I’m not sure entirely why, but Radio 3 has felt like a quiet source of comfort these past few months. True, it can serve as a refreshing alternative to Radio 4’s worst Woke excesses, but there’s more to it than that. Maybe it’s the fact its playlist reminds the listener that the world has been robbed of a paddle during past voyages up Shit Creek and has still emerged laden with cultural riches; the human spirit has that wondrous capacity in it and will often show itself when days are at their darkest. For example, some of Beethoven’s most passionately defiant odes to mankind’s resilience were penned as Europe was being torn apart by the Napoleonic Wars, when Ludwig van himself sheltered in the basement of his Vienna home as the city was being bombarded by Bonaparte’s cannons. Against pretty stressful odds, Beethoven’s music has faith in humanity threaded through every note.
It’s due to Radio 3 that I’ve been reminded that this colossus of a composer was born 250 years ago this year; and though he may have only been 56 when he passed away, he probably died with no memory of a life when he wasn’t earning a living as a musician. He started very young. Blame Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a sensational prodigy in the 1760s whose musical and compositional skills from around five onwards trademarked the blueprint. Mozart’s example certainly served as the manual for Johann van Beethoven, a man we would recognise today as the worst kind of showbiz parent, vicariously living out his thwarted ambitions through his son Ludwig.
A musician who had failed to live up to the standards of his own father, Ludwig’s old man divided his attention between the bottle and his boy; the first-born son exhibited a Mozart-like genius from an early age and Beethoven Senior recognised here was his potential meal-ticket, drilling Ludwig through intensive practising he was convinced would eventually bring rewards. It was just as well Ludwig possessed the talent, for he was under pressure to conform to his father’s convictions for the duration of his childhood. What little childhood Ludwig could call his own effectively ended with the death of his mother when he was 16; already an earner, he then became the family breadwinner and surrogate father to his two younger brothers in the absence of the real thing.
Beethoven was born in Bonn, then a principality of the Holy Roman Empire; although there were enough outlets for a gifted young musician, it was still a tad ‘provincial’. This became apparent to Beethoven when the famous Viennese Court composer Joseph Haydn spotted his talent upon passing through Bonn and invited Ludwig to Vienna to study his craft; the contrast between Bonn and the grandiose epicentre of the Empire was not unlike the difference encountered by The Beatles when they relocated from Liverpool to London. In the late 18th century, Vienna was where it was at, Europe’s capital of culture; music was the lifeblood of the city, with daily concerts staged in Vienna’s abundant palaces and the chic salons of a young, hedonistic aristocracy eager to act as patrons to any musician who could string a decent tune together. Beethoven arrived in Vienna aged 21, a year on from the death of Mozart. One might almost say there was a readymade gap in the market, and the new kid in town was more than willing to fill it.
However, Beethoven took his time building his reputation; like Liszt a generation later, he initially made his name as a virtuoso pianist and developed slowly as a composer, passing through the accepted stages of variations, piano concertos and string quartets whilst Europe itself was destabilised by the aftermath of the French Revolution. His hometown of Bonn fell to French forces two years into his Viennese residency, but Beethoven had his own pressing issues to deal with. Persistent romantic disappointments added to the despair fuelled by the gradual loss of his hearing, which began to affect him when he was barely thirty and had yet to compose his most celebrated works. It served to curtail his career as a performer and forced him to focus solely on composition. When advised to take time out from Vienna at a retreat in a small town called Heiligenstadt, Beethoven’s perilous mental condition was laid bare in a letter intended for his brothers known as the Heiligenstadt Testament, viewed by some as a de facto suicide note. In the end, it was never posted and Ludwig didn’t do the deed. He returned to Vienna and entered what musicologists refer to as his ‘heroic’ period.
Beethoven’s spell in the wilderness undoubtedly benefitted his art, marking a radical change in style that propelled music from the Classical to the Romantic; one of the first products of this fruitful period for Beethoven was his Third Symphony, more commonly known as the Eroica. Legend has it Ludwig originally dedicated the symphony to Napoleon; even though Beethoven was financially dependent on stipends from aristocratic patrons, to artists of his generation Bonaparte was initially regarded as a hero, a self-made man who had upset the preordained order of hereditary privilege. When news reached Beethoven that Napoleon had crowned himself Emperor, the composer felt so let down that he scrawled out the Corsican’s name from the manuscript. Nevertheless, the radical nature of Beethoven’s revitalised music seemed to mirror the drama of the tumultuous times he was living through; his increasing deafness and the isolation from polite society it led to seemed to have given him unique access to his inner demons that he managed to manifest as musical innovation.
Hearing one of those early symphonies premiered in surroundings far smaller than today’s venues must have been akin to being on the front row of a Led Zeppelin gig in the early 70s. The strings were turned up to eleven. Once Beethoven came to terms with his deteriorating hearing, he looked deep into himself and found something there that blew the gentility of the orchestral music that preceded him out of the water. This music was loud, intense, wild, unrestrained, dissonant and dramatic, quite unlike anything anyone had ever heard before. It perfectly matched the popular image of the composer in the portraits of the period, wearing the intense scowl of the dedicated artist whose mess of a private life was secondary to his art. His revolutionary symphonies were characteristic of the way in which every musical form he touched was taken onto the next level of its development in the process; during his middle period, he seemed to break new ground in the way that great artists in their prime always do.
It’s easy to perceive Beethoven in his most creatively fearless period as a force of nature, a tempest in human form, just as it is to hear the torment of early 19th century Europe in the Fifth and Seventh Symphonies; but as much as it invariably soundtracks the chaos of the era in which it was composed, his music transcends time and place because it was always looking forward with a restless yearning for something superior to the here and now. The music of Beethoven’s later years entered a phase of painfully beautiful maturity as his estrangement from the world around him intensified. Yet this detachment from the earthbound enabled him to reach to the heavens and look at mankind with a benevolent eye that is best represented by his final symphonic masterpiece, what Alex in ‘A Clockwork Orange’ called the Glorious Ninth. Triumphant without triumphalism, the Ninth not only broke further new ground by incorporating a choral section, but it demonstrated how someone incapable of communicating with his fellow man in a social situation could speak to him in ways that continue to resonate every time this troubled planet enters yet another troubled phase.
A small bust of the great man sits on my mantelpiece as a reminder that, whatever shit the world hurls in our collective direction, we can always rise above it as long as genius walks among us. While ever Ludwig van is there, genius always will.
© The Editor