A tribute during Beethoven’s 250th birth anniversary

“An artist must never stand still.” – Ludwig van Beethoven

In December 1770, a child was born in Bonn, Germany, who would go on to make such a powerful impact in music, an impact that would endure down the centuries. We celebrate his 250th birth anniversary this year. Of Ludwig van Beethoven and his music, the renowned conductor Leonard Bernstein said, “To the man who can give the world so precious a gift as this, no honour can be too great, no celebration joyful enough. It’s almost like celebrating the birthday of music itself.”

Beethoven had a difficult childhood because of an alcoholic and abusive father. Johann van Beethoven had been dazzled by the tales of how the child prodigy Mozart’s father had taken him on extensive and lucrative European tours, with little Wolfgang playing before emperors, kings and the Pope. He wanted to do the same with his son Ludwig, also a child prodigy. Johann took Ludwig to the homes of wealthy noblemen and persuaded them to listen to his recitals. Some of Beethoven’s biographers speculate that being forced to perform whatever others dictated to him on such trips so turned off Beethoven that he became a musical maverick, one who abhorred rules. Whatever his motivation, Beethoven’s habit of disregarding what others told him he should or should not do with regard to music resulted in some of his most exquisite compositions. He did not break established conventions for the sake of doing so; he did not break them capriciously or with impunity; he broke them intelligently and creatively.

“Beethoven changed something essential in the function of music,” said Hungarian conductor Iván Fischer. “Beethoven started to write music that shocked everybody. It had such a power and such an incredible intensity which was scary for people used to the music of the aristocracy…. He infused music with grandeur…but he was great even in his tenderness. Beethoven had everything. He had the greatness of the hero and the tenderness of the most lyrical person you can imagine…but he was always extraordinary, and this is the music of a great, great genius. The genius is that every note is immediately raised to this level of extremeness, there is always something extreme in him.”

Hungarian conductor Iván Fischer on how Beethoven changed the world of music, in an interview for Vrije Geluiden, the music programme of VPRO, the Netherlands Public Broadcasting Organisation.

While it is interesting to see how a conductor interprets specific sections from Beethoven’s symphonies, he has one fact wrong. In Beethoven: The Universal Composer, biographer Edmund Morris writes that while Beethoven was certainly disappointed with Napoleon Bonaparte and changed the title of his Third Symphony from Sinfonia Grande intitulata Bonaparte to Sinfonia Eroica, he did not fly into a towering rage and rip up the first page. That is a fabrication of his friend and pupil, Ferdinand Ries, which passes as a true account because the two men were close.

Sonata or Fantasy? Beethoven’s audacity

An example of Beethoven taking liberties with “rules” right from the outset are his early twin piano sonatas (Sonata 13 and 14; Op. 27: 1 and 2) which he collectively termed as Sonata Quasi Una Fantasia; this translates into “Sonata in the Manner of a Fantasy,” or, more generally, “in the manner of an improvisation.” As the term indicates, Beethoven played with form and structure, challenging the conventions of the music of his time.

Today, the name that Beethoven gave to the pair is retained only for the first; the second composition is called Moonlight (Mondschein) for reasons described later.

There were rules that defined a sonata or a fantasy. Beethoven challenged them by breaching those boundaries.The sonata form dictated that the first movement should give the composition a definite character. Succeeding movements could supplement this but could not alter it. The noted German music critic Paul Bekker wrote:

“Beethoven rebelled against this determinative quality in the first movement. He wanted a prelude, an introduction, not a proposition. He did not wish to commit himself in the first movement to a certain sequence of thought.”

A fantasia has an unpredictable number of sections or movements that use different kinds of figurative patterns. All movements are played without a stop, one segueing into the next. Beethoven employs this feature in the two sonatas, blurring the impression that the individual movements with their pre-determined characteristics are the building blocks of the composition, and challenging the listener to take the piece as an autonomous whole.

Moreover, the movements in both compositions are not in the order expected of a sonata. And they are in sharp contrast with each other, a feature in a fantasy but not in a sonata. There are speed and mood changes within a movement.  Neither is a classical sonata, though they are labelled as such.

In Sonata 13, there is a cyclic return to earlier material, but not in Sonata 14.

Piano Sonata 13 in E flat Major: Sonata Quasi Una Fantasia

Pianist: Alfred Brendel

Of these twin piano sonatas where Beethoven toyed with form, the second (Sonata No 14, the Moonlight Sonata) is by far the more famous, and indeed, one of Beethoven’s beloved and enduring compositions, so it merits a separate discussion.

The Moonlight Sonata

Let’s start with the name. Beethoven never named or associated this sonata with moonlight, unlike say, Claude Debussy’s Clair de Lune, which translates from the French as “Light of the Moon.”

In 1832, five years after Beethoven’s death, the German music critic and poet Ludwig Rellstab likened the effect of the first movement of Sonata 14 to that of moonlight shimmering upon the still waters of Switzerland’s Lake Lucerne, seen from a boat in the middle of the lake. Within ten years, the name “Moonlight Sonata” (Mondscheinsonate) became popular in German and English publications, and has irrevocably stuck ever since. Many musicologists throw up their hands at this, for moonlight in the popular imagination is associated with romance. Indeed, the original name Debussy gave for Clair de Lune was Promenade Sentimentale, meaning “A Sentimental Walk.” But it is the music itself, rather than its title, that speaks and evokes. One could easily associate the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight with romance (and also heartbreak), but that impression is torpedoed by the third movement.

Beethoven directed that in the first movement the sustain pedal of the piano be held down nonstop, so that the strings are never damped and the reverberations are lengthened. For over six minutes, there is a mesmerizing balance of action and inaction, and the paradox is that the first movement reaches a climax with no increase in the volume of music. This movement was such a smash hit across Europe even in Beethoven’s day that he is said to have once muttered in puzzlement to Czerny, “Surely I’ve written better things!”

In pacing, a sonata is usually a musical sandwich: Fast-Slow-Fast, but Beethoven turned Moonlight into an escalating sequence: Slow-Medium-Fast. As a result, the three movements of Moonlight each have a distinct character and voice: the first (Adagio Sostenuto), the second (Allegreto) and the third (Presto Agitato).  But while Beethoven took liberties, it was not without method. The first and third movements are in C sharp minor, the second in D flat major. C sharp and D flat are enharmonic, sounding the same on the piano although notated differently. So the transitions between the movements are smooth, though the movements themselves challenge the performer. Each has an intense emotional component.

Piano Sonata 14: Moonlight

Pianist: Lydian Nadhaswaram

Many creative artists often put something of themselves and their lives into their art. This was especially true of Beethoven. John Suchet, in his biography Beethoven: The Man Revealed, writes:

“Of Beethoven it is perhaps true than of any other composer that if you know what is going on in his life you listen to his music through different ears. Beethoven’s life — its dramas, conflicts, loves and losses, his deafness coupled with continuous health problems, his epic struggle with his sister-in-law for custody of her son, his nephew — is there in his music. Without such knowledge his music is still extraordinary, and I believe many people who today love it do so without any deep understanding of his life. But to know what is happening to him at the time of a particular composition puts that work on a different level for the listener. Beethoven’s music is his autobiography.”

What, then, was going on in Beethoven’s life when he composed Moonlight?

Plenty. Beethoven was in love with his piano student, Countess Giulietta Guicciardi. He dedicated Moonlight  to her. Their budding romance was broken up by her father. It was unacceptable; they were aristocrats and he was not only a commoner but a poor musician with little or no prospects. But a far bigger calamity was brewing.

Beethoven had begun hearing ringing and buzzing sounds in his ears when he was about twenty-six. In 1801 (the year Moonlight was composed), he wrote to his childhood friend Franz Wegeler, now a doctor:

“…For the last three years my hearing that grown steadily weaker….in the theatre I have to place myself quite close to the orchestra in order to be able to understand what the actor is saying, and from a distance I cannot hear the high instruments and voices. As for the spoken voice, it is surprising that some people have never noticed my deafness; but since I have always been liable to fits of absentmindedness, they attribute my hardness of hearing to that. Sometimes too I can hardly hear a person who speaks softly; I can hear sounds but cannot make out the words. But if anyone shouts, I cannot bear it.”

Beethoven kept his condition hidden, avoiding social gatherings, fearing his career would be ruined if people realised he was losing his hearing. For a musician and especially one so gifted as Beethoven for whom music was life and life was music, nothing could have been more devastating than losing the one sense that was paramount to his art. Robert Greenberg, musician, composer, and former Chair of Music History at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, wrote: “Imbued with tragic feeling, the Moonlight is almost impossible not to relate to the composer’s tragic progressive hearing loss.”

The first movement, dreamy and serene but also melancholic, reveals a usually exuberant Beethoven suddenly at his most restrained. The second movement is sprightly — hop, skip, and jump. Then, in the third, Beethoven unleashes the fury of a tiger and a tornado combined; such ferocious music in a sonata was again a first. It was a commentary on life — starting out peacefully although with tinges of sadness, then getting lively, but then, without warning catastrophe strikes, turning your world inside out and upside down. Indeed, at the composition’s premiere recital, Beethoven played the third movement with such intensity, fury, and passion that several piano strings snapped and tangled up the hammers.

“I will seize Fate by the throat,” Beethoven wrote in a letter referring to his deafness. “It will certainly not bend me and crush me completely — Oh, it would be so lovely to live a thousand lives.”

Chopin’s Response to Beethoven’s Moonlight

Frederic Chopin wrote Fantaisie Impromptu as both a response and a tribute to Beethoven’s Moonlight. The pianist and musicologist Ernst Oster commented:

“With the aid of Fantaisie Impromptu, we can at least recognize what particular features (of Moonlight) struck fire in Chopin. We can actually regard Chopin as our teacher as he points to the coda and says, ‘Look here, this is great. Take heed of this example!’… Chopin understood Beethoven to a degree that no one who has written on the C♯ minor Sonata or the Fantaisie-Impromptu has ever understood him. …Fantaisie Impromptu is perhaps the only instance when one genius discloses to us – if only be means of a composition of his own – what he actually hears in the work of another genius.”

On pulling off “a Beethoven”

 In 2019, in the semi-finals of The World’s Best talent competition organized by the American television station CBS, India’s child prodigy Lydian Nadhaswaram played the third movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. But as the audience burst into applause, Lydian announced that he had a surprise. The spotlight lit up a set of drums on the main stage. His piano recital had been recorded; when it was played back, he accompanied himself on the drums ─ in effect, playing a duet with himself on both piano and the drums.

“I told them that I would drum three different time signatures at the same time: 3/4 with the left hand, 7/8 with the right, and 4/4 with the legs,” Lydian said. “And that I’d keep rotating these. For example, at times with both hands I’d play 7/8 and with the legs 3/4, and then introduce a 44, and then change again. I played a lot of very tough patterns. Nobody was sitting. Everybody was dancing to my beat.” (The video below, released by CBS, is a condensed version of his performance).

Lydian Nadhaswaram’s piano and drums duet playing Moonlight, third movement

“I have never seen or heard anything like what we just witnessed, ever,” was judge Faith Hill’s immediate and sincere pronouncement. She was right – this was a Lydian original; he conceived and executed the idea. Beethoven never wrote a percussion part for his sonata; it was for solo piano. So there will be angry purists who say Beethoven was insulted that evening. They miss the point: Beethoven himself constantly rebelled against the purists of his day, producing music that defied convention and always surprised. Besides, let’s hear it straight from the composer of Moonlight himself: “Don’t only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets. Art deserves that, for it and knowledge can raise man to the Divine.”

Beethoven peppered Moonlight’s third movement it with many fast arpeggios and broken chords, and salted it with strongly accented notes and fast alberti bass sequences that cartwheel between right and left hands at various times. It is not for the spineless. People can master the technicalities but to bring out the level of emotion that Beethoven wove into this piece is an altogether different challenge.

Next, most musicians who overlay two or more of their performances to create a single final recital usually play the drums first, for drums form the pulse of the rhythm. Lydian had to do it in reverse and stay in tempo to his piano playing. To accompany such a complex, emotional piano composition on the drums at that speed (and with three time signatures played simultaneously) with no metronome except the one embedded in his head sounds unthinkable and undoable. Judge Drew Barrymore called him “a mad genius” — the precise words frequently used to depict Beethoven.

Nobody can be the next Beethoven — there is only one Beethoven — but this performance of Lydian where he pulled off “a Beethoven” has many resonances with the Master. Certainly, it involved a command of music and knowing how to intelligently bend the rules — had Lydian played drums over the first movement of Moonlight instead of the third, it well could have been disastrous. But there was another quality of Beethoven that came into play on this occasion: resourcefulness.

Piano Sonata 14: Moonlight

Pianist: Claudio Arrau

Lydian planned out his performance in his Los Angeles hotel room. There was no way a drum set could be brought there, so  he played Moonlight on his laptop and worked out drum patterns that would match the music by strumming on the laptop keys, unusual patterns but ones that seamlessly blended in with Beethoven’s music, nothing frivolous or funky. His stunning performance was onstage for the semi-finals was his debut performance of this innovation — without proper rehearsals — but it was so neatly and confidently executed that nobody could imagine it was patched up together in a hotel room without practice on musical instruments.

Such resourcefulness was Beethoven’s hallmark. A lesser man would have surrendered hope and plunged into a pit of despair at his deafness, even taken his own life (and Beethoven did entertain frequent suicidal thoughts — but, to his and our immense good fortune, did not act upon them). Instead, Beethoven resorted to a variety of measures to overcome his deafness.

To begin with, Beethoven’s deafness was a slow worsening rather than an abrupt loss of hearing. A music composition follows a set of rules, which could be adhered to (or in Beethoven’s case, sometimes be done away with after understanding the nature of the rules).  With such understanding he could always compose music in his mind and write it without physically hearing it. Beethoven’s housekeepers remember him grasping a pencil between his teeth, the other end touching a key as he played it, so that he could feel the distinct vibration that each note created. He was training his sense of touch to fill in, as much as it was capable of, for the loss of his sense of hearing. He sawed off the legs of his piano and lay flat with his cheeks and ear on the wooden floor as he played one note after another, so that by feeling the distinct vibration each key transmitted to the floor, he could determine what the vibration of that note felt like, and made a mental compendium linking vibrations to music notes. In his mind, he recreated a whole different system of sheet music.

Beethoven’s repertoire was wide-ranging. He composed symphonies and sonatas of hitherto unheard-of lengths, but he was also a miniaturist. He composed many short pieces, like piano bagatelles, some of which last a little more than a minute. Here is Beethoven’s Bagatelle in A Minor (more famously known as Für Elise) played on the veena (sometimes described as the Indian lute):

Veena exposition of Beethoven’s Für Elise

Vainika: Lalgudi Jayanthi Kumaresh

Jayanthi Kumaresh, a Chennai-based musician, has not only played the melody on the veena but has interpreted it in two Carnatic music ragas, Keeravani and Simhendra Madhyam.

To be continued in Part II