Guest post by Nick Hely-Hutchinson
The first in a series of guest articles exploring people’s personal responses to or relationship with Beethoven and his music.
Beethoven and me go back a long time. I recall precisely the first occasion I heard his music.
I was taken as a young child to one of the early Charlie Brown films. Along with Linus and Snoopy the dog, Schroeder is Charlie Brown’s closest friend. But the other passion in Schroeder’s life is Beethoven. He is, you might say, nuts about him.
During the film, Schroeder plays the slow movement from the Pathétique sonata, and I went home resolved to learn the piece. (Battling the two outer movements came some years later. This became something of a pattern for me – “Oh, I could play that!”, only to discover that Beethoven rarely composed simple stand-alone works.)
You are going to read a great deal about this complex man during 2020, this being the 250th anniversary of his birth. I am no expert, no musicologist, just an amateur enthusiast, but Ludwig van Beethoven gets my vote as being one of the most influential people ever to grace the planet. The simple truth is that he threw away all the rules, and nothing in music, perhaps even the wider arts, was the same after him.
Readers of my blog, manuscriptnotes.com, will know that Schubert is my favourite composer. But if I had to single out the one composer who had, has, the greatest impact on me in so many ways, it would have to be Beethoven. In the context of classical music, I am minded to replace the word ‘music’ in John Miles’s famous lyric to read ‘”Beethoven was my first love and he will be my last.”
It may sound hokey, but in Beethoven’s music you have everything of what it means to be human. Schulz’s cartoon above says it all. His irascibility, temper, scruffiness, woeful love-life, manifold dwellings, poor personal hygiene are all well known; as is his near thirty-year struggle with deafness, a particularly cruel infliction for a composer. All of these traits and frustrations are writ large in his music: never before has the personality, the humanity, of a composer been so glaringly revealed in his output, whether symphony, concerto, sonata, choral work, or chamber. All his music speaks to us of life itself.
Lest you charge me with spewing out sentimental nonsense, let me try and demonstrate it with a piece of music with which you may not be familiar.
Beethoven wrote sixteen string quartets, a form first used by Haydn, then developed by Mozart. Conveniently, these fall into three periods in his life, early, middle, and late, and it is the slow movement of one of the late ones, no.13, which sums up this humanity more than any other piece I know.
Writing about music is notoriously difficult, and nothing demonstrates that better than this. The 5th movement, the Cavatina, does not have a tune per se that will leave you humming it later. Marked molto espressivo, you may not ‘get’ it at first. I didn’t. But after a few listens you will want to submit to its profound and indescribable beauty, yearning for it to go on when it comes to a sudden halt. At its heart is a searing violin, the music soon enfolds you in this heart-wrenching blanket of tenderness. Half way through, there is a brief ‘choke’, a change of tempo, and it is widely believed that a blotch on the original score is a tear from the eyes of its composer.
Beethoven could only hear these notes in his head – he couldn’t test anything out on a keyboard. Composed less than two years before his death, you can feel the aching sorrow at his condition, but also a sense that after all the bang, crash, wallop we associate with Beethoven, this, more than anything else, (and he wrote some truly gorgeous slow movements) is the purest summation of the man, his music, his life – and, by extension, humanity itself.
If that consigns me to Pseud’s Corner, I go willingly.
Nick Hely-Hutchinson worked in the City of London for nearly 40 years, but his great love has always been classical music. The purpose of his blog, Manuscript Notes, is to introduce classical music in an unintimidating way to people who might not obviously be disposed towards it, following a surprise reaction to an opera by his son, “Hey, dad, this is really good!“. He is married with three adult children and is a regular contributor to The Cross-Eyed Pianist.