Thursday, February 28, 2013

Beethoven and his 9th Symphony

Beethoven (foreground) in 1812
It’s possible to teach a complete course on Beethoven by himself; even to teach a course on his nine symphonies alone. Recently, music critic and fellow blogger Matthew Guerrieri wrote an excellent book on the influence of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony called The First Four Notes, 363 pages about what might have influenced him to write it in the first place and the impact it’s had on future imaginations.

If his 5th Symphony weren’t enough, it was Beethoven’s 9th – like the composer himself, a megalith in the world of classical music – that placed him squarely in the pantheon with the likes of Shakespeare and (at least in Europe) the German poet Goethe. It regularly appears on lists of favorite works of classical music in those Top 40 lists beloved of a box-office-oriented pop culture – and usually as No. 1.

Considering it’s over an hour long, this seems a bit odd, and though its great “Ode to Joy” theme in its last movement may be easily accessible to the average listener, one would hope there’s more to its popularity than just a hummable tune.

Even though by now, it’s outdated technology, do you know why the CD holds around 70 minutes of music?

The story goes that when Philips and SONY were developing this technology in the 1970s, they were looking for that could hold all of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony in a single-disc format. That may or may not be entirely true – even Snopes calls it “undetermined” – but it’s a story that, true or not, might be one more example of the importance of Beethoven’s art in the general world around us or another example of the mythology that’s grown up around him.

So, what about this 9th Symphony?

First of all, by any standard, it’s a huge piece and not just because of its 70-minute playing time. The last movement alone is unprecedented. In Mozart and Haydn’s day, only a generation earlier, the finale was a kind of “happy ending” afterthought to the importance of the first movement with its tonal drama told in Sonata Form (whether the music sounded “dramatic” in our sense of the word or not). But Beethoven had been changing that in the course of his career, not just in the symphonies. The last movement of the 3rd Symphony (the “Eroica”) is a large-scale set of variations and the weighty equal to its first movement. The finale of the 5th Symphony is the dramatic resolution of the tension of its opening movement with its famous “fate knocks at the door” motive: for the first time, there was unresolved tension at the end of the 1st movement that, eventually, needed to be resolved.

Beethoven, painted in 1823
This led to the standard “conflict-resolution” symphonies of the Romantic Era, later in the 19th Century, where the “conflict with fate” (just one such potential conflict) is triumphantly overcome in the finale – we hear this same “program” [*] in the 1st Symphony of Johannes Brahms, completed in 1876, as well as the 4th Symphony of Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky written a year later (and since it was such a success, he used it again in his 5th Symphony), plus Gustav Mahler’s 5th Symphony (completed in 1902) and Dmitri Shostakovich (inspired by his experience with Stalin’s disapproval and the possibility of being arrested for his bourgeois artistic attitudes which we might call “crimes against the proletariat”) written during the height of Stalin’s purges in 1937 (the question, depending on how you view the tempo of the last movement, is whether the finale is triumphant or numbly following orders – it’s a long story but… of course… more on that later).

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[*] program” in this sense means an underlying story whether directly described in the music or implied in its emotional appeal. “Music that tells a story” is often called simply “program music.” In this case, it’s not an actual story but one that is inferred by critics and most listeners.
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The very opening of the symphony is almost “anti-classical.” If the whole purpose of classical logic was to allow the listener to place himself on the “you-are-here” map in the sense of the clarity of its form and the sense of its tonal scheme (which is, basically, an aspect of defining that form), the vague sonority and ambiguous harmonic motion of the opening is more like an invitation to enter a dream-like state with a treasure map to find out where you are. We know it is D Minor but beyond that, what might lie ahead?

The closest thing in music before this (the symphony was written in the early-1820s) was the opening of Haydn’s oratorio, The Creation, which at the time was regarded as one of the greatest works ever written (Beethoven studied with Haydn in the early-1790s and had attended The Creation’s premiere in 1798). Its opening, called “The Representation of Chaos” might not be chaos as we imagine it today – helter-skelter energy without any purpose or direction (as in “chaotic”) – but more the vague ambiguity of obscuring mists that only later is resolved – ta-daaah! – to a brilliant C Major Chord as out of this void, God created Light (about 2:20 into this clip). Curiously, as harmonically ambiguous as Haydn’s chaos may sound, it is still in Sonata Form! That’s Classical Logic for you.

Though Beethoven’s sense of “chaos” is less murky and not the lengthy harmonic labyrinth Haydn sets up, it is still a striking opening. It begins (at 0:06) with the interval of an open 5th – neither major nor minor – which expands into a rhythmic falling-motive (notice how it gets fuller in texture and how the statement of the motive begins to pick up speed and volume) that turns out to be a dominant chord leading up to the first appearance of the tonic at 0:32. This falling-motive now expands into the full range of the orchestra by itself (no harmony for five measures) which then continues to unfold in short fragments: a new idea at 0:48 which then leads directly to what sounds like a restatement of the opening vague hollow-sounding 5th but now on the tonic of D (minor) at 1:02. Are we still in the Introduction or is this really the first theme? Doesn’t sound very tuneful, does it? Then, this open 5th resolves again but not to tonic D Minor but to a new key – B-flat Major at 1:26. Unexpected – and it keeps on going, spinning along (notice the reminder of the first “theme” churning away at 1:43) until it seems to reach a kind of melodic resolution (if not harmonic) at 2:00 before we hear another “theme” (or thematic fragment that also continues to spin) until 4:25 when we suddenly (unexpectedly?) return to the opening empty interval, the same pitches we heard at the very beginning.

The 1st Movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D Minor:
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This is what you could call an ”open-ended” theme – as opposed to a self-contained tune that ends with a clearly marked cadence. But it’s not so much a melody as a collection of fragments that can be taken apart and expanded. And harmonically, while it’s very active, we’ve spent most of our time in the unexpected key of B-flat Major (if you were listening to a symphony in 1790, you would say “it should be in F Major, that’s the rule” – or that was the standard operating procedure). Suddenly we’re back setting up D Minor all over again.

“Ah,” the astute listener from the 1820s would say, “we’re repeating the exposition.” But instead of doing what he did the first time around, at 4:40, Beethoven quietly switches gears. The careful listener would probably catch this and go, “ah hah! Maybe we’re into the Development Section already instead?”

And from there on, it’s definitely harmonically more active like you’d expect a Development section to be. Only… uhm, haven’t we been doing something like that already?

As we continue through the on-going Development, the tension, after dropping back a bit, continues to mount around 8:00 till it sounds like it should reach a cadence at 8:08 – but, no, he keeps pulling you along with an unexpected chord – though it’s really a D Major Chord (going to G Minor?) which (after a dissonant chord at 8:27) finally resolves to the expected “main theme” (without the introductory open 5th) at 8:30 but it doesn’t sound like it did at the opening. In fact, it sounds like it’s still – despite all the expected pitch “D” you hear in it – developing! Then, at 9:09 there’s a sudden change of mood – “oh wait,” you think, “isn’t that one of the secondary theme fragments?” It is and it’s in D Major, like it’s supposed to be in a Recapitulation. But by 9:30 we’re on the move (harmonically) again – in fact, while all of this material sounds familiar, we’re never quite sure where we are harmonically. He brings in sudden – and brief – changes of mood and stretches out some of these chords (and vague tonal areas) and with it stretching the tension until we reach 11:33 where we hear the “main theme” in D Minor as it ought to be.

But no sooner started than he’s off again – “where are we,” the listener used to nicely balanced, predictable classical form would be thinking. Well, at 12:41, that sounds like something from the Main Theme, in the horn? Right? And it does resolve to a D Minor chord at 12:55 but not for long – again, he’s off… and where to now? It takes us till 13:55 – another minute – to arrive at a D Minor cadence that feels like tonic. But wait… this isn’t the Recapitulation, is it? It sounds like it’s wrapping up – is this going to be the end? It’s not the “theme” but sounds like part of it. The tension continues to build (dynamics as much as the push-and-pull of the harmonic expectations) until – at 14:37 – there it is, the Main Theme. But wait… is that the end? At 14:50 – yes, that’s the end of the movement!

So what happened to the Development and the Recapitulation?

This is one of the Big Changes leading into the Romantic Period. Say good-bye to the nice “you-are-here” kind of logic from Haydn’s symphony. The Style Pendulum has swung (again) from Simplicity to Complexity – the components are all there but the boundaries are vague and in fact can be so “smeared” (a Haydn-loving listener would say “messy, indeed”) as to be unintelligible even to the astute listener.

We are now all on an adventure – and the structural form has become a map we have to figure out in order to find our way. The principles still exist – statement / digression / restatement – but sometimes they may over-lap so that we’re not sure, even before we’ve figured out the “exposition” part of it, what’s exposition and what’s development. And later, what’s development and what’s recapitulation.

There’s not much “contrast” between themes – if we can even think of them as the kind of melodies people were expecting just a couple decades ago – and part of what we might overlook is how all of this, some 15 minutes of music, grows out of that opening thirty seconds that just keeps spinning along almost as if it doesn’t really seem to know where it’s going. However, once you examine it, you would realize it knows exactly where it’s going but the form just isn’t the same as it used to be.

To paraphrase an advertising campaign about the progress being made in generations of technology (I think it was used originally for cars): “This ain’t your Grandfather’s Symphony!”

Beethoven worked on this first movement for a long time. We’re not sure exactly how long, but at some point in 1817, he wrote down some ideas in a sketchbook that would later become these thematic molecules. What eventually became the longer “theme” at the opening was originally for a Symphony in B-flat Major though it later became a Symphony in D Minor – which, ironically, spends a lot of time in B-flat Major, not the old-fashioned expected key of F Major. So even before he technically began working on his 9th Symphony, he was jotting down ideas probably five years earlier.

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The S.O.P for the inner movements was a slow movement in second place and a fast movement in third (originally a minuet but later a lively dance-like, often rustic movement called a scherzo which in Italian means “joke”).

Usually, people say Beethoven reversed the order for the 2nd and 3rd Movements because the finale was so grand, it needed the contrast of coming out of the slow movement, not the scherzo.

But that’s not true. You see, Beethoven had already planned on a 2nd Movement scherzo and a 3rd Movement Adagio before he’d even figured out what he would do for his finale! The reason, then, was because the 1st movement was so weighty and not that fast, that a contrast with a long slow movement which might also be very intense (as it turned out to be) was not that much contrast. So to give his audience a break, he planned on going right from this first movement to the scherzo. Even so, it’s not much of a joke: it’s actually very dramatic.

Does the opening motive remind you of something? The opening theme of the 1st Movement, once it got started, was based on falling 5th. This time, it’s falling octaves. But on only two notes: the same pitches we hear in that open intervals that sounds so unstable and vague at the very beginning of the symphony.

And those first seven seconds generate the scherzo’s main theme – which, far from being a joke, is actually a fugue!

Usually, fugues in the Age of Mozart and Haydn were very academic sounding and associated with showing off the composer’s intelligence, being able to handle this old-fashioned skill from the Baroque Era of 50 to 100 years before. But maybe that’s the joke, here: Beethoven shows he can write a fugue – kind of – but it’s kind of a hurly-burly scurrying fugue and ready to take off in any direction it pleases with sudden changes of mood and sudden interruptions, especially from the timpani (or kettledrums) around 5:03.

The “Scherzo” from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9:
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There’s also a very contrasting section that begins at 6:56 – the energy-level changes, the lines are more step-wise and, well, more linear. Then it’s back to the opening again at 9:40.

This contrasting or “B section,” as we’d call it, is – especially after that puzzling first movement – almost mind-numbingly simple: lots of repetition, almost obsessively repetitive (but so is the fugue) and by comparison almost static with its long sustained tones behind the bubbling foreground.

Then we repeat the “A Section” at 9:40 and continue (leaving out the ordinarily repeated segments) until 13:14 when it sounds like we’re going to repeat the “B Section” also but it’s only a brief reminiscence until the octaves pound us to that final D.

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I’m not going to spend much time with the slow movement which is unfortunate, because it’s an incredibly beautiful Adagio and despite the greatness of the other three, always one of my favorites in all of Beethoven’s output.

In this case, where the themes before were “modular” – based on thematic molecules or cells – the themes in this movement are long, linear, song-like and constantly varied. The opening theme (starting at 0:24) is almost prayer-like with its dialogue between strings and winds, and its contrasting theme (starting at 2:19) is built with a constant rising then falling of its components. He then builds on these two ideas, alternating and varying them, to create a long, almost seamless respite from all the ambiguity of the first movement and the dynamic rhythmic drive of the second movement.

The 3rd Movement, Adagio, of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D Minor:
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But then Beethoven hit a brick wall: what to do after all this? He’s now got three movements, each about 15 minutes long which would still make this longer than a typical Haydn Symphony and about as long as his entire 3rd Symphony written twenty years earlier. Did he need another movement at all? Wasn’t that long enough?

One of the things we know from the sketchbooks was that Beethoven had tried several ideas for an orchestral finale and none of them seemed to please him.

Now, he had always wanted to set Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” ever since he was a young man. The poem had been written in 1785 (when Beethoven was 14) and became the equivalent of a popular hit in the world of German poetry. While it’s essentially a Classical Era poem, the inspiration was initially that sense of excitement generated by what led to the French Revolution a few years later, that fermenting agitation for more freedom. In fact, the initial sketches, so the story goes, indicate the idea of “Joy” was more “Freedom” but Schiller knew that would get him into trouble with the secret police, so he changed it.

Now, throughout his life, Beethoven was an admirer of the sense of Freedom for the Common Man that the French Revolution promised and which fell flat on its face when Napoleon crowned himself Emperor and turned the whole idea of a French Republic into just another tyrannical government. It’s interesting to remind ourselves of this since Beethoven lived in Imperial Vienna, was a friend of the Imperial family (and a teacher of the Emperor’s little brother) and associated with many of the city’s finest (and richest) aristocrats. Whatever his political sense, he knew his livelihood depended on aristocratic support and so, whether consciously being dialectical or not – the “thesis/antithesis = synthesis” formula – Beethoven still managed to proclaim his universal love for the Brotherhood of Man which might have sounded suspicious in 1820s Vienna when the Masonic Brotherhood had been driven underground and anything about “freedom” smacked of revolution against the state or, given the constant state of warfare during Napoleon’s reign till he was defeated at Waterloo in 1815, pro-French or pro-Republican sympathies. (Incidentally, these same sympathies would erupt later in a series of revolutions across Europe in 1848-1849, but… more on that, later.)

So, going against all expectations, Beethoven decided to take Schiller’s poem and set it to music with chorus and four vocal soloists in addition to what was then already a large orchestra. And, considering the length of the poem, eventually adding an additional 20 minutes or so to the symphony’s full length – unheard of, at the time, and still uncommon for another sixty years (with a few exceptions).

You can read Schiller’s poem here.
Whatever it may sound like to a German in the early-1800s, it sounds quite often silly in English to modern listeners today. I know of no performance that ever tried to sing Beethoven’s 9th in English.

So, after these first three movements and especially the long calm slow movement, Beethoven wakes everybody up with a most surprising chord that’s almost like a thunderbolt to get his listener’s attention. This is a true “dissonance” – both something needs to be resolved and an “ugly sound.” It clatters through what could be a frenzied and chaotic counterpart to the first movement’s opening (the very opposite of its ambiguity) before breaking out in something else unexpected: the cellos and basses play this long declamatory passage beginning at 0:13. Now, this is technically an operatic convention – it’s called a “recitative,” something non-melodic in which a singer would declaim a text in a passage that would resemble the speech-pattern, accompanied by occasional punctuation-like chords. But we have no idea what the implied text might be – yet.

The Finale to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D Minor:
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At 0:24, the opening blast returns until it’s interrupted and pushed aside by the bass “recitative” at 0:33. Then, at 0:42 we hear something familiar – wait, that’s the opening of the First Movement! But at 0:55, it’s also pushed aside by the basses. After this seems to shrug itself off, at 1:13 we hear the opening of the Second Movement which then is also set aside by the “recitative” before, at 1:33, it’s the Third Movement’s turn. Ah, this time, it’s a gentler reaction from the “recitative” before it becomes more aggressive as it had been earlier (1:55).

Now, at 2:04, we have a new idea hinted at which, if you’ve never heard it before, might sound like a ray of hope. In fact, the “recitative” seems to think very highly of this new idea and cadences authoritatively in the key of D Major at 2:26. Whew! Now we know where we’re supposed to be.

Then he starts what will become the Main Theme of this last movement. It sounds like a hymn and in fact it is so simple and direct it could easily be sung by a congregation with little musical background. After the complexities of the earlier movements, this is beginning to sound very simple – and so therefore, reassuring.

This is, by the way, an example of a "self-contained" or "closed" theme, complete it itself and one that is less easy to spin off into ever-evolving continuity. Instead, he accomplishes length by repeating and varying it.

Between 2:29 and 5:32, Beethoven creates several variations on this hymn-like tune which repeat the melody as you’ve already heard it (initially, all by itself without harmony) and gradually adding other layers and textures, including, at 4:52, a variation with a martial flare. Then at 5:33, he begins to expand the theme by closing it off with a little “coda” or extension (coda in Italian means “tail,” literally). He starts moving further afield and it’s almost like he’s thinking out loud – where to next? Here? No… maybe…

Then at 6:09, back comes the opening furor – but when you’d expect this instrumental “recitative” to start up again, it’s actually being sung by a singer – a bass (and that’s pronounced, in music, “base”) with the words “O friends, not these tones… Let’s find more pleasing, joyful sounds.” And with shouts of “Joy!” answered by the chorus, now, the last movement officially begins: the introduction over, here is the Main Theme, now sung to the words “Freude, schöner Götterfunken” or “Joy, beautiful spark of the Gods.”

This is the theme known universally as “The Ode to Joy.”

At 7:48, he begins another series of variations on the theme, bringing in the other solo voices. Around 8:30, another variation but now that we’re familiar with the tune, he can be a little less literal in repeating it: we hear more it’s shape and essence rather than a literal restatement of the theme itself.

By 9:33, we’ve now moved away from all this D Major tonality and something new starts: by 9:47, we’ve now started a march-like treatment of the theme complete with bass drum and cymbals (a cliché that would’ve been called “Turkish Music” in a city that only about 140 years earlier when the Turkish Empire (the Moslem’s Ottoman Empire) brought its border within view of Vienna’s walls). It then continues with the solo tenor and the men’s voices of the choir.

The very sound of this would’ve had Viennese listeners tapping their toes and nodding their heads in rhythm. Considering the drama of the 1st Movement, we are now in a “populist” vein – something that today would seem to be contradictory. But in Beethoven’s day, “High Art” and “Popular Art” could exist side by side.

At 11:10, we’re off, developing ideas from the theme by way of the march and the tonal scheme gets very active. It’s almost as if, the way things are tossed back and forth between the winds and the strings that we’re fighting the battle after we’ve already celebrated the victory! Then at 12:30, we hear all this octave intervals sweeping back and forth like the theme from the First Movement or the opening of the Scherzo but in a very remote key from the one we’d normally expect for a symphony in D.

With a great rush, then, after two suggestions of starting the Ode to Joy Theme almost, at 12:56 Beethoven sweeps us solidly back into D Major with the return of the Main Theme, now, almost shouted by the full chorus: a Triumphal March!

After all this, we’ve gone about 14 minutes basically on one theme. But at 13:47 it abruptly stops. What next, you ask?

A new theme!

Sung to the words “Be embraced, oh ye millions,” again a melodic idea (not much of a tune, by comparison to the Ode to Joy Theme) by itself as if proclaimed by angels accompanied by – ta da! – trombones! Notice how the statements alternate between the stentorian declamation and the gentler full choir, harmonized continuation.

Now, if this is going to be our “second theme,” how hellaciously long do you think this “sonata form” movement is going to be if we’re only at the 2nd Theme after 15 minutes???

Then, after some spiritual questing – “look for God beyond the stars!” – at 17:19, something unexpected happens, resolving this quest for God. Beethoven combines the Ode to Joy Theme with an almost joyful skipping rhythm against this new “B Theme,” the song of Universal Brotherhood. And then turns it into – a fugue! Though not a technically strict one, but definitely fugal! And despite the academic, intellectual reactions to the very idea of a fugue, this is the most joyful moment in a whole movement all about joy.

In fact, it’s so joyful, at 18:37 begins a passage where the sopranos hang on to a high A – and that’s pretty high for a choir-ful of sopranos – for the next thirteen measures (try holding your breath that long, much less singing a high note that’s hard to control!).

But this suddenly breaks off in a contrasting section at 18:54 – “do you bow down, ye millions?” Then at 19:40, back in D Major after a brief digression, we resume variations on the Main “Ode to Joy” Theme – but less strictly, only suggesting the theme and its text. To a well-experienced listener of Classical Symphonies, this would sound like the start of the “wrapping up,” the beginning of the “Coda” and the final reinforcement of the key and its themes.

However, there are stops and starts along the way. The tension isn’t quite ready to be completely resolved, yet.

At 21:04, yet one more digression. We swing off suddenly to another key (ordinarily it wouldn’t be expected but several times he’s already landed in B Major so by now, maybe it’s not so unexpected) where the four soloists have what is called a “cadenza.” Like the “recitative” was an operatic convention, this is a convention from the concerto – a work for solo instrument and orchestra – where the orchestra would stop playing and the soloist has a long extended solo passage usually of a virtuosic (“technically showy”) nature that might sound like it’s being improvised (“made up on the spot”) – which actually is what soloists were expected to do in Mozart and Beethoven’s day. So, this time, Beethoven gives his solo quartet of singers a chance to show off before it ends, leading us back to D Major by 21:54 and from there, it’s a joyous celebration all the way to the end, complete with bass drum and cymbal again.

But just when you think it’s over, a sudden “mis-resolution,” a change at 22:54 – nooooo! Not another prolonging passage – which slows down, but never loses its sense of majesty (perhaps that sense of slow-motion just before you break through the finish line) until, having done so at 23:09, it’s now a final jubilant shout, perhaps a victory lap!

And those are, very definitely, final chords!!

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People often say that Mozart may write music that is sublime or divine, but by comparison Beethoven is more human and, often, more universal as he certainly is in his setting of texts about the Universal Brotherhood of Man.

Small wonder that the “Ode to Joy” theme itself has gone on to become a popular hymn tune and eventually the (Inter)National Anthem of the European Union.

Beethoven’s 9th has become a universal favorite – it’s a New Year’s Tradition in Japan, surprisingly enough, where community orchestras and choruses will perform it every year. It’s a major undertaking and always an event when it appears on an orchestra’s concert program. In many radio polls, whether in this country or Europe, Beethoven’s 9th (even if it’s only because of this last movement’s theme) is usually No. 1 on the list of favorite works.

How was it received at its premiere in 1825?

Beethoven was by now stone deaf but he wanted to conduct it. The official conductor allowed him to stand on stage and conduct while telling the orchestra not to watch him. He sat to the side of the stage, beating time for the orchestra he could not hear.

This was the first time Beethoven had appeared in public as a “performer” in some 12 years and the hall was packed – word had gotten out that this was going to be an amazing work. Two of the singers were among the best known in Vienna.

When it was over, Beethoven was still conducting. The alto singer came forward, took him by the arm and turned him around to see the audience. They had erupted in applause between movements and sometimes after certain sections of the piece (it was considered okay, then) but Beethoven only saw this at the end. He received five standing ovations and even if he couldn’t hear the applause, he could see the audiences jubilant response. He was given a hero’s welcome.

Earlier symphonies – his major works – had often been well-received but there were often those, especially among the critics, who thought he was mad or if he weren’t deaf, he wouldn’t have written it that way (as in “so badly”). Even a colleague, the composer Carl Maria von Weber (himself a leading contemporary composer of the day) thought, after his 7th Symphony in 1813, that Beethoven was “ripe for the mad-house.”

His one opera, Fidelio, had been a disaster – not once, but twice. His great Violin Concerto, today regarded as perhaps the greatest violin concerto ever written, was so dismally received, it was never performed in his lifetime and in fact never entered the repertoire until 1844, 17 years after Beethoven’s death, when it was played by a brilliant young violinist named Joseph Joachim who was 12 at the time.

But this time everyone seemed to be in universal agreement: this was Beethoven’s greatest work.

The dissenting voices – and some of them are significant – aren’t about the musical values, but the technical ones. True, it’s not a great symphony because it’s hardly typical. And, also true, sometimes it’s quite badly written for some of the instruments: I know several bass players who hate playing this piece because it’s so difficult for them to play, making unrealistic demands on what the instrument can do; several players on the contrabassoon say Beethoven had no idea what the instrument could or could not do – he just doubled the string basses which are already having trouble!

The choral writing is also not very good at times – and as exciting as it might sound, that 13-bar High A in the sopranos is most unkind, especially so far into the piece when they’re already going to be tired. When the solo soprano has to sing a note one step higher than that, she’s singing it on a weird vowel that is almost impossible to control on that pitch – even if she does it well, it still sounds uncomfortable.

But as Beethoven, deaf or not, once said to a violinist complaining about how difficult his part was in his latest string quartet, “What do I care about you and your damned fiddle!?”

Beethoven was Beethoven – even as a young man, he was always who he was and never what other people wanted him or wished him to be.

Perhaps that has something to do with why his music still, 186 years after his death, continues to inspire us today, just as it has every generation since then.

Before, society didn’t pay much attention to composers: they were craftsmen, employed by the church or by an aristocrat and they did their job, turning out music as expected or required.

Beethoven presents us with the first time a composer became a hero – and with it, an almost mythological reverence that has been difficult to ignore.

For a man who had to deal with deafness at the height of his career, who complained about constant stomach trouble, who had a miserably unhappy personal life with his friends and family, with all the difficulties reality kept pushing in his way, it is amazing to compare the music we know with the man we sometimes overlook.

Sometimes, his music is what it is despite his reality – especially his deafness – but it’s quite possible his music and the interior world he created for it was also because of it.

- Dick Strawser

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