Knowing Beethoven

Classic Arts Features   Knowing Beethoven
What do we know about Ludwig van Beethoven? As a number of orchestras prepare to offer all-Beethoven programs to start the year, Eddie Silva explores some of the factoids you may or may not know about the Great Ludwig Van.


He had wild hair and a brooding countenance. We never see an image of him smiling, but of course he smiled. He enjoyed sharing amusing, sometimes bawdy, tales with his closest associates.

He loved long walks in the woods, and the pastoral landscape gave him inspiration. He lived: he in part defined: a Romantic era that found God in Nature.

Yet we know that he was a cosmopolitan, a Viennese artist who moved 39 times during his life in the city of music. When he came to Vienna it was already one of the cultural centers of Europe. He made it even more so.

We know that when Beethoven was a young man he studied with Franz Joseph Haydn, "Papa" Haydn. As a composer, Haydn took the symphony places it had never been before. Beethoven took it much further. There is little that is distinguished about Beethoven's first symphonies: only in hindsight do we hear the imagination roiling.

His teachers thought him stubborn, unruly. Beethoven would only acknowledge their influences grudgingly. He was rebellious toward Haydn. "Papa" recognized his pupil's radical inclinations, thought him impertinent. But as Beethoven gained success and distanced himself from his greatest mentor, Haydn missed him.

We know that with the Third Symphony, the "Eroica," doors opened, walls dissolved where no one knew walls had existed before. A new world was discovered, new territories to explore. SLSO Music Director David Robertson has said, "Beethoven changed the world of music with just two chords." It is a moment of artistic audacity comparable to Picasso painting Les Demoiselles d'Avignon or young Brando howling "Stella!" in a T-shirt. Beethoven cracked the cosmos.

We know that he first dedicated the Symphony No. 3 to Napoleon, then after growing disgusted with the Emperor tyrant, he changed the dedication to "composed to celebrate the memory of a great man." It is not hard to fathom that the great man, the truly heroic man, is the composer himself.

We know he was a pianist, and as a composer/pianist performing his own works, most musicians and conductors would have preferred another artist at the keyboard. Beethoven could be demanding, unyielding, insufferable.

We know that in the middle of his life he began to grow deaf. He feared that if his critics knew of his infirmity he would be mocked. How could a composer say in public, "Speak louder. I can't hear you."? He withdrew from society. We know that the realization of his hearing loss would plague his psyche and draw him down into some of the darkest days of his life. We know that he rose up from that darkness with outrageous courage.

Beethoven was mostly unkempt. Even when he was a boy, after being rebuked for being dirty, his retort was that it made no difference, because when he was a great man no one would care.

Beethoven was short, with a large head, bushy eyebrows and thick, bristly coal-black hair. He was powerfully built with broad shoulders and strong hands. He was awkward, clumsy. He often spilled things.

We know that late in Beethoven's life he showed signs of neurotic disorder: sudden rages, feelings of persecution, paranoia. He looked and acted like a wildman in the streets of Vienna. He began to drink heavily.

After the death of his brother, Beethoven fought for the custody of his nephew. His experience as a guardian was disastrous, with the boy attempting suicide as a desperate plea to be reunited with his mother. It is the most unseemly episode of Beethoven's life.

We know that Beethoven never married. There is much conjecture about an "Immortal Beloved." Like most men of his day he frequented prostitutes. Biographer Maynard Solomon suggests sexual liaisons with some of his friends' wives: at his friends' invitation. Yet with all that, we assume a deep loneliness. We hear it in the music. We hear idyllic dreams that Beethoven could only have achieved in his music.

We know that in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's original scores, written in his own hand, there are few emendations, and what has been changed is written with a graceful, swift, sure hand. In Beethoven's scores there are storms of ink, measures of music violently crossed out: signs of Beethoven's emotional nature, his rage, his self-disgust and scorn. He attacks his missteps so feverishly the paper is nearly torn.

We know many legends about Beethoven. One is that at the finale to the premiere performance of the Symphony No. 9, the "Ode to Joy," the near-deaf Beethoven was still gesturing with his baton, still conducting, although the piece was finished. He had to be turned toward the auditorium to witness the cheering throng.

Beethoven's music resisted the Viennese pleasure principles of art appreciation. He introduced aggression, disintegration, tragedy, terror, anxiety into popular art.

We know he lived in the age of great Enlightenment minds such as Jefferson, Rousseau, and his countryman Immanuel Kant. Although Beethoven did not possess a philosophical mind, nonetheless he wrote in his journal a version of a Kantian maxim: "The moral law in us, and the starry sky above us."


The SLSO's two-week Beethoven Festival begins this month with David Robertson conducting on all programs. Featured on the Festival's opening weekend is Symphony No. 5 and Christian Tetzlaff performing the Violin Concerto, January 29-30. The Festival continues with Robertson conducting Symphony No. 3, "Eroica," and Radu Lupa performing two concertos: Piano Concerto No. 3 on February 5 and 7, and Piano Concerto No. 1 on February 6.

Eddie Silva is the publications manager for the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra and writes the slso blog:

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