And It Is Divine, Volume 2, Issue 8, March 1975
A look at the eccentric personality of a man who changed the world of music.
His name translated would be Louis Beetfield, and at a time when the whole world was changing dramatically after centuries of sleep, he came to shake the inner world of man's emotions. In Britain, millions of people were migrating from the country to new industrial cities; in America and France, whole nations were throwing off the oppressive yoke of the old order; throughout Europe, scientists were making exciting new breakthroughs and discoveries; and in Vienna, an eccentric man who seemed not to belong to this world at all was pouring out some of the most startling musical compositions ever heard.
The recent discovery of electricity was thought to be the secret of life, the life-force itself (it was no coincidence that the novel Frankenstein was written at this time), and Beethoven's music was called 'electric', touching men deep within with a strange force and power. In the course of one momentous decade, 1800-1810, he turned music upside down, breaking out of all previous musical concepts in his efforts to express something more real and vibrant.
He was incredibly successful. Whole audiences would be moved to tears when his new compositions were played for the first time. Only the conventional critics couldn't bring themselves to accept the way this wayward genius was tearing their beloved musical traditions apart. Mozart and Haydn, masters of restraint and precision, wouldn't have written like that, they said. But he was not Haydn or Mozart. They belonged to the previous age. He was Beethoven, the new master for a new time, and scorning his critics, he surged into the new century with a cascade of great works whose reputation remains undiminished to this day. Today people are still moved by the sheer magic of the Moonlight Sonata; they are still spellbound by the compulsion and power of the majestic Fifth Symphony.
But the most striking feature of Beethoven's music was his depth of tonal splendour, the way he mixed instruments, keys and harmonies to produce a richness of sound unequalled before or since. It was a talent for which he was accorded the epithet "the tonal magician". Yet it was an amazing paradox that, from the beginning of his composing career, Beethoven's hearing began to fail, until in the end he was totally deaf.
Although he started his career as possibly the best pianist in Europe, it's not surprising that his playing suffered once deafness hit him. People who heard him reported that his piano was hopelessly out of tune; he would play the forte parts so loudly that the whole instrument vibrated dangerously and the pianissimo pieces so softly that the sound could not be heard. And all the time, lost in his own rapture, Beethoven would sing what he was playing, though his singing seemed to all who heard it to be a discordant cacophony of shouts and howls. The whole scene would sometimes go on for hours without regard for meals or sleep as he became lost in his reverie, occasionally scribbling down some new fragments of harmony that had occurred to him.
It was a similar tale in other aspects of his life. He was continually badly dressed, his eyes always shining wildly, and his black, later silver, hair standing out from his head in a formidable, unruly mass. Needless to say, he was extremely clumsy and forgetful. Once, at the height of his fame, Beethoven was arrested in a small village near Vienna as a tramp. He had gone for a walk along a canal bank without a coat wearing a dirty, torn shirt, and after a few miles became lost. When he started peering through the windows of houses, the police were called. In the cell, he insisted he was Beethoven, but wasn't believed. (One policeman said, "Beethoven is a great man and wouldn't dress or behave as you do.") Finally, the commissioner at Beethoven's insistence - brought the director of a Vienna theatre, who identified him. Then with all apologies, he was released and sent home in the mayor's carriage.
Shortly before he died, Beethoven spent some weeks on a farm in the countryside, mainly to take his nephew away from the decadent temptations of the big city. The villagers and peasants, who knew nothing of the great man's reputation, classed him as a simpleton. He would stalk the surrounding fields and hills from morning till night, sometimes waving his arms wildly above his head (perhaps conducting an imaginary orchestra) and running aimlessly here and there, frightening cattle and causing them to stampede, the whole time howling and shouting.
By musicians, he was regarded as a kind of music guru, enjoying a communication with the spirits of music which was denied to them. When a young musician from London made the pilgrimage to see him, and even-
tually came face to face, he later wrote that he felt filled with such a love and devotion on suddenly seeing the master of his art that he wanted to fall at his feet and feverishly kiss his hands rather than perform the slight bow which was the social requirement of the day.
Beethoven himself had no time for and hardly noticed such adulation, though he was fiercely proud of his music. "Beethoven can do nothing, but at least he can compose," he would exclaim childishly. Childishness, in fact, was an ingrained part of his personality. A writer who met him said, 'Never in my life have I met with such a childlike simplicity, in company with so powerful a personality. He has an inner drive toward all that is fine and good which is far higher than any education." Goethe made the same point: "Never before have I seen an artist with more power of concentration, more energy, more inwardness, but he has no self-control whatsoever!" Beethoven was so naive, in fact, that even when his reputation as the greatest living composer was well established, he could be persuaded by the mad inventor of a huge and clumsy musical box, which worked by bellows connected to a trumpet, to compose a piece of music especially for it, in the hope of making a fortune by sending it and the great composer on a tour of England. Fortunately, though the music was composed, the tour never happened.
After 1812, there was lapse in Beethoven's musical output for ten years. People thought he had lost his touch through old age or had just burned himself out. But the great man wasn't finished. He made a great comeback, producing the brilliant and serious piece, The Solemn Mass, and the all-time "perfect" symphony, the Ninth, inspired by Schiller's great poem, "Ode to Joy". For the first time in a symphony, a choir took part, singing the poem in a rousing last movement to what has become one of the most famous and compelling tunes of all time. The words expressed Beethoven's great sense of humanity and his hopes that one day all mankind would be as one under God's banner:
Let thy magic bring together
All whom earth-born laws divide;
All mankind shall be as brothers
'Neath thy tender wings and wide.
Love to countless millions swelling,
Wafts one kiss to all the world!
Surely, o'er yon stars unfurl'd
Some kind Father has His dwelling!
Fall ye prostrate, O ye millions!
Dost thee thy Maker feel, O world?
Seek Him o'er you stars unfurl'd,
O'er the stars rise His pavilions!
A large crowd packed the theatre for the 1824 performance of the two new works. A decade of maturing reputation throughout Europe had put Beethoven on an unprecedented pedestal. The masterpieces of twenty years before, derided when they were created, were now accepted as the flower of genius. But still there was a feeling that perhaps the old master had lost his touch, especially since his deafness was now an open secret. The deafness had been a constant source of embarrassment and gloom to the composer, who often contemplated suicide because of it. He would try to lip-read at first, pretending there was nothing wrong; but when it became obvious through some mistake that something. was wrong with him, he would run from a room in embarrassment, holding his hands over his ears. Even so, even at this, the end of his career, the public didn't know just how deaf he was. It was felt that surely he must be able to hear something.
The performance was the greatest of successes. The fantastic Ninth showed that Beethoven was greater than ever. While somebody else, in deference to the composer's condition, did the actual conducting, Beethoven himself stood amongst the orchestra, back to the audience, beating the time to all the different movements. At the end of the performance, the audience rose to its feet applauding the masterpiece, but Beethoven, lost in reverie, didn't notice it was finished and continued beating time. Finally the lead soprano turned him round to face the audience. Seeing it was over he just stood, bemused and embarrased, sure he would be laughed at and ridiculed after his mistake. Instead, it was suddenly obvious to all that he had heard not a single note of the music and was, in fact, totally deaf. The result was as if a charge of electricity had shot through the auditorium; the audience started to cheer wildly. An enormous wave of love and sympathy swept up toward the composer. It was a touching end to his career.
For all his strangeness, Beethoven learned something from his life and fame that many people today would do well to think about. Not a man for words, he expressed it in one poignant sentence: "Everything is illusion; friendship, empire, imperial dignity, everything is mist which is dispersed by every breath of wind and shaped anew."
Thus he used his musical genius to convince mankind of a greater truth, and one line in his final work seems to sum up what he was trying to say: "Dost thee thy Maker feel, 0 World?"