Beethoven re-created experience as music

November 17, 1996|By GLENN McNATT

NOVEMBER HAS been a big month for Beethoven in Baltimore. The symphony kicked off the month with the master's famous Fifth Symphony and the Violin Concerto. Last night the Baltimore Opera Company gave the city's first-ever performance Beethoven's only opera, "Fidelio."

What accounts for the continuing fascination with Beethoven and his music?

Surely the most remarkable fact about Beethoven, wrote J. W. N. Sullivan in his classic study of the composer, is that "his work showed an organic development up to the very end."

"The older Beethoven lived, the more and more profound was what he had to say," Sullivan notes. "The greatest music Beethoven ever wrote is to be found in the last string quartets, and the music of every decade before the final period has greater music than its predecessor."

Sullivan believed that the greatness of Beethoven's music lay in its delineation of his spiritual development. Beethoven was a man who, in Sullivan's view, recognized and accepted the essentially tragic character of human life.

"The chief characteristics of the fully mature Beethoven's attitude toward life are to be found in his realization of suffering and in his realization of the heroism of achievement," Sullivan writes.

"Beethoven's capacity for realizing the fundamental character of life in its two aspects of suffering and achievement, combined with his lack of flexibility, was the necessary condition for the development of his attitude toward life."

That attitude was strikingly evident even to Beethoven's contemporaries: "A more self-contained, energetic, sincere artist I never saw," observed the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. "I can understand right well how singular must be his attitude toward the world."

But even such a sympathetic soul as Goethe's could be disconcerted by Beethoven's violent mood swings and apparent complete disregard for ordinary social niceties.

"His talent amazed me," Goethe wrote. "Unfortunately, he is an utterly untamed personality, not altogether in the wrong in holding the world to be detestable, but who does not make it any the more enjoyable either for himself or for others by his attitude."

The image of Beethoven as a slovenly curmudgeon touched by genius has been endlessly elaborated by popular films, plays and books.

But Beethoven was much more than just a talented eccentric. He was an isolated and tragically lonely man, increasingly cut off from those around him by the onset of deafness, perhaps the greatest calamity that can afflict a musician at the height of his creative powers.

Beethoven's first reference to his deafness appears in a letter dated June 1, 1801.

"Your Beethoven is most unhappy and at strife with nature and Creator," he wrote. "I have often cursed the latter for exposing his creatures to the merest accident, so that often the most beautiful buds are broken or destroyed thereby. Only think that my noblest faculty, my hearing, has greatly deteriorated."

The letter shows clearly, Sullivan writes, "how despairing Beethoven was at the senselessness of his affliction. That he, of all men, should lose this particular sense must, indeed, have seemed the most abominable of ironies."

Later that year Beethoven wrote: "Oh, if I were rid of this affliction I could embrace the world! Grant me but half freedom from my affliction and then -- as a complete, ripe man I shall return to you and renew the old feelings of friendship. You must see me as happy as it is possible to be here below -- not unhappy. No! I cannot endure it. I will take Fate by the throat; it shall not wholely overcome me."

For the rest of his life Beethoven was fated to struggle against his disability. The agony of that struggle is evident in the so-called Heiligenstadt Testament, an anguished, disjointed, semi-punctuated cry from the heart written to his brothers in the autumn of 1802 but only discovered after the composer's death in 1827.

"O Ye men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn or misanthropic, how greatly do ye wrong me, you do not know the secret causes of my seeming, for childhood my heart and mind were disposed to the gentle feelings of good will, I was even ever eager to accomplish great deeds, but reflect now that for six years I have been in a hopeless case, aggravated by senseless physicians, cheated year after year in the hope of improvement, finally compelled to face the prospect of a lasting malady. ..."

And yet Beethoven's greatest works still lay ahead of him -- the immortal symphonies Nos. 3 through 9, the majestic choral mass, "Missa Solemnis," the magnificent middle and late period string quartets and piano sonatas, dozens of chamber works and the opera "Fidelio."

It was as if, having faced the worst that life could confront a man with, he had indeed grasped Fate by the throat and stubbornly wrestled it. In the end, it was his will as much as his genius that made possible the flow of masterpieces from his pen.

"If they stood alone, these superhuman utterances might seem to us those of an oracle who was hardly a man," Sullivan wrote of the sublime last string quartets, written just before the composer's death at the age of 56.

"But we know, from the rest of his music, that Beethoven was a man who experienced all that we can experience, who suffered all that we can suffer," Sullivan continued. "If, in the end, he seems to reach a state 'above the battle' we also know that no man ever knew more bitterly what the battle is."

Pub Date: 11/17/96

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