Beethoven - Anguish & Triumph by Jan Swafford

Date: November 19, 2014 Author: stevehunter Categories: Latest
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November 16, 2014

I recently read this biography of Beethoven, and have rarely been more inspired by an artist's life than I am by Beethoven's. I've always been attracted to his music, particularly the symphonies, because of the range of suffering and sublime joy that is so obviously portrayed musically. But then to read about his life and discover that indeed his own view of life was exactly that dichotomy between his 'anguish and triumph' - hence the very appropriate title of this bio. His health was bad his whole life; he suffered from digestion problems, probably colitis, nausea, and the well known deafness which started in his twenties as tinnitus. By the end, he could barely hear any sound at all, but could still play the piano and of course compose sublime pieces of music. It is this aspect of music that is so fascinating to me; the ability to "hear" music in one's head. All accomplished musicians have this ability to some degree or another; I have the ability to "turn on" any piece of music that I know and "play" it as a live piece in my head. I can also transcribe most of anything I hear in my head. I too suffer from advanced tinnitus, and yet I can hear distant music of any kind, and immediately be affected by it; mostly annoyance if it isn't something I like but often I'm pleasantly surprised and follow along with the melody & harmony - it always draws some kind of emotion or feeling in me. Beethoven was socially inept, but very adept at putting this feeling into words and music. Here are some excerpts of this 936 page book which impressed me so very much. Keep in mind that he lived in Vienna in the early 1800's where that city was a mecca of music, and full of both accomplished and amateur musicians.

Page 522 -  [a woman who was an accomplished amateur musician] "Ertmann was not in Beethoven's initmate circle, but there was an enormous respect and sympathy between them. At one point when she had lost a child, Beethoven invited her over, sat down at the piano and said "Now we will converse in music." For more than an hour he improvised for her. "He said everything to me," Ertmann later told Felix Mendelssohn, "and finally gave me consolation." He gave voice to her grief and offered her hope. Here was a microcosm of what all his music does: it captures life in its breadth of sorrow and joy, spoken to and for the whole of humanity." 

Page 541 - [E.T.A Hoffman reviewed the 5th symphony] "Hoffman was yet to write the literary fantasies that established his fame, but the review began with a couple of pages about music in general that laid the foundation for the century's dominating myth of Beethoven as the archetypal genius. "When music is being discussed as a self-sufficient art, this should always be understood to refer only to instrumental music, which purely expresses the peculiar essence of this art...[Instrumental music] is the most Romantic of all the arts - Music reveals an unknown kingdom to mankind; a world that has nothing in common with the outward material world that surrounds it, and in which we leave behind all predetermined, conceptual feelings in order to give ourselves up to the inexpressible. Every passion: love, hate, anger, despair etc, is clothed by music in the purple shimmer of romanticism, and even that which we experience in life leads us out beyond life into the kindom of the infinite."       These words resonate fully with me even now; after a long career playing in musical theater and endless dance rehearsals, and before that jingles for radio and TV, I've always felt that these mediums bastardizes the purity of music. Dancers, choreographers and directors always shape instrumental music by making it a part of their own "vision" and making it obvious the music serves their own purpose. I am well aware that this is nothing new, and that I've been paid well all my life to do this, but god forbid I ever suggest to a dancer, choreographer or director that the music exists on it's own and doesn't need any further shaping. Especially now in the era of the quick cut in video and mainstream TV & movies, it seems the ability to simply sit in a room and experience music as a pure art and be moved by Beethoven's alchemy is gone. What a wonderous legacy he has given us and the majority of the world's population simply ignores it....to be a fly on the wall when the 5th and 6th symphonies were first performed in a cold hall on Dec 22, 1808 along with the 4th piano concerto, the C major mass and the Choral Fantasy....

Page 551- A woman who was an admirer and confidante of both Beethoven and Goethe, wrote Goethe a letter about Beethoven: "Everything that he can tell you about is pure magic, every posture is the organization of a higher existence, and therefore Beethoven feels himself to be the founder of a new sensuous basis in the intellectual life... [Beethoven] He himself said: "when I open my eyes I must sigh, for what I see is contrary to my religion, and I must despise the world which does not know that music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy, the wine which inspires one to new generative processes, and I am the Bacchus who presses out this glorious wind for mankind...I know that God is nearer to me than to other artists; I associate with him without fear; I have always recognized and understood him and have no fear for my music....Those who understand it must be freed by it from all the other miseries which the others drag about with themselves. Music is the electrical soil in which the mind thinks, lives and feels."  To read this in 2014, a little more than two hundred years after Beethoven wrote these words down, is to once again realize that there is nothing new, and that the human striving for the highest art is timeless. 

Page 607 - [Later in Beethoven's life as he started to seriously lose his hearing] "Beethoven was pulling away from the earth, to a higher angle of view. At the same time he was singing more within than ever, starting with the locked inwardness of the deaf man who can hear only the songs in his own head. No less was Beethoven headed for the childlike, the naive, the utterly simple, all these qualities more than ever. He had not given up his drive, seen from his earliest music, to do and express and to feel more in every direction. It was these kinds of conceptions and images that helped create the music he was to write in his last years: humanity standing under the infinite canopy of the stars, no less human and concrete than before, with no heroes to exalt us but only ourselves, reaching toward one another and, in that, toward Elysium and toward God, to make a world whose order reflects the sublime order of the universe." (Italics mine)         Wow - what a description of the sublime in his music that I feel so deeply.

Page 655 - [Excerpt from a letter written by Beethoven] "We finite beings, who are the embodiment of an infinite spirit, are born to suffer both pain and joy; and one might almost say that the best of us obtain joy through suffering." [Swafford writes] "He had arrived at a position that allowed him to exist and work through the endless pains of mind and body that fate inflicted on him and that he inflicted on himself. It enabled him to find joy in his very existence, and the strength of mind and musical imagination he still possessed in full measure."

Page 773 - [Near the end of his life, suffering from a dangerous eye infection and squabbles with his brother Johann] "But amid the contrapuntal miseries, Beethoven had to have been satisfied that after so much trouble, so much illness, so much pain, near complete deafness, and years of rumors that he was crazy and written out - theories he at times had come close to believing himself - he had in a few months completed the mass and the Diabelli Variations, which he knew were among the crowning works of his life. The first was his magnum opus so far, the second the summit of his piano variations and somewhere near the summit of all his piano music. Both works involved old heroes and models. With the mass he had put himself on the plane of Handel, with the op.120 Variations on the plane of J.S. Bach."     These are both works that I look forward to downloading and hearing - this is the other aspect of Beethoven's life that I brought away from the book - there is so much music he composed that most people have no idea about. Most people know Fur Elise and the first 4 bars of the 5th symphony, and that's it. 

Page 936 - [the last page of the book, in which Swafford summarizes Beethoven's life] "So much of what we know about Beethoven, we best forget when we come to his art. The limits and the pettiness of humanity held up against the illusion of the limitless in art were never more pointed as with him. He understood people little and liked them less, yet he lived and worked and exhausted himself to exalt humanity. In looking back through the course of Beethoven's life as a man, what may be most astonishing about him is that he survived the burden of being Beethoven. So much weighed on him; so much music roiled inside, so much rage, so much delusion, so much anguish physical and mental. No wonder his time called him superhuman. But the truer and sadder reality is that Beethoven lived to the ultimate capacities of being human, and he encompassed that in his art. As one of the defining figures of a revolutionary age, he witnessed and spoke for all of us a new vision of what it means to be human."    

And what more can you say of an artist of any age; a new vision of what it means to be human." If the reader has a moment after reading this, please click here for the link for "Class Soul" which is my solo classical piano CD. The 5th track is a Lizst transcription of the 2nd movement of Beethoven's 7th symphony; in this one movement is a musical roadmap of the suffering and joy in the experience of being human. Learning this piece was an intense journey through the genius of his writing and spoke to me more than any other piece I've ever played to the highs and lows of life. And as a side note, it begins and ends on exactly the same chord - the top "A" of the A minor chord fades out to the exact same chord as it begins on. I have no doubt this was done entirely on purpose by Beethoven and I've never heard this pointed out anywhere...  I look forward now to learning the 2nd movement of his 5th symphony, again a Lizst transcription. Such tender loving melodies that contrast with the 1st movements. Schiller may have been right when he said of the famous 4 note motif that begins the 5th, that Beethoven meant to musically say "Fate knocks at the door."  Indeed.......