(Note: This essay was originally published by the Newport Daily News on December 28, 2020.)
Nine months after the “Boston Massacre” here in the New World, Ludwig van Beethoven was born in the Old, and Western music would never be the same.
Beethoven’s musical talent was obvious at an early age. At 13, he published his first work, a set of keyboard variations. At 21, he moved from Bonn, Germany, his birthplace, to Vienna, the capital of the vast Austrian Empire with a flourishing arts community, where he studied under Joseph Haydn.
He soon found an admirer, Karl Alois Prince Lichnowsky, who became his first patron. In 1800 he created his first major orchestral work, the First Symphony, followed by his first set of string quartets in 1801.
It was at this time that his hearing began to decline. By 1814, he was almost completely deaf, and he ceased performing in public. He became so dejected that in 1802, he considered suicide, writing that “it was only my art that held me back.”
Despite his declining health, he continued to compose his later symphonies, chamber music, and piano sonatas. He composed a single opera, “Fidelio,” first performed in 1805 and revised in its final version in 1814.
After months of being bedridden, he died in Vienna in 1827 with many thousands attending his funeral.
The celebrations in Germany (bthvn250), Vienna, and elsewhere, honoring his 250th, began before the pandemic struck and envisioned hundreds of events. Regrettably, most of these had to be cancelled, down-sized, or moved online.
To honor the anniversary, the New York Times dispatched many writers and critics here and abroad over the course of the past year to research his life and music. On December 12, it offered readers a magnificent collection of essays and recordings. (“Beethoven’s 250 Birthday: Here’s Everything You Need to Know.”) The Times offered this summary praise for him: “No composer left a mark on music quite like Ludwig van Beethoven. He took the popular forms of his time…and stretched them to their breaking points. He embodied the then-new ideal of the musician as passionate, politically engaged Romantic hero.”
Edward Rothstein, critic-at-large for the Wall Street Journal, maintains that “Beethoven’s music heralded something quite different. It is full of disruptions, violent interjections, dizzying withdrawals and unexpected musical vistas. There is no way to miss the force of individuality in his music, its imposing will and probing attentiveness.” He indicates that “he may also be the first modern composer.”
In 1989, my wife and I found ourselves on our final Army assignment in Bonn, then the capital of West Germany. Walking through one of the main plazas, we discovered the statue of Beethoven and also the house off the plaza where he was born. Little did I know the impact he would have on my appreciation for classical music, music I had always respected but little understood.
The Hollywood film about him, “Immortal Beloved,” changed all that. Its main theme focuses on an actual letter Beethoven wrote to a woman in 1812 but never sent. The film’s plot deals with a search after his death for this woman, whose identity to this day remains a subject of debate.
He begins: “My angel, my all, my own self—only a few words today …. Can our love persist otherwise than through sacrifices, than by not demanding everything?” … My bosom is full, to tell you much—there are moments when I find that speech is nothing at all.”
In the body of the letter he addresses her as “my Immortal Beloved.” He ends: “What longing in tears for you—You—my Life—my All—farewell. Oh, go on loving me—never doubt the faithfullest heart. Of your beloved L [Ludwig] Ever thine. Ever mine. Ever ours.”
The scene which transfixed me unfolds like this. Beethoven and another man, Anton Schindler, are listening to a rehearsal of George Bridgewater, the Afro-European violinist, performing a sonata Beethoven wrote for Bridgewater, the “Kreutzer Sonata.” Schindler does not realize it is Beethoven speaking to him. “I can’t hear it, but I know they are making a hash of it. What do you think?”
Schindler is perturbed at the interruption. Beethoven continues: “Music is a dreadful thing. What is it? I don’t understand it. What does it do?”
Schindler: “It exalts the soul.” Beethoven: “Utter nonsense. If you hear a marching band, does it exalt? No, you march. If you hear a waltz, you dance. If you hear a mass, you take communion.”
“It is the power of the music to carry one directly into the mental state of the composer. The listener has no choice. It is like hypnotism. So now, what was in my mind when I wrote this?”
Schindler is speechless. Beethoven’s relates his experience. There is a man whose lover is waiting for him; she will wait only so long. His carriage has broken down in a storm, and he cannot reach her. “This is the sound of my agitation. This is how it is the music is saying. Not how you are used to being, not how you are used to thinking. But like this.”
Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University and a regular columnist.
“Beethoven’s 250th Birthday: Here’s Everything You Need to Know.” New York Times, December 14, 2020.
“George Bridgewater.” Brighton and Hove Black History. https://www.black-history.org.uk/george-bridgewater/. Accessed December 17, 2020.
Immortal Beloved. Columbia Pictures. 1994.
“Immortal Beloved.” Letters of Note. https://lettersofnote.com/2011/06/10/immortal-beloved/. Accessed December 17, 2020.
“Ludwig van Beethoven.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ludwig_van_Beethoven
Accessed December 17, 2020.
“Ninth Lives: Beethoven’s Triumphant Career Was a Struggle Against Adversity.” The Economist. November 21, 2020.
Rothstein, Edward. “What Beethoven Can Still Teach Us.” Wall Street Journal, September 13, 2020.