestyle that allowed him time to compose. Similarly, his deafness—often misunderstood as something that came on suddenly and completely, whereas in reality it descended upon him gradually and unevenly—which isolated him from society and ruined his career as a piano virtuoso, increasingly forced him to compose not at the piano, but in his mind… a place, unlike the piano, whose possibilities were endless.

Quick to anger, Beethoven made life difficult for many family members, friends, and associates. “I like trees more than people,” the nature-loving author of the Pastoral Symphony once remarked. When his brother signed a letter to him, “From your brother Johann, landowner,” Beethoven replied, “From your brother Ludwig, brain owner.” To his friend, the violinist Ignaz Schuppanzig, who complained that one of his string quartets was too difficult to play, Beethoven fumed, “Do you think I have in mind your damn fiddle when the Muse speaks to me?” He engaged in many disputes with publishers, sometimes with justification, and sometimes, as in cases in which he granted “exclusive rights” to more than one publishing house, sometimes not. When his other brother Kaspar died, Beethoven viciously battled his widow Johanna for years over custody of her son Karl, indicting the woman as morally “depraved,” and when winning the case, denying her the right to see her son. (Inexplicably, when Johanna gave birth to another man’s illegitimate daughter later in life, she named her Ludovika, the female form of “Ludwig.”) Beethoven even tested the patience of his patrons, once attempting to break a chair over the head of one of his aristocratic patrons during an argument and and leaving Prince Lichnowsky a note after the incident, which said, “Prince, what you are, you are by accident of birth; what I am, I am of myself. There are and there will be thousands of princes. There is only one Beethoven.”

And yet Beethoven was often as quick to show remorse as he was to flash his infamous temper. He could even be gracious. Once, late in his life, the Viennese town council passed a resolution in his honor; Beethoven, who might have been expected to scoff at the silliness of the gesture, when informed of the news said simply, “Well, that is very nice of them.”

On the one hand a man of his time who honored and conserved the classical tradition of Haydn and Mozart (“Kremer! Kremer!” Beethoven shouted as he grabbed his composer-companion after listening to a performance of a Mozart piano concerto, “We will never be able to write anything like that!”), Beethoven was yet a revolutionary, creating radical new works and pointing the way to the future. “This wasn’t written for you!” he once stormed at string players who complained that his Grosse Fugue was impossible to play. “It was meant for a later age!”

And so all Beethoven’s works are. They are, indeed, music for all time.

The “Moonlight” Sonata — by Mark Malvasi

On June 29, 1801, Beethoven wrote to his friend, Dr. Franz Gerhard Wegeler, to lament his worsening deafness. “For the last three years,” Beethoven confessed, “my hearing has become weaker and weaker. . . . My ears continue to hum and buzz day and night.”[1]   Before his letter reached Herr Wegeler in Bonn,  Beethoven had resigned himself to life as a virtual recluse, withdrawing ever more from society “just because I find it impossible to say to people: I am deaf.” He was frustrated at his inability to understand what people said when they spoke to him. “I can hear sounds, it is true,” he reported, “but cannot make out the words. But if anyone shouts, I can’t bear it.” No longer able to “hear the high notes of instruments or voices,” Beethoven’s deafness was gradually isolating him from the world and robbing him of the music that was at once his passion and his solace. As a composer and a musician, Beethoven’s hearing loss ought to have been an insurmountable debility. Yet overcome it he did, an indication of his resolute spirit and his uncompromising genius.

Although disheartened at his misfortune, Beethoven remained steadfast in his purpose. “I will bid defiance to my fate,” he assured Wegeler, “though I feel that as long as I live there will be moments when I shall be God’s most unhappy creature.” His affliction, in fact, seems to have inspired one of the most creative periods in his life. Among the many works he composed just after telling Wegeler of his deafness was the Piano Sonata #14 Quasi una fantasia in C-Sharp Minor, Opus 27, Number 2, the “Moonlight” Sonata.

Dedicated to the seventeen-year-old Countess Giuletta Guicciardi, the “dear and charming girl” whom Beethoven hoped to marry, the “Moonlight” Sonata defies classical structure. In place of the conventional fast-slow-fast arrangement, Beethoven substituted a passionate Adagio Sostunuto as the first movement followed by a lively Allegretto and concluded with a furious Presto Agitato.  The Adagio achieved immediate popularity, so much so that Beethoven in exasperation complained to his student Carl Czerny: “Surely I’ve written better things.”[2] Yet, for more than two hundred years, the somber, mournful beauty of the Adagio has left a profound impression on listeners. Hector Berlioz called it “one of those poems that human language does not know how to qualify.” [3] The Allegretto, composed in Db Major, is more cheerful. Franz Liszt described it as “a flower between two chasms.”[4] The emotional storm breaks in the third movement. Returning to C♯ Minor, the Presto Agitato, with its widely varied dynamics, its rapid arpeggiated chords, and its Alberti bass pattern, is far the most technically demanding of the three sections. It also the most explosive, offering an expression of intense, nearly unrestrained, emotion.

The work did not become known as the “Moonlight” Sonata until five years after Beethoven’s death, when, in 1832, the German music critic and poet Ludwig Rellstab compared the ambiance of  the first movement to the effect of moonlight shimmering on Lake Lucerne.[5] By the time that Beethoven published Piano Sonata # 14 in 1802, Giuletta Guicciardi’s parents had forbidden her to marry him. He was not of her class, his income was inconsistent, and his temperament volatile. Although flattered by the attention and affection that Beethoven had lavished on her, young Giuletta married another composer, Count Wenzel Robert Gallenberg, in 1803.

Like countless others, I marvel at the depth of emotion that Beethoven poured into his music. In the “Moonlight” Sonata, he compels listeners to experience the tumult and pain that his mounting losses inflict. At the same time, he inspires in them a sense of awe at the vision of a frail and broken man, disappointed in love and failing in health, who transformed his boundless sorrows into an affirmation of inexpressible beauty.

[1] Quotations from Beethoven’s letter to Wegeler are from Emily Anderson, ed., The Letters of Beethoven (New York, 1985), Vol. 1, Letter #51, pp. 57-62.

[2] Quoted in Neil Miller, Beethoven Piano Sonata 14 “Moonlight” Movement One, (n.p., 2007), 2.

[3] Quoted in Charles Rosen, Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas: A Short Companion (New Haven, CT, 2002), 157.

[4] Quoted in Alfred Brendel, Alfred Brendel on Music: Collected Essays (Atlanta, GA, 2000), 71.

[5] See Friedrich Kerst & Henry Edward Krehbiel, eds., Beethoven: The Man and the Artist, as Revealed in His Own Words (New York, 2011; originally published in 1905), 47.

The Prisoners’ Hope: Beethoven’s Fidelio —by Paul Krause

Beethoven’s Fidelio is his only proper opera. As such, it is a treasure among the composer’s many works. Perhaps the most famous musical moment in Fidelio is the Prisoners’ Chorus.

While modern sensibilities can easily relate to the prisoners and their cries for dignity, hope, and freedom, what our modern ears ought to hear when listening to the passioned song of the imprisoned is where they find their hope.

Beethoven, contrary to popular misconception, was an eminently Catholic composer. His personal writings are filled with the spiritual concerns of a devout Catholic. He was surrounded by Catholicism and Catholics his entire life. And when we listen closely to the words of the Prisoners’ Chorus, this reality becomes even more manifest.

Instead of the crudity of social justice, or political deliverance (despite the prisoners themselves being political prisoners), the empathy we have with the prisoners and their aspirations is rooted in God and the imago Dei. As they cry, they sing: “Oh what joy, in the open air…We shall with all our faith. Trust in the help of God! Hope whispers softly in my ears!” Their words resound for all to hear.

The hope of the prisoners is not in politics or social activism but in God. “Trust in the help of God!” they proclaim. God is on their hearts, minds, and souls. Moreover, even while imprisoned and suffering, they can find joy and hope precisely because of their trust in God.

It is in God, and from God, that the prisoners find their hope and we find our empathy with the “least of these.” Beethoven’s moving chorus reveals what matters in life and where true joy and freedom are found. While it is easy in the aftermath of the twentieth century to reimagine the prisoners solely in a political context and in need of political deliverance, the words of Beethoven remind us of the false hope of politics and the true hope that is found only in God. Especially during Advent, may we join with the prisoners—since we are also prisoners—in placing our hope and faith in God for our joy and freedom.

Was Beethoven Egotistical? — by Michael Kurek

Back in my musically Modernist days, a composition student asked, “What composer has had the greatest influence on your work?”—supposing I would name some famous Modernist. To his shock, I replied “Beethoven.” Even then it was true for me because, I said, Beethoven showed me how to write a piece of music in any style, how a composition can make an incredible musical argument in its narrative development. Also, you can tell that Beethoven clearly knew who he was as an artist, which I would like my music to evince, too.

But did Beethoven really know he was destined to be one of the few greatest composers in history? Did any of the great composers believe that during their lifetime? It is said that the Renaissance composer Josquin de Prez proclaimed all music before his own obsolete and superseded by his own, and so it could all now be thrown away! Bach, though, was just doing his job, and indeed was forgotten after his death for eighty years. Perhaps now, due to the tradition of “great composers”, every classical composer still wonders if he will make it into that Pantheon. Would it be too immodest, if some of the great composers, in all humility, did know they were to be great? The closest we have to knowing what Beethoven thought of his own place in history may be found in a letter he wrote at age 32, found after his death, his so-called “Heiligenstadt Testament,” where he states:

“Yet it was impossible for me to say to people, ‘Speak louder, shout, for I am deaf.’ Ah, how could I possibly admit an infirmity in the one sense which ought to be more perfect in me than in others, a sense which I once possessed in the highest perfection, a perfection such as few in my profession enjoy or ever have enjoyed…. I would have ended my life—it was only my art that held me back. Ah, it seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had brought forth all that I felt was within me.”

Such a firm sense of personal destiny to persevere through pain and leave great works to the world, at 32, was his impetus to accomplish it – even a heroic, self-fulfilling prophecy, and not a flaw of egoism. The same could be said of many great people in many fields.

Beethoven and the Violin — by Michael De Sapio

I started playing the violin at the age of eight, and my passion Beethoven’s music was kindled a few years later, at eleven or twelve. Naturally enough, this passion has centered on his works for my instrument. The beautiful, serenely classical Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61, and the ten sonatas for violin and piano are at the violin repertoire’s core—some would say pinnacle, along with Bach’s unaccompanied six solos. And this is not to mention the many fine violin parts in Beethoven’s string quartets, trios and quintets, the two charming Romances for violin and orchestra, and the celestial violin solo in the Missa Solemnis. Beethoven himself played the violin and viola more than competently (in those days, composers were expected to have mastered several instruments) and knew the ins and outs of strings. For all that, he was never a “violin composer” in the sense of one who wrote primarily for the violin or sought to show off the instrument. For Beethoven the musical idea was supreme, and as a result not all of his violin writing sits perfectly gracefully on the instrument; it can be rugged at times, with a sense of struggle. Yet he could also write some of the most lyrical melodic cantilenas ever conceived for violin.

It’s the lyrical side that particularly attracted me in the ten sonatas, especially in No. 6 in A and the final one in G, which is a sort of gateway to his meditative late style. Yet this wonderful set has extremely varied moods, with the powerful and tragic (No. 7 in C minor, written around the same time as the Heiligenstadt Testament) alternating with bumptious and rustic humor, reminding us of the violin’s folk roots.

And it’s impossible to deny the fire and fury of his most famous violin sonata, the Kreutzer (No. 9 in A), which Beethoven originally wrote for his great friend, the Afro-British violinist George Bridgetower (1778-1860). We are told of how the pair premiered the work at an unusual 8:00 AM recital, sightreading from the manuscript because there was no time to copy a score or to rehearse. At one point in the first movement, Beethoven played his elaborate flourish up and down the keyboard, which Bridgetower spontaneously imitated on his violin; Beethoven jumped up from the piano, hugged him and exclaimed “My dear boy! Once more!” It’s hard to imagine such spontaneity today.

To get a taste of that authentic flavor, I recommend the recent set of recordings of the sonatas by the American Susanna Ogata and Englishman Ian Watson. They perform vibrantly on instruments set up in the manner of Beethoven’s day (violin with gut strings and the smaller, more delicate-toned fortepiano), resulting in stimulating musical time travel.

Beethoven’s Ninth: Beauty and Suffering — by Emina Melonic

My most formative experience of Beethoven’s magnificent music occurred when I was living as a refugee in the Czech Republic. At the time, war was raging in my homeland, Bosnia, and after being in the war for nine months, I found myself with a new existential and political status – that of a stateless refugee. I would end up spending almost four years in the refugee camp until I made it to the American shores.

Naturally, life in the camp was not easy, but in the midst of its great difficulties, I found nourishment in art, music, and literature. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was my constant companion (even as I listened to the more popular music at the time) because there was something elusive about it. The ineffable is often times at the center of Beauty, especially when it is contrasted with suffering and poor circumstances of life.

Every time I listened to the Ninth, something new unfolded. But one thing that remained constant was that I was uplifted by it, that I was given hope. Beauty is often forgotten or at the very least, incompatible with great suffering. This statement is absolutely true. It seems utterly impossible to see anything beautiful in the midst of ugliness. Yet, it is precisely the choice of that vision (which, like a great symphony, often works in concert with faith) that speaks to the power of the human spirit.

In many ways, choosing to find Beauty in suffering is an ethical act. Any morality is formed by habits, as understood by Aristotle. Things in life, which add to the order of things (that undoubtedly include aesthetic experiences) result in a moral contribution to the world. French writer Albert Camus wrote that “we all carry within us places of exile, our crimes, our ravages. Our task is not to unleash them on the world; it is to transform them in ourselves and others.” Beauty, such that we find in Beethoven’s entire oeuvre, is an entrance into the complexity of life that not only elevates us but also, and most importantly, humanizes us.

Playlist of the above-referenced recordings (Spotify subscription required).

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The featured image is “Entwurf für einen Beethoven-Tempel” (1903) by Fidus (1868-1948 ) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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