Celebrating a colossus

Beethoven has been described as ‘the Face of Western Classical Music’. You may have your favourites—Mozart, Schubert, Brahms, Bach…but you are still unlikely to dispute that statement, so secure is Ludwig van’s position in the pantheon of music. His music is ingrained in our culture: the opening notes of the 5th Symphony, da-da-da-dumm, are familiar even to those who are new to music. Also familiar, and in our divisive times so very relevant, is the line from the Ninth’s Ode To Joy: ‘Alle Menschen werden Brüder’ (All Mankind will become Brothers).

More’s the pity that the pandemic spoilt the celebration of the composer’s 250th birth anniversary but with human ingenuity, calendars are stretchable, so instead of ending the festivities on his birthday of 16th December 2020 as previously planned, celebrations began on that day and will last 250 days until September 2021. The Danish String Quartet consisting of musicians in their mid-30s did a marathon six-concert series on consecutive days,playing all of Beethoven’s string quartets, while the pianist, Susanne Kessel created what has been described as ‘the Mount Everest of homage projects’, commissioning 250 pieces for Beethoven across genres like jazz, pop and new music from 150 composers belonging to 47 countries.

Would the great man have approved such eclecticism? After all, he was trained in the classical tradition, not so pleasantly to start with by his alcoholic father who locked him in the cellar and thrashed him for not practising hard enough, but later, more conventionally, by Haydn in Vienna. In spite of this training, he did make major departures, for example, by being the first composer of his time to discard the harpsichord and play the piano.

Therein lies an interesting story. The person who made his early pianos was a she, not a he, and being a woman, long unacknowledged. In fact, as Patricia Morrisroe wrote recently in The New York Times, credit was given to Nannette Streicher’s husband Andreas, who was her sales manager, while she was the manufacturing genius, having learnt the craft from her father, the legendary Johann Stein. She developed an innovative mechanism for the piano which came to be called the Viennese Action. This gave the piano a light touch which was too ‘refined for me’ Beethoven said. Andreas was more blunt, describing Beethoven’s playing ‘as if he is a brutal murderer bent on revenge,’ adding a line that was sadly prescient, ‘Beethoven played with such violence that you wonder whether the player is deaf.’ Nannette, however, was more sensitive to criticism and began to make much larger and louder pianos, her workshop producing around 65 grand pianos a year. Touchingly, she befriended Beethoven and 60 of his letters to her have been found: they are not love letters, but about domestic chores because she had agreed to sort out his shambolic household.

Beethoven’s love letters were to beautiful women; he fell in love often, almost always with titled women. At that time, young ladies of the aristocracy were encouraged to be musical: they could either sing or play an instrument. A violin or viola required too much strenuous bowing, while a cello had to be placed between the legs; only a piano was considered ladylike. Beethoven, as the most celebrated pianist of Vienna, naturally had a steady line of pupils. Apparently, Moonlight Sonata was written for Countess Giulietta Guicciardi, the 30-year-old Beethoven’s 18-year-old student. (Morrisroe has written a fictional account in her novel The Woman in the Moonlight). Who was the Elise of ‘Für Elise’? There is much speculation about her identity. Could it be Elise Barensfeld, a young singer? Or Countess Therese, and the title was really meant to be ‘Für Therese’? And who was the ‘Immortal Beloved’ of Beethoven’s most passionate love letter? Was it Josephine von Brunsvick, and was the letter ever sent? None of his proposals for marriage were accepted because, great pianist or not, he was ‘only a commoner’.

We know of one letter that was never sent, and this wasn’t a love letter at all. Written in 1802 when Beethoven was 32, it’s come to be known as the ‘Heiligenstadt Testament’ after the wine-growing village in which it was probably written. ‘For my brothers Karl and Johann’, it begins, ‘O you men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn or misanthropic, how greatly do you wrong me’. He goes on to say, ‘From childhood my heart and mind was disposed to the gentle feeling of good will. I was ever eager to accomplish great deeds, but reflect now that for six years I have been in a hopeless case, made worse by ignorant doctors, yearly betrayed in the hope of getting better, finally forced to face the prospect of a permanent malady.’ He was of course, referring to his loss of hearing, ‘the one sense which should have been more perfect in me than in others.’ He ends by saying that it was to ‘my art I owe the fact that I didn’t end my life with suicide’, having contemplated taking his own life many times.

Luckily for us and for posterity, he lived a further 25 years, composing his greatest symphonies including the immortal Ninth, and the late quartets, music which he could only hear in his head. As Wagner said of him, ‘Beethoven was a titan, wrestling with the Gods.’ In the end, the gods of music won.

By Anil Dharker. This piece was originally published by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, in the March 2021 issue of ON Stage – their monthly arts magazine.