Monday, 9 August 2010

An Appreciation of....Ludwig Van Beethoven

Of late, and by that I mean in recent years, I have taken more and more to listening to what is commonly called ‘classical’ music, that is to say orchestral music. This has meant a move away from the Rock and Pop music of my youth, which I still enjoy, and embracing a form of music that I know little of. I do not buy into the concept of elevating any form of music be it Classical, Jazz, Rock or Hip Hop into something vaguely superior, sophisticated or worse intellectual. Music for me has to, in the first instance, be able to move me before it engages my intellect. It is then that I begin to ponder its processes. Robert Fripp, that extraordinary guitarist of King Crimson fame, once quoted this maxim: Head, Heart and Hips. I broadly accept and utilise the same philosophy myself but with one significant alteration: Heart, Hips and Head. This is due no doubt to my upbringing and to the age I was born into, the age of Rock and Roll or, when daft titles are dropped, 20th Century Folk music.
Classical music has, as I have aged, grown more and more accessible to me, easier to understand especially if you adhere to those altered principles that Robert Fripp espoused. In truth it is not a new love as I first became enchanted by the beauty of a string quartet when, as a boy of twelve, I first heard The Beatles song ‘Eleanor Rigby’. I liked the narrative lyric with its surreal twists but even more the stringed accompaniment. It seemed so strong, so warm and capable of imparting a lasting emotional resonance that lived and breathed without the lyric. I also marvelled at the way a melody as played on strings could not only deliver a beautiful tune but simultaneously a powerful rhythmic thrust. Of course the string section of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ is a simple one but it illustrated for me a new force. It opened, as much of The Beatles music did, a door to new perceptions, new possibilities and all born out of a greatly different musical style.
It wasn’t for another five years though, at the age of seventeen and largely influenced by Progressive Rock (Prog Rock) and specifically Fripp’s band King Crimson that I started to investigate, to explore, the world of classical music. The first records I bought, and long before A Clockwork Orange had delivered its caustic commentary on a British society barely able to hide the cracks in its frail veneer, was Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and his Sinfonia Eroica. It was during this time that I learnt that the term ‘Classical Music’ was not a genre like Jazz or Rhythm and Blues but was in fact a period of orchestral music’s history, a period that, coincidentally, not only featured Beethoven but included among others Mozart, Hayden, Schubert and that darling of the Patrick O’Brien novels Luigi Bocherini. The classical period follows Baroque and precedes the Romantic period falling approximately between the years seventeen fifty to eighteen twenty five.
Beethoven could claim that he was instrumental in leading music out of the classic and into the Romantic era, a claim that many music aficionados would echo but even if this claim was refuted Beethoven would still stand tall alongside his classical contemporaries. Perhaps Ludwig Van Beethoven isn’t that period’s only genius but genius he was and, as his music still plays on now interpreted in a multitude of exciting, thrilling ways, genius he remains.
Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany in seventeen seventy, the son of Johann van Beethoven and Maria Magdalena Keverich. The birth date is pretty much a guesstimate as there remain doubts as to whether Beethoven’s father pushed the date back by possibly two years so as to make it seem that Beethoven was a child prodigy.
His father was an obscure court musician and tenor singer, a brute who was said to have dragged the young Beethoven from his bed to beat music lessons into his head. There are tales of Ludwig being made to perform on the violin in front of his father’s drunken friends. The violence of his father did not deter young Beethoven; indeed it seemed to spur him on.
I cannot help but wonder, especially when I listen to much of Beethoven’s music which seems so fuelled by testosterone, if this was not, in many instances, him exerting his own Alpha maleness onto the music; his response to his father’s bullying as if to establish in his own mind his individuality but also as an expression of the wounded pride and hurt he surely must have felt at the hands of the man he should have loved and who should have loved him? A sort of assertion, a territorial marking as he composed his own, unique brand of masculinity via the music he created to express a degree of the rage he must have felt.
Beethoven’s music pulses with passion. It contains a potency that is primordial and constantly flexing, a muscle that both bruises and caresses; fierce like the love of a Tiger, irrepressible as the tide. His ninth symphony bristles with this arcane energy.
The music speaks of nature, of wild untamed vistas where volcanoes erupt, throwing down molten lava in spumes of incandescent colours; where oceans rise with crashing waves that thunder then rage against the bulwark cliffs as spray spits webs of salt flying hither and thither, waves that rise then fall then rise again in constant motion like fists flailing against a giant’s chest. Dark ominous clouds gather with knitted brows of purple and crimson, imperious and heavy, a fury restrained until the time when all composure fails as the fury releases a tempest of thunder, of rain falling in spearheads. The skies grow livid with brilliant flashes that razor slash the velvet, ebony heavens while a rolling rumble resounds with a threat of forked lightning.
A metronomic rhythm grumbles then fades then returns to grumble again, a growing sound of unstoppable propulsive force; a scherzo that gathers the tempest into a single organic mass; a gathering of clouds in a collective formation that resemble the unrivalled beauty of horses running, their hooves kicking up dust and dirt and a scurry of pebbles that ignite with a confusion of sparks, sparks that fly in random abandon clattering back to the stony hard ground so that a secret theme whispers beneath the commanding charge. A hammer of hooves breaks back in again repeating the same metronome thrust, a salacious, sensual, vertical lunge that penetrates the senses, flooding the soul with its strident lasciviousness.
Then:The skies grow clear as sunlight breaks through. A sultry mist glides over the water as a slight breeze rustles leaves. The calm is a lie, a misconception, a deceit that plays its trick with five cards. On the bank lay two lovers both wet from the recent onslaught, one on her stomach, her head resting on her forearm, her skirt ridden high over her thighs. Her companion removes her blouse that is sodden and torn then commences to stroke her lover’s back. Her fingers glide in supine relief over the tawny flesh of the other tracing delicate patterns; circles, triangles, random shapes across her neck and shoulders. Then, almost as an after-thought the semi-clad girl leans forward to plant kisses where her caresses had been. Slow, warm, moist kisses that attach then peel away, a fluttering of butterfly wings over lustrous flesh. The kisses rise in a line that follows the curve of the spine following its dips and dents until they encounter the neck where the prostrate woman’s hair hangs in bedraggled ringlets. She, with a movement of her hand, lifts her hair away from her back granting her lover access.
Her lover runs her tongue along the camber of her neck, planting more, occasional kisses until she reaches her companion’s ear which she takes between her lips and then gently sucks upon.
The lovers part as dark, ominous clouds gather, knitted brows of the gods; imperious and heavy, a fury restrained until the time when all composure fails and then that fury releases as a storm of thunder with rain falling as spearheads. The rain cascades over boulders, down the cliff face. It falls in torrents onto the tormented sea. Lightning cackles, flashing in splinters then, with shoulders shuddering aside the tides, head lowered a titan rises from bended knees. Poseidon thrusts himself up from the truculent depths, a sparkle of seaweed girdles his waist his three pronged triton hooked with impaled, flapping fish. Then a sudden pause as the sun breaks momentarily through the scudding clouds. A choir of voices chorus the truth to unify the piece into one cohesive whole. Legion upon legion of garishly coloured foot soldiers march on followed by horsemen on steeds ornately dressed in silks and leather. Finally a cavalcade of chariots drawn by plumed horses trundle by, their wheels spin, and orange flames fly. The choral melody coalesce into a single focus and it is at this point that Beethoven’s constant desire to present nature’s conflicts while he consorts with his own sublime sense of sensuality, which creates its own incredible dynamic, finally brings a conclusion along with an answer to this piece. We are one; one species, one brotherhood; no matter our race, our skin colour, be it black or white, no matter what our faith, be it Christian or Muslim, Hindu or Jew, no matter our politics, we are all as one, one kind, human kind. We are the art Beethoven speaks of with all our heroic endeavours, with all our grandiose designs. Beethoven takes us to the cliff edge to show to us all our infinite possibilities, he reveals to us the heart of humankind, all noble aspirations.
Of course the ninth symphony is the one most people, most critics praise and although Beethoven first sketched the piece in eighteen fifteen it did not receive its first public performance until eighteen twenty four, three years prior to Beethoven’s death. It is not his only masterpiece even if it was his final masterpiece. There is also the fifth;
Not forgetting the Third. Then there are his piano concertos, his famed Moonlight Sonata, his string quartets, his lyrical piano trios and there are still those other symphonies to consider, not to mention the late piano sonatas.
The Moonlight Sonata or Sonate No. 14 cis-moll op. 27. No.2. Mondschein-Sonate in C sharp minor to give it its full title is indeed a thing of unreserved beauty. I particularly like the first movement, Adagio sostenuto – attaca: I love its lyricism and its refined emotional quality.

Moonlight Sonata

The letters lay one read, the other unwritten
As the fire crackles and spits.
Rain falls against the window in whispers of grey.
While the day folds feckless and slothful as the wind,
Restless with an anxious chill,
Brushes the heads of flowers with unrequited promises.
Constantly pouring the vapour
Down onto the bent heads of forlorn foxgloves
That tremble like priests,
Their wistful hearts fearful of the sky.
Fragile leaves tumble beneath the weight of water
In bitter irony mimicked by the flames
That crush coal to ash as it crumbles
In the tar black, charred black grate.
A cadence of anxiety fails to match
The repetitive strains of raindrops on glass;
Of smoke rising up the blighted chimney;
Of the ceaseless clocks monotonous clicks.
He runs his fingers over the framed pane,
Tracing the tiny rivulets that run their
Suicidal course to the window ledges
Edged restraint.
Even the brow beaten sun seems lacklustre
As it hides behind the grim lace
Of heathen clouds that steel the horizon
And steal the heart of hope
Along with the hand written missive
With its plain, barren counterpart.
His expectations dashed, his heart fails his mind,
Still he cannot collect the words needed for reply.
And then a soft knock
Of hand on solid wood.
Timid as mouse but still
An intimate sound that resounds,
Reverberates and resonates
Beyond the rooms boundaries,
Beyond the skylines limitations.
It is her, the author of the letters,
It is her with warm tears and apologies

Beethoven’s precise birth date remains a mystery although we do know that his family and his teacher, Johann Albrechtsberger, all celebrated it as 16th December. Beethoven was one of seven children but sadly only three survived: Ludwig, the second born child and two younger siblings, Caspar Anton Carl (8th April seventeen seventy four) and Nikolaus Johann (2nd October seventeen seventy six).
As already mentioned, Beethoven’s first teacher was his father whose harsh disciplines would have turned most children off the subject of music all together. There were other teachers too, many of them either court musicians like Johann van Beethoven. Gilles van den Eeden taught the young Beethoven the organ, Tobias Friedrich Pfeiffer who taught the piano and also a family member, Franz Rovatini who taught the violin and viola.
By the age of seven Ludwig had advanced to such a degree that he was able to perform in public, an act he never truly felt comfortable with. Beethoven’s father tried to emulate the success of Mozart by promoting the young Beethoven as a child prodigy even going so far as the have his age printed as six on posters even though he was seven, such stupidity, such falsehoods and not a million miles away from all the shenanigans of modern day media manipulation, not a million miles away in fact from the X-Factor.
In seventeen seventy nine Beethoven went to study under Christian Gottlob Neefe in Bonn where the young man learnt composition. He excelled at his craft and even managed to publish his first set of keyboard variations in seventeen eighty three. The same year, at age thirteen, the young Beethoven published the first of his three piano sonatas. Largely influenced by Mozart, with touches of Haydn, they still had a certain quality, an individuality that was pure Beethoven. As with so much music of this period the times are nailed by the music created; so much so that you feel that you can see the ballroom-gowned ladies as they sweep the floor with their elegant poses, see the gentleman in their perfumed wigs as they parade and posture, all captured neatly by Haydn and Mozart but a child had now arrived who would, as a man, lead music from the classical period into the romantic.
There is considerable rumour and speculation surrounding Beethoven’s visit to Vienna in seventeen eighty seven. Some believe that he met with Mozart in the hopes of studying with the great man while others merely suggest a meeting between a young hopeful and a grand master. The likelihood is that they never met at all. It was around this time that Beethoven’s mother died and his father’s alcoholism grew worse leaving the teenager responsible for his siblings, their home and their well being.
Whether Beethoven met with Mozart or not is a thing of conjecture. He did study under Haydn though. In seventeen ninety two, having spent the previous five years in Bonn caring for his brothers, Beethoven took out a court order that legally had his ailing father’s salary go toward the upkeep of his family. During this time, which must have put him under enormous pressure, Beethoven showed considerable fortitude and resilience. To be so astute and to show such maturity at such a young, impressionable age is nothing short of remarkable.
Having met Haydn in Bonn in seventeen ninety when the world renowned composer was traveling to London, Beethoven finally moved to Vienna in seventeen ninety two to study with this revered man but, and so typical of Beethoven, the young genius found the old master to be of no use whatsoever, preferring to learn counterpoint from Johann Albrechtsberger with further help from Antonio Salieri and violin lessons from Ignaz Schuppanzigh.

Beethoven is now thought of as one of the world’s finest composers, a fact that few would deny or argue with but it was originally his skills as a pianist, as an improviser and virtuoso, which caught the public’s attention. Throughout seventeen ninety three and four Beethoven composed but kept all his work away from the publishers. Perhaps he feared their rejection although I think it more likely he wanted to refine his craft until it was fit, by his exacting standards anyway, to be seen before being heard. It was heard though and a good year before being published.

1. Opus 1 No. 1 - Piano Trio No. 1 in E-flat major
2. Opus 1 No. 2 - Piano Trio No. 2 in G major
3. Opus 1 No. 3 - Piano Trio No. 3 in C minor

It was still a music held in thrall to Mozart but with an undeniable flavour that was all Beethoven. Already there was a clear indication of individuality and even of someone who had the potential to make some serious changes to the music of the era.
Here there was power with unrivalled passion. Where previously there had been an acknowledgment to his predecessors now there was a clearly identifiable individuality, a clearly defined focus which presented his music in all its elemental force. Melodies flow as if on feet of quicksilver, energy sparks like tinder. Piano, violin and cello form a sinuous eruption of sound that intertwines, separates, forms new un-spun worlds before reforming, returning to gather again. Utterly breathtaking and captivating it is the music for the chamber but of such intensity that it transports you to places few have seen or heard before and takes you away and out of whatever environment you are in to firmly place you in a world of Beethoven’s making. And yet, having said that, it is not an alien landscape but a familiar one; one that you can identify with even if you have never been here before as it speaks of dark, hidden mysteries, long repressed memories and emotions. Beethoven is showing us, with all his subtleties and craft, the one defining indescribable unknown thing that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom, the one thing that unties us with all things but allows us to appreciate and perceive life as only humans can, Beethoven is showing us the secrets of our soul, our collective soul, laid open and as one with all creation. It is a staggering accomplishment but it was only the start.
From seventeen ninety three onwards, Beethoven’s reputation grew. His work started being published. His fame spread and as it did Beethoven composed more and more while also giving performances to his growing backlog of work. By seventeen ninety six Beethoven began a tour of Europe accompanied by Prince Lichnowsky who had previously accompanied Mozart. The tour was a great success earning the composer a great deal of money.
It was from seventeen ninety eight until eighteen hundred and two that Beethoven’s art came of age. It was during this period that he composed what many consider to be the peak of composition, the string quartet and the symphony. By this time of course Beethoven’s hearing was deteriorating. The decline in hearing had begun in seventeen seventy six and grew rapidly more acute as the years progressed but still he composed, driven one supposes by all the passions that lay within him. Apparently his hearing loss was or may have been a severe form of tinnitus. If it was it did not prevent him from composing even when his deafness grew profound. He composed the glorious ninth when he was stone deaf and after eighteen eleven never performed in public again. Beethoven died on 26th March eighteen twenty seven.

It is where Beethoven’s muscle melds with his gentle spirit, where his testosterone meets with a level of estrogen, where his male might bends to wrap itself around his feminine sky that brings Beethoven to me in glory and power and pure, unswerving excellence. It is where heaven meets with the stars, where the Earth greets the moon as both revolve around the sun. For Beethoven is power but he is also a delicious counterpoint all of his own. He is the season changing from winter to spring that moves so slowly into summer which burns with fierce delight before merging into autumn winds that blow and blast.

“There are and there will be thousands of princes. There is only one Beethoven”
Taken from a letter written by Beethoven to Prince Lichnowsky circa 1809

Beethoven moves me, makes me think, galvanises my spirits so that they rise and fall in time with his flourishes. His heart leaps out at you grabbing your emotions by the scruff of the neck only to stir them with his own. There is a divine intelligence at work here too, one that uses melodies and subtle rhythms in sublime counterpoint. Had Mozart lived beyond his allotted time, perhaps he would have led music out of the classical and into the romantic period; perhaps he would have given music the opportunity to allow the expression of human emotion in the way that Beethoven did; perhaps he could have taken music by the hand where it was firmly planted hiding behind the lace and frills of polite society like an Englishman who maintains his reserve but Mozart didn’t, genius though he was, Beethoven did.
My son and I had a discussion recently. It concerned the merits of King John of England when compared to Beethoven. Not so much the merits but rather whose name is better renowned on a global scale? My son suggested that King John’s name should be remembered as the man responsible for producing the Magna Carta, the first and possibly most influential document on the road to democracy. The Magna Carta is without a shadow of a doubt a vital and pivotal manuscript and features large in humankind’s history but that doesn’t mean King John, the man behind the document, is equally well remembered. I tend to think that if people do recall him it is as Richard the Lion Heart’s bad brother. He wasn’t bad by the way but myths remain long after history has fled. I feel confident that should you go to Asia or South America it is more likely that they would have heard of Beethoven but not King John.
His music not only straddled two great musical epochs whilst defining one, it also gave birth to a variety of other musical forms through Beethoven’s ability to influence so many that followed. It is an emotional force, one that resonates beyond its creator’s era and into the present. It is a music that is of the past and of the present and also of the future. His name will last as long as man lasts and as long as man listens to music there will always be a Beethoven.

all words and art are copyright © of C.J. Duffy.

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