My Beethoven: the spirit of hope

Guest post by Dr Mark Berry

On 6 October 1802, Beethoven penned one of the most deeply moving letters in the history of music. He never sent it to his brothers Carl and Johann, the intended recipients, nor to anyone else. It was discovered only after his death, in March 1827, and is now known to the world as his ‘Heiligenstadt Testament’, after the town in which it was written, now the nineteenth district of Vienna and home to more than one noted Heuriger. Beethoven’s despair, even to the point of suicide, concerning his ‘hopeless case’ of deafness stands in sharp contrast to the spirit of hope so many of us find in his music, to the hope his Leonore/Fidelio bids come in her heart-stopping aria. ‘I was compelled early on to isolate myself, to live in loneliness… how could I possibly admit such an infirmity in the one sense which should have been more perfect in me in than others’. That Beethoven grew deaf to the world was a personal, if not from the selfish standpoint of posterity, an artistic tragedy.

2020 was to have been Beethoven’s year: 250 years, a quarter of a millennium, since a birth—of unknown date—that transformed the history of Western music like no other. And so it began: in February, I visited his birthplace of Bonn for the first time and heard chamber music in the hall now built to adjoin the house in which Beethoven was born. Lockdown undeniably hit hard. Then came deafness, this time of the world to Beethoven. In April alone, I was due to hear Daniel Barenboim conduct the Staatskapelle Berlin in all nine symphonies, followed by Fidelio from Kirill Petrenko and the Berlin Philharmonic. For many who find solace, inspiration, and necessary struggle in the communion of art and its public performance, 2020 has been a year bleaker than we could have imagined. A recording, however valued, remains a substitute, a compromise: it is the only way we shall hear Wilhelm Furtwängler, but now how we need to hear Barenboim.

And yet, the world’s will to deafness had manifested itself earlier: especially among US liberals who, with typical imperialism, presumed to impose their particular, local concerns on the rest of the world. By 2018 at the latest, one group were falling over themselves to impress on everyone else, at least on Twitter, quite how much they wished not to hear a note of Beethoven’s music this year. (As if we cared!) They might actually have deigned to struggle, as Beethoven would have done, for the causes, many worthy, they claimed to pursue. Instead, in their disingenuous faux-struggle against racism and misogyny—less, be it noted, class struggle—firing off a few anti-Beethoven tweets ensured a volley of mutual congratulation loud enough to drown out the Ivesian cacophony of several simultaneous performances of the Ninth Symphony and Missa solemnis. Anything, of course, to avoid confrontation with the compromises and contradictions of liberalism.

Such narcissistic emoting is not Romanticism; it is barely postmodernism, even in its most debased, late-capitalist sense. If only such people would look to Beethoven or to anyone other than themselves, they might learn to structure and thereby more convincingly express their thoughts and feelings. However, listening, performing, studying, thinking, and even feeling are hard work in any emphatic sense (how old-fashioned!) Why not instead adopt a levelling, free-market-led cynicism, and bask in the oven-ready plaudits?  Enough, however, of that. In a sense, they have had their way. Much, if not quite all, public performance of Beethoven has been silenced. If they feel that has been a good thing, so be it. If ‘their’ Beethoven is nothing more than an accident in consumer ranking, let them have it. Perhaps one day they will listen again and realise there was more to it than that; if not, our Beethoven(s) will remain. Who or what is mine?

My Beethoven has always been there. He has not, of course, always been there, yet it feels that way. I was certainly not playing the piano sonatas as a small child. An early memory, however, of early piano lessons is a poster on my teacher’s wall, displaying ‘The Three Bs: Bach, Beethoven, Brahms’, combined with a piece on the same subject—I remember it involved hammering on Bs in different keyboard registers—in one volume of the John W. Schaum piano course through which I was making my way. Beethoven’s music probably appealed most strongly to me. Bach unquestionably came later, not least as a consequence of having taken up the organ. Brahms I probably associated more with that lullaby than anything else. His is not really music for children, or at least was not music really for this child. Beethoven, however, was exciting, dramatic, Romantic: his biography as well as his music, for who could not respond to the tragedy of his deafness? I even wrote a little story about it for my piano teacher, to go in a display of written work accompanying an end-of-year concert. By then, I had played some of the sonatinas and bagatelles—little did I know quite what musical riches lay within the latter—and a simplified version or two of Für Elise. This, I knew, and not only because people told me so, was ‘real music’.

When, in my teens, the blinding aural light hit me and I realised just how much, both as pianist and listener, music mattered to me, it was perhaps above all via Mozart, but Beethoven more or less stood alongside that music, even offered a necessary contrast. Whatever oppositions I might draw between them could and should readily be deconstructed, but perhaps they offer some insight into my Beethoven, if not necessarily yours. Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, I have found myself especially interested this year—whether at home or, at the beginning and, very occasionally since—in what the two composers have in common, in how much Mozart is there not only in ‘early Beethoven’, its challenges and riches still now underestimated, but right up until the end.

However, it is the particular subjectivity of ‘middle-period’ Beethoven—again, a construct to be deconstructed, yet not here—that captures the essence for so many and did for this teenager. Even the holy ground of the late music can seem, not without reason, to be defined in relation to the heroism of the Eroica, the Fifth, the Waldstein, the Razumovsky Quartets, and so on. If this is the Beethoven of which people have tired—it would often seem to be—then perhaps they have tired not only of life, but of the human impulse to create, to nurture, to survive. By all means listen to other music; by all means avoid the deadliness of mediocre performance. Such mediocrity, more of spirit than of execution, is not Beethoven’s fault, however. Its baleful presence does not diminish the human spirit’s need for that archetypal journey from darkness to light, for the portals of heaven to open at the close of the transition from C minor scherzo to C major finale. Listen to Furtwängler (or Barenboim): all will again be revealed.

Should it not be, for whatever reason, then struggle with something else, for struggle is the thing. Take the Mass in D major, op.125: the Missa solemnis. Take to heart Beethoven’s unique formulation, inscribed above the ‘Kyrie’, ‘From the heart – may it return to the heart!’? The thunderbolt of the ‘Gloria’ sounds like nothing we have heard before; we fancy that we hear not a description of the heavenly throng itself singing the Almighty’s praises, but that singing itself. Hints of Mozartian Harmoniemusik are gratefully received, though we are never in doubt that such paradise has been lost forever. Most personal of all is the imploring ‘Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris, miserere nobis’. Beethoven kneels—at the name of the one person (Person) before whom or which Beethoven would ever kneel.

Nowhere, however, is Beethoven’s struggle with belief more manifest than in, appropriately enough, his setting of the Creed; here he speaks to and for humanity in a plight recognisably of our time as well as his. Credo quia absurdum (a perennial misquotation of Tertullian)? The plainchant and Renaissance polyphony in which Beethoven had immersed himself come to resound as if through history, if not eternity. Echoes of what we now call ‘early music’ resound on profession of the mystery of the Incarnation, human soloists and flautist differentiating the Holy Trinity’s Second and First Person. One feels, as in a Bach Passion, the unbearable agony of Gethsemane and Golgotha upon the word of suffering, Here, more so than in the oratorio Christus am Ölberge, is Beethoven’s Passion. ‘Passus’: it is compassion expressed for, as much as through, Christ: Christ as man, evoking the humanism of Fidelio. And yet, at the same time passion and compassion extend beyond earthbound confines, pointing to Kant’s ‘starry heavens above’, as noted in an 1820 conversation book. Beethoven’s notoriously difficult vocal writing compels us to ask: does he, do we, believe? Uphill struggle, almost a literal expression of ‘ascendit’ and yet so much more than that, is valiantly, vigorously worked until finally we may return to ‘Credo’: in this case, belief in the Holy Ghost, yet more belief as such. As Mahler would later have it, ‘O glaube, mein Herz, o glaube!’

We travel through the devotion of the most intensely personal devotion of ‘Sanctus’ I know, a purely instrumental evocation of the Elevation of the Host; the descent of the Holy Ghost in the guise of solo violin, a masterstroke that in lesser hands might have sounded sentimental, yet here instantiates sublimity itself; the ‘Benedictus’ section, which, for Theodor Adorno, touchingly called to mind ‘the custom attributed to late mediaeval artists, who included their own image,’ in this case related to a theme in the E-flat major String Quartet, op.127, ‘somewhere on their tabernacle so that they would not be forgotten’; to the ‘Agnus Dei’, in darkest, most despairing dark B minor, permitting eventual, hard-won return to the work’s home key of D, its relative major. What could be more Beethovenian? The sounds of war, trumpets and drums ablaze, heard before in Haydn’s Missa in tempore belli, yet here let loose with modernistic fury, terrifyingly recall for Beethoven the recent experiences of Revolutionary and Napoleonic Europe and look forward to the terror of our own unstable world, interior and exterior. Beethoven takes us to the abyss. His Mass alienates itself in its fervent attempt to wrest reconciliation from the jaws of despair. And yet, that aura cannot entirely be disrupted, nor should it be.

A lesson, then, for this of all years, in its refusal to yield: as much, if not more so, to trite ‘solutions’ as to despair. In the modern world, our world, contradiction exists, whether we like it or not. We must struggle, even if we know not how. Or, in words, inscribed on a Toledo monastery wall, from which kindred spirit Luigi Nono derived such inspiration for his late music: ‘Caminantes, no hay caminos, hay que caminar’ (‘Travellers, there are no roads, there is just travelling’). Like those words and Beethoven’s—whether above the Mass’s ‘Kyrie’ or in his Testament—Beethoven’s music can seem essentially always to have been there. Nowadays, some find that a problem; to an extent, I think I can understand why. That, however, does not mean that I agree, far from it. Rejection is as wrong-headed as it would be for Shakespeare or Michelangelo; so long, that is, as we do not take them for granted.

Yes, let us pay more attention to Beethoven’s contemporaries. Schubert and Rossini can manage perfectly well without, but there is a good deal of music here more or less ignored, some unjustly neglected. My hot tip here is Anton Eberl, whose scores I have recently begun to explore. This music is, by any reasonable standards, the real thing; if Beethoven’s standards are unreasonable, we can afford to suspend them from time to time. We do not always want to listen to the Missa solemnis. Eberl’s E-flat Symphony was premiered at the same concert as Beethoven’s (the Eroica). We can all smile knowingly at contemporary criticism that lauded Eberl’s work while remaining sceptical of Beethoven’s. There is nevertheless music here worth performing in many genres—not least Eberl’s piano concertos. Let us also pay more attention to Beethoven’s predecessors, to his successors, to those who have struggled to escape his shadow, to those who have little or no connection with him at all—perhaps above all to the final group. We do Beethoven no dishonour by that, quite the contrary. Let us not presume, though, that it is for us in seldom acknowledge privilege to bar others from riches we have discovered or disdained. If ‘elitism’ is anything, it is that.

The tragedy of Beethoven’s deafness continues to be repeated, yet never literally, no more so than in any ‘recapitulation’ worthy of the name. Beethoven found his way forward from despair; we must find ours. His music may help us; it may not. Sooner or later, however, we may find that we need it: not only for our sake, but for that of something beyond us: for the music’s own sake, for humanity’s, even for the sake of that which, if like Beethoven, we continue to struggle, we may dare still to call God. Perhaps He will thereby dare once again to call us humans. ‘From the heart – may it return to the heart!’

Mark Berry read History at the University of Cambridge, continuing there to study for an MPhil and PhD, before being elected in 2001 as a Fellow of Peterhouse, where he remained until 2009, upon his appointment as Lecturer in Music at Royal Holloway. He has lectured on subjects ranging from political culture at Louis XIV’s Versailles to European Marxism and music after 1945. His research has tended to draw upon his interests in both History and Music, as well as upon other disciplines, such as Philosophy, Theology, Art and Architectural History, Theatre Studies, and Literature.

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