Music is the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge which comprehends mankind but which mankind cannot comprehend. (Ludwig von Beethoven)
The last few weeks I’ve had Beethoven and his music on my mind. I finally bought my own personal copy of the revered biography of the composer, Thayer’s Life of Beethoven. Suddenly, it feels like I’m holding the totality of Beethoven’s life in my hands when I hold this book. His life was no walk in the park, either. He struggled with poverty, evictions, family, health issues and deafness. And yet, he continued to compose music. That makes me feel like a total wimp and whiner. When I think of Beethoven’s music, the music that I return to over and over, I think of perseverance and defiance. I think I could use a lot of both right now, as well as courage.
It’s been a while since I’ve written about classical music here, and Beethoven’s life and music are fertile territory for me. So what pieces in Beethoven’s library am I drawn to right now to listen to as I work? From what do I draw sustenance and comfort? Wait, Beethoven’s music comforting?
Yes, comforting. The “Archduke” Piano Trio, for example. The first movement’s theme is a simple ascending line that lifts and soars. Its major key gives the music a positive, confident sound. Immersing myself in this music makes me feel good and comforts me. Then I wonder how on earth Beethoven thought of that theme. How do I come up with my ideas for stories?
I first listened to Beethoven’s symphonies when I was in high school. My piano teacher loaned me her complete set on vinyl LPs for a summer. I listened to them, one after the other in order, 1 through 9, over and over. At the time, I didn’t have enough knowledge of music to put these symphonies in context or to understand how much of a destroyer of musical conventions Beethoven was. With his symphonies, Beethoven moved away from me and stayed at a distance for many years.
I had learned about his deafness, about “The Heiligenstadt Testament,” and his alleged rage at the world. A musician going deaf? I could not comprehend his pain. And had he really composed all that gorgeous music while deaf?
While the Ninth Symphony is an uncontested masterpiece, and its hope continues to astonish me, I prefer the Seventh Symphony’s Second Movement or the Third Symphony’s Marcia funebre. The first time I heard the Fifth Symphony in concert, I was in the Grosse Saal of the Musikverein in Vienna, Austria, listening to the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Karl Boehm. It was at that moment of the opening notes that I laughed, and remembered how I’d always laughed at this dramatic theme. It’s always sounded to me like Beethoven pounding his fist on a table…or a door, perhaps? I still laugh at that theme. I have no idea why, except that there is something irresistibly funny about it.
Beethoven’s music that I know the best involves the piano because I played the piano. I performed his Piano Sonata No. 10 in G-major, Op. 14, No. 2, in the
Ballroom of the Palais Kinsky in Vienna where Beethoven had premiered many of his works, and studied most of the rest of his 32 piano sonatas. I dreamed of playing the First and Fourth Piano Concertos. It was through his piano music that I began to see glimpses of Beethoven’s good heart, his childlike personality. Piano was his instrument, after all. I spotted and enjoyed his jokes, his musical pranks, and the pure joy in the music. Beethoven found tremendous joy in music.
He was not born deaf. For the early part of his music career, he could hear just fine. Then, he began to gradually lose his hearing. It was an incredible challenge for him as a musician, but he continued to compose, refusing to be defeated by a physical restriction, even one so crucial to his life. He had known music’s sound before and he held that sound within his imagination. He persevered. He defied what Fate had visited upon him.
I could not wish for a better role model as an artist and writer.