Saturday, July 21, 2012

Beethoven: The Man Before the Myth

This post is a continuation of a post about Market Square Concert’s Summermusic 2012 series which opened last night with a performance of Beethoven’s Quintet for Piano & Winds, Op. 16. You can listen to a performance of the work and find out more about the music by reading “Beethoven Before He Became a God.”

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After Beethoven composed his 3rd, 5th and especially his 9th Symphonies and produced such towering works of genius as his middle and late string quartets, the greatest of his piano sonatas, the Missa Solemnis, even his lone opera, Fidelio, contemporaries regarded the man, struggling with his deafness, as more than just a genius. He became an epic figure, The Titan – remember Brahms’ comment about hearing the tread of a giant behind him when he went to compose his own first symphony – the equivalent of such monumental cultural figures as Goethe and Shakespeare, a “Man for the Ages” with his wild eyes and wildly streaming hair looking out at us from paintings and busts and statues, a monumental man suitable for monuments.

Max Klinger's Beethoven Monument, 1902
By the time the German sculptor Max Klinger created his Beethoven monument for the Beethoven Exposition in Vienna in 1902, there had grown up around the composer such a mythology he had gone from being a man to becoming a god – or at least god-like: seated naked like a Greek god on a throne covered with religious symbolism and guarded by the heads of five angels with an eagle at his feet.

The face, though, was taken from the actual “death mask,” the one human touch in the whole statue.

It is difficult not to think of Beethoven as super-human, given the general reaction we mere humans have for much of his greatest music, that he “wonderfully embodied an ideal spiritual reality capable of transcending the base and often painful physical world,” to paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson.

If a mortal, after all, can create such art, why are there not more Beethovens?

It took, essentially, two world wars to bring Beethoven’s reputation back to Earth: when the French and English dealt with Beethoven as a German composer, the epitome of their enemy’s art, they realized that, in the end, the man who created such art had been only a man.

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Beethoven had visited Vienna as a 16-year-old in 1787 with the hope of arranging the chance to study with Mozart. There’s no direct indication he’d actually played for Mozart, there is that famous anecdote of Mozart, hearing him improvise, stepping back to tell friends, “Keep your eyes on that one: someday he will give the world plenty to talk about.”

Regardless of the impression he made on Mozart, Beethoven had only been in Vienna two weeks when he got news that his mother was gravely ill, barely making it home to be at her deathbed. Due to family finances and other circumstances, he was unable to return to Vienna. He needed official leave from the Court of Bonn’s Elector (the ruling prince) but it was not forthcoming.

Then Mozart died at the age of 35.

In 1792, Franz Josef Haydn stopped in Bonn on his return trip from London to Vienna and the court composer, Christian Gottlieb Neefe, urged the great composer to listen to young Beethoven (though, at 21, he was beyond being a prodigy). Haydn agreed to take him on as a student and so Beethoven left Bonn that November, concerned the wars in France would soon be spilling over into the German Rhineland. He was a few weeks shy of his 22nd birthday.

Not long after his arrival, Beethoven was described as short of stature with a large head and a thick mane of coal-black hair framing his pock-mocked and ruddy-complexioned face, a broad forehead and bushy eyebrows, “ugly” (even “repulsive”) by some contemporary reports, according to Maynard Solomon’s 1998 biography.

His eyes were animated and expressive (“now flashing and brilliant, at other times filled with an indefinable sadness”), his mouth was small and “delicately shaped” (he often rubbed his teeth with a napkin or handkerchief), his chin was broad “and divided by a deep cleft.” Powerfully built, he had broad shoulders; large, hairy hands with short, thick fingers.

He was also physically awkward, “lacking in physical grace,” clumsy, prone to knocking things over. His student Ferdinand Ries wondered how he ever managed to shave himself, his cheeks were so covered with cuts.

Despite the fact he written down the name of an expert dancing master someone had recommended to him, he was unable to dance in time to the music! Observers noted he “had no sign of exterior polish” and dressed in a slovenly manner. At a time when the knee-breeches and silk stockings of the 1780s were going out of style, there would be Haydn and Salieri, sitting in Prince Lichnowsky’s music room, impeccably dressed in a courtly manner, complete with wigs and buckled shoes and there was Beethoven, in “Rhenish garb, almost carelessly dressed.”

Beethoven - by C.F. Riedel (1801)
Considering this portrait, painted in 1801 when he was 30, apparently Beethoven cleaned up quite nicely. Or, as might possibly be, it’s one of those idealized official portraits done before the days of air-brushing.

As for his famously irascible personality, among strangers Beethoven appeared reserved, stiff, haughty with a “studied rudeness.” Haydn, his teacher, considered him arrogant and overbearing.

Among his close friends, he was exuberant, lively, talkative, “always merry, mischievous, full of jokes.” His letters were full of “zany metaphors,” jests and sometimes naughty wordplay. He might suddenly break out laughing (even “when listening to mediocre music”) without explaining why – or feeling the need to.

His moral standards, however, found life in carefree Vienna somewhat disturbing. A friend described his “rectitude of principle, high morality… virtues [that] reigned within himself and he required them at the hands of others.” If he was gullible and trusting – “nothing angered him more than a broken promise” – he was also “very childlike and certainly very sincere.” Perhaps the child in him emerges in these first years in the Imperial capital, a sense of play that had largely been suppressed by his severe childhood in Bonn.

Forced to become the provider for his younger brothers, following their mother’s death and their father’s incapacity to avoid alcohol, it probably did not help Beethoven that Casper Carl would follow him to Vienna in 1794 (he would die in 1815, leaving behind the nephew that so tried Beethoven’s final years). Nikolaus Johann (the one he couldn’t even mention by name in the Heiligenstadt Testament) arrived the following year.

In 1794, he wrote to a friend in Bonn:

“We are having very hot weather here and the Viennese are afraid they will not be able to get more ice cream for as the winter was so mild, ice is scarce [in these days before refrigeration]. Here various important people have been locked up; it is said a revolution was about to break out. – But I believe as long the Viennese can get his brown ale and little sausages, he is not likely to revolt. …the gates to the suburbs are to be closed at 10pm. The soldiers have loaded their muskets with ball. You dare not raise your voice or the police will take you into custody.”

Of course, five years after the French Revolution, most crowned heads across Europe feared similar events in their own lands. In 1794, who knew that the continent would be embroiled in wars with the French for the next 21 years?

Professionally, he was regarded as a virtuoso in Vienna’s salons and concert halls and was launching his career as a composer, mastering (more on his own than at the hands of Haydn) the details of the Classical Style. But even so, there were those who were uncomfortable with Beethoven’s stylistic “advances” – and this is even before the first string quartets and the first symphony of 1800, works today we still largely regard as essentially “Haydn-esque.” Of course, who knew where these would go, even a few years later with his “Eroica” Symphony, much less the Late Quartets 25 years later?

At two centuries’ distance, we think of the music Beethoven composed after 1800 as breaking away from the traditions of Mozart and Haydn, but really, to critics and the average audience for whom Mozart and Haydn were the norm, Beethoven was already well beyond the pale. Critics pointed out his “clumsy, harsh modulations,” especially in his first violin sonatas written between the Quintet and the first string quartets, with their “forced attempt at strange modulations, an aversion to the conventional key relationships, a piling up of difficulty upon difficulty.” If these sound tame to us, atuned as we are to the music yet to be written, it must have been clear to his audience – and his teacher – that he was well on his way to some sort of ‘new path’ already.

It’s not that everybody was opposed to his music or that there weren’t champions who encouraged him – patrons like Prince Lichnowsky or Baron von Swieten, both of whom knew Mozart quite well. There was, in a sense, the thought that had Mozart lived, he might be headed in this same direction, a path Beethoven knew his teacher did not approve of: in his own day, Beethoven was more often regarded as the Heir to Mozart rather than the Heir to Haydn.

But yet, Baron von Swieten, for all his support, wrote an article for the leading German arts journal in 1799, writing about those composers “who tread firmly in the footsteps of the truly great and good” did not even mention Beethoven.

Considering his teacher was Haydn, the most famous composer in the world who’d just produced a dozen of the finest symphonies ever written, Beethoven wasn’t about to throw his hat in the ring with a symphony of his own without being really sure of himself (Beethoven would have a similar effect on Brahms a few generations later). Instead, he “practiced” by writing a great deal of chamber music – yet, not a string quartet since Haydn was also the producer of the finest string quartets in the repertoire, then.

If you consider this quintet and, say, the three string trios Op. 9 written at the same time as “study pieces,” mastering the formal and stylistic skills of the late-18th Century legacy of Mozart and Haydn, he would then be ready to tackle both the symphony and the string quartet, coming into direct competition with his teacher’s legacy.

Curiously, his sense of the “classical” was to use the standard ‘exterior models’ of his time but work within them to create something new. Even later, his sense of form – especially in the late sonatas and quartets – grew organically out of the past, gradually, rather than breaking with the past to find new forms. He started by bending the rules, playing with listeners’ expectations (something he did learn from Haydn) – the opening of the 1st Symphony is a good example – and then expanding the standard operating procedures.

(Even today, I think one of the biggest problems audiences have with much of the 20th Century’s music is this disconnect between recognizable structures and what we've come to expect in familiar music, with this new and unfamiliar music which seems to lack structure and for which we haven’t yet developed expectations, but I digress…)

Within two years, around the time he was working on his 2nd Symphony, itself a considerable advancement over the classical style of his 1st, Beethoven told Wenzel Krumpholz that he was dissatisfied with his works so far and was ready to take a “new path.” He had already begun sketching a new symphony that would soon become his Eroica, a work that shattered the traditions of the Old Century and opened up the new one to a completely different way of musical thinking.

Then, too, back in 1797, around the time he'd written this seemingly innocent quintet or the String Trios of Op. 8 and 9, he experienced the first symptoms of his impending deafness: he found himself missing words but if someone shouted, he wrote to a friend in Bonn, "I cannot bear it. What is to become of me?"

And so, Man gradually morphed into Myth.

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