Monday, March 24, 2008

Music and Morals: Beethoven

My brother G., a music critic and composer, gave a talk to my Music 101 class last week about Beethoven, in the process greatly expanding my students' knowledge of Beethoven from "the composer who was deaf" to the representation not only of Romantic genius, but also of modern man with all his hopes, fears, conflicts, and inner turmoil. Among other recordings, G. played a 1944 radio broadcast of Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in a performance of the "Eroica" Symphony in Vienna, an occasion at which, as G. noted, there were almost certainly Nazi party officials in the audience who knew they were losing the war. G. asked the class to ponder who then was the "hero" in the "Heroic" Symphony. His lecture, as you might guess, was a hands-down success.

Like many people, I love Beethoven. He seems to me the apotheosis of God speaking his own divine music through the brilliant, flawed mouthpiece of fallen man; indeed, I feel so much sympathy for Beethoven as a person that it's sometimes painful for me to listen his music. His biographer Maynard Solomon has written (rather movingly, I think) that Beethoven "wanted understanding [from future generations], as though sensing that both forgiveness and sympathy inevitably follow in its train."

Solomon goes on:

"As an artist and as a man, [Beethoven] knew the healing power of communication and the cathartic effect of shared fears. 'All evil is mysterious and appears greater when viewed alone,' he wrote in a diary entry of 1817. 'It is all the more ordinary, the more one talks about it with others; it is easier to endure because that which we fear becomes totally known; it seems as if one has overcome some great evil.'"


Maclin Horton said...

I'm quite willing to concede that it's my defect, but Beethoven has never occupied the place for me that he's supposed to, or at least does for a lot of people. A matter of taste and temperament, I guess. Not that I don't like him, because I do, but he isn't at the very top of my list. The symphonies often seem a't think of a way to put it, off the top of my head, that doesn't make it sound more negative than I about "effortful?" Whatever it is, it kind of fits with what you're saying: it's sense that the communication, even in his art, is a matter of great struggle.

Maclin Horton said...

p.s. Have you seen that relatively recent (last 10 or 15 years) movie Immortal Beloved? I don't know how historically accurate it is but the last scene is very memorable.

Pentimento said...

I have seen Immortal Beloved, and it's virtually entirely inaccurate historically, but I agree about the last scene -- it is transcendent.

I agree about the sense of great, almost superhuman struggle in Beethoven's work. He had a pretty much desperately unhappy life, and contemplated suicide. So much of his work has the ethos of man fighting against and overcoming the demons that beset him. Also, Beethoven was composing very much under the shadow of Mozart, with whom he was on his way to Vienna to study composition when Mozart died in 1791. Beethoven's labors and strivings as a composer are preserved for us in the many sketchbooks he left, whereas Mozart pretty much never sketched any compositional ideas; he wrote everything out in its finished form the first time. My brother said something really interesting about the 3rd Symphony: that there's no melody. The first movement theme is just an outline of the E-flat major triad. But to me, it's quite beautiful.

Have you listened to his latest works, including the late string quartets and the op. 109, 110, and 111 piano sonatas? They might give you a different sense of his music.

Maclin Horton said...

Yes, I'm a big fan of the late quartets, and of the quartets in general. Also some of the piano sonatas. I haven't heard the symphonies for some years, actually. I need to revisit them. It might be indicative of something that the 4th was always one of my favorites.

I really don't want to overstate this--I do think he's great, and most of his best music doesn't have that straining sort of quality that I'm talking about.