When it comes to the fine arts, we love our biographies of tortured genius, and Ludwig van Beethoven serves the storytellers admirably. Baptized December 17, 1770, in Bonn, his tempestuous and tragic life was one of failed love affairs, strained friendships, and especially the deafness that accompanied his greatest musical achievements. And yet many of us find him not only speaking for us but also extending inspiration in the quest for fullness and fidelity.
In part it’s a story of the way Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven reestablish the center of classical music, centering it in the German-speaking world far from its Italian roots and the Renaissance genius of Monteverdi and Palestrina.
As I discussed earlier this year, Beethoven’s popularity rests largely on works that he wrote in the second half of his life, past the age of Mozart’s death, the years that encompass what are known as his Middle (or Heroic) and Late periods. The years accompanied by deafness.
For much of my life, I’ve not been alone in finding that what most appealed to me were the works from the Middle period – the Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Ninth symphonies, the violin and “Emperor” piano concertos, the Rasumovsky string quartets – stirring works raging with dramatic struggle and promised victory. With all of their emotional parallels to athletic contests, these have justifiably ensured his enduring public adoration.
More recently, though, they’ve given way in my estimation as the Late period works have risen in preference. Quite simply, these have never been considered all that accessible. Many of them defiantly turn their back on the audience in a pursuit of boldly intricate, often extended, musical puzzles that plumb the depths of human despair, loneliness, resolve, as well as lofty heights. Indeed, for years the assumption has been that these are not for public consumption but are rather reserved for private investigation among the cognoscenti, should they be so honored.
The advent of recordings, of course, allows us access at home, in the wee hours, over repeated listenings, the way we might gain as performers working our way through a score, allowing each passage to unfold its riches before us. In that sense, these pages listen to us as much as we listen to them.
When Beethoven composed these, his deafness was complete enough that he could no longer reference anything he heard as a confirmation of his theoretical constructions. The pleasure of pure sound – call it singing – was left far behind. In action, that focused him more thoroughly on the abstract – shall we even say mathematical – rigors of each score as he solved problems posed on an imaginary blackboard. Perhaps not until the American Charles Ives a century later do we encounter another composer faced with such liberating limitations – this time, not by deafness but by an inability to get his works performed at all, which would have provided audible confirmation or faulted the experiments.
Beethoven’s deafness also points toward another element often overlooked in musical performance: the importance of silence itself in surrounding each note and phrase. Typically, the dots all get more or less slurred together, to fill space. Initially, much effort is on simply getting the note on pitch and in correct time. But beyond that comes those shadings between each note unless legato – connectedness – is specified. I can tell you of times in choral performance of the impact of a breath taken together or of a word alone treasured or a consonant emphasized, or of a real trill in orchestral performance that will come as a miniature roller coaster rather than a mere flutter of breeze. Take that the next step, where each note stands clearly distinct, no matter how fast, and the music lifts to a new realm. By subtly altering these unspecified durations, a work can swell or diminish in volume, even without actually increasing the pressure on the bow or keyboard or mouthpiece to do so. It can even make the music feel to gain tempo or slow, even when the actual beat is doing otherwise, as a friend and I noticed years ago in a Berlin Philharmonic recording of the Beethoven Fifth under Wilhelm Furtwangler. (Yes, I’d love to go back and confirm that with a metronome.)
With Beethoven at last working in the realm of undiluted theory, this awareness of silence, however tiny, keeps growing. I hear it more and more, from his earliest works into the knotty range he ultimately traverses.
To this we must add his emphasis on revision. With Beethoven, we sense none of the facility of Bach or Mozart, for whom revision must have been a matter of polishing and tweaking for better perfection. In contrast, with Beethoven there’s a compulsive, fussy, almost physical effort to break through to another level expression or discovery. (As a writer, I fully identify. The first draft is merely a beginning.) Add to that the significant drop-off in output. Just contrast the number of works Bach and Mozart produced in contrast to Beethoven’s. For them, each new work could be seen as a fresh revision – produced over time in series. (One again, as a writer, especially one working on the run, I fully identify.)
We must admit, too, with Beethoven there’s a shift in social status, as a part of a wider society – the artist is now given higher regard than a mere servant, as were Bach and Mozart.
But back to the deafness. How I wish I could look at a score and hear it in my head, the way many composers and conductors and instrumentalists do, in some faultless realm of possibility. Places our technique, no matter how fine, will ever quite go. Clearly, in my head and heart, even more than the ears.
AN ARIA WITH COUNTERPOINT
I read closely and then transcribed
how a text moves out in its own direction
or picked up on points I once questioned
suburbs of more appropriate space
how quickly details could be forgotten
and whether any of the score was any good or not
having done absolutely everything they couldn’t
whatever income was completely beyond her
in a softened and crudely marked up form
became unfaithfulness to sections I’d removed
with someone else picking up at that juncture
how truly difficult, rounding out the counterpoint
Poem copyright 2017 by Jnana Hodson
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