Uneven the scores

Through nine of his pieces, Laura Tunbridge traces Beethoven’s genius and our changing musical tastes

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Beethoven’s place in music history is assured, as demonstrated by this year’s extensive celebrations of the 250th anniversary of his birth, even in lockdown. But why does Beethoven deserve such attention? What makes him great? Who gets to judge?

At the start of Beethoven’s career, concerts were mostly of new music by living composers. By its end, there was a greater interest in music from the past. Beethoven arrived in Vienna from his hometown of Bonn, Germany, aged 21. Mozart had recently died and Haydn was in his sixties. Vienna’s vibrant musical life made it a cultural hub in Europe.

Times were changing, though. As revolution fomented in France, the power of the aristocrats who had supported musicians was beginning to wane. Beethoven took advantage of the old forms of patronage by accepting commissions and teaching piano to the daughters and wives of the nobility, but never held a position at court.

Nine is a nicely Beethovenian number. He began to compose a tenth symphony but it was left incomplete

Instead, he explored new ways of making a living. Music publishing became a good source of income for him. The rise of music criticism also helped to spread his fame, as did the trend for artist biographies that exaggerated his wild hair and eccentricities. Beethoven’s reputation, in other words, was not dependent on his music alone; it also resulted from personal and professional networks. Many of his entrepreneurial efforts, such as selling subscriptions to his music in advance of publication, forecast today’s musicians asking for crowdfunding support.

Beethoven certainly endured emotional hardship, caused by family problems, the isolation of his deafness and prolonged bouts of illness. Yet he also enjoyed company and considerable respect from his contemporaries. The Beethoven that glowers from portraits is only one perspective. In my book I offer some alternative takes on Beethoven’s life, tracing its course through nine pieces, each of which is paired with a theme that shines light on his character and way of working.

Why nine? Simply that it seemed a nicely Beethovenian number. Although he began to compose a tenth symphony it was left incomplete and it is his Ninth Symphony, with its choral Ode to Joy, that looms large in music history. My book is not about the nine symphonies, however. Instead, I wanted to show the range of Beethoven’s music. A relatively small selection of his pieces are played regularly today: the Third, Fifth and Ninth Symphonies, the late string quartets and piano sonatas with poetic titles (Moonlight, Pathétique and Hammerklavier). These were not necessarily pieces that were popular in Beethoven’s lifetime and those that were, along with those that failed, say a great deal about changing tastes and the way we play and listen to music.

Septet  This made Beethoven’s name in Vienna. On 2 April 1800, he gave his first “academy” or benefit concert. While he is now remembered mainly for his orchestral music, it was not the First Symphony or First Piano Concerto that were most popular, but his Septet. Originally composed for clarinet, horn, and bassoon, violin, viola, cello, and double bass, it was arranged for all kinds of different ensembles, from guitar duo to wind band. Beethoven’s music could then be heard in public concert halls and played at home. Such was the Septet’s success, in later years Beethoven complained that people still preferred it to his other works.

Kreutzer Violin Sonata  Although Beethoven eventually dedicated his ninth violin sonata to the famous Parisian virtuoso Rodolphe Kreutzer, it was originally composed for the mixed-race British violinist George Bridgetower (his mother was from central Europe, his father from the West Indies). The two became friends when Bridgetower visited Vienna in 1803. During the early morning premiere, Beethoven leapt up from the piano to congratulate Bridgetower mid-performance. Eventually they fell out, apparently over a woman, and while that might have been why Beethoven did not give the sonata to Bridgetower, it seems most likely that he transferred the dedication to Kreutzer to enhance his reputation in Paris.

Eroica Symphony  France’s allure was political as well as musical. Beethoven was attracted to its Enlightenment thinkers, revolutionary republicans and, at least initially, Napoleon Bonaparte. He considered giving his Third Symphony the title Bonaparte but was disgusted by Napoleon declaring himself Emperor. The symphony’s eventual nickname, Eroica, associated its music – and the composer – with an idea of the heroic. A more personal heroism was also evident in a letter Beethoven wrote, but never sent, in October 1802, shortly before he began work on the Third Symphony. In what is now known as the Heiligenstadt Testament he revealed to his brothers that he was losing his hearing.

Choral Fantasy  On a very cold night in 1808, Beethoven hosted his most ambitious concert. It consisted entirely of his music and included the premieres of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, choral pieces, an operatic aria, his fourth piano concerto, a piano improvisation, and, finally, a Choral Fantasy that brought together all the musicians: vocal soloists, choir, solo piano, and orchestra. The ink was still wet on the music for this last piece at the rehearsal and the Choral Fantasy fell apart in concert: one audience member likened the performance to “a runaway carriage going downhill – an overturn was inevitable”. In this disaster, however, were the seeds of what would become Beethoven’s most famous melody: the Ode to Joy of the Ninth Symphony.

An die Geliebte (To the Beloved)  Since his youth, Beethoven’s friends complained, the composer had always been falling in and out of love. Beethoven’s songs are often overlooked in favour of his younger contemporary, Franz Schubert, but they were an important and lucrative part of his output – making music at home was a popular past-time. Not long after he composed the song An die Geliebte, in 1812, Beethoven wrote a long, rambling love letter to his “Immortal Beloved”. Scholars still argue over who she might have been.

Fidelio  Beethoven’s most successful year, financially, was 1814. Napoleon had been defeated and celebrations began in Vienna. Beethoven’s music featured heavily. His patriotic pieces, such as Wellington’s Victory, were extremely popular. On the back of their success, Beethoven was able to revive his one opera, Fidelio. Fittingly, liberty was at the heart of this tale of a wife who disguises herself as a prison guard to rescue her husband from jail.

Hammerklavier Piano Sonata Beethoven’s brother Kaspar Karl died from tuberculosis in 1815. He had originally agreed to make Beethoven the sole guardian of his only son, Karl, but on his death bed asked for custody to be shared with his widow Johanna. For the next five years, Beethoven and Johanna fought over Karl in the courts. Eventually, Beethoven was made guardian, only for Karl to attempt suicide. The toll of these family struggles was intense. Nevertheless, Beethoven continued to compose, in 1818 exploring the limits of a new Broadwood piano in his sonata known as the Hammerklavier (simply the German term for the pianoforte). Beethoven was also an early adopter of the metronome, to specify the speed or tempo at which a piece should be played. The tempo he suggested for parts of the Hammerklavier seem impossibly fast, adding to the sense that this is difficult – almost inconceivable – music.

Missa Solemnis  Archduke Rudolph was one of Beethoven’s most generous and reliable patrons. Beethoven intended to complete his Solemn Mass in time for the ceremony when Rudolph would be installed as Bishop of Olmütz. In the end he did not complete the score until 1823: three years too late. Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis had become too long and elaborate to be used in church services and only parts of it were performed in Vienna during his lifetime. He wrote relatively little sacred music and, although brought up as a Catholic, had an individualistic approach to spirituality, finding much of interest in Hindu and Buddhist writings.

Grosse Fuge (Great Fugue)  As his hearing deteriorated and he dealt with family matters, Beethoven retreated from society. But a commission from the Russian Prince Galitzin to write string quartets resulted in what are now considered some of his most intimate and profound works. The Grosse Fuge was intended to be the finale of the Quartet op. 130 but the publisher persuaded Beethoven to issue it separately. This huge, complex fugue befuddled its first listeners, who thought it incomprehensible, “like Chinese”. Only in the decades after Beethoven’s death in 1827 did players and audiences begin to get to grips with this music as modern rather than mad.

Beethoven: A Life in Nine Pieces by Laura Tunbridge is published by Viking

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