Beethoven’s Story – lessons from a jubilee

Today might be the day and let’s assume it is. There are no birth records, just a baptism certificate and an assumption that his birth took place the previous day. Good enough. So today, 250 years since December 16th in 1770, we celebrate Ludwig van Beethoven. What do we actually celebrate? His life? His music? Or perhaps his genius?

Earlier this year I embarked on a project I called “Beethoven’s Story.” In addition to presenting many of my favourite Beethoven works, the aim was to explore this body of work that so touches us we want to come back to it time and again to perform it, listen to it, read about it – to take it in.

“Beethoven’s Story” is a concert series with eight thematically titled programs including a number of his Piano Sonatas and chamber music works. I have both performed and introduced a number of revered colleagues, some of whom Helsinki audiences haven’t had opportunites to hear too often. Each program has been built around an aspect of Beethoven’s life. The series began with a program called “Conqueror of Vienna” and ended with “Testament”. In between were programs including “the Lyric”, “En route towards Romanticism”, and “Retaliation for Enlightenment: the Fugue.” The titles served as starting points, often in very literal ways. Sometimes the path followed in researching the programs revealed aspects which seemed to counter views I had held and ones that are popular assumptions about Beethoven.

What did I learn? Firstly, the “Conqueror of Vienna” referred to the young Beethoven who during the 1790s took Vienna by storm. He did it as much with such works as the Sonata Pathetique, Piano Trios Op. 1, String Quartets Op. 18, and his First Symphony Op. 21 as with his hyperbolic yet still likeable performance personality. But the appellation was also a facade that hid behind it a young man whose world had fallen to pieces at the time he moved to Vienna in 1772. His beloved mother, as well as his father, the abusive Johann van Beethoven, had recently died; his home town and safe haven, the city of Bonn, had been conquered by the French Army. So while we see in the young Beethoven a maverick who fought his way to fame and success, it’s worth recognizing that a driving force may have been a personal world collapsing like a house of cards.

The second program “Undisciplined Apprentice” looked at Beethoven following in the footsteps of his idols, many of them real gurus of composition at the time. Building on an intellectual foundation laid by his Bonn-time teacher Gottlob Neefe along with his studies with Joseph Haydn, Antonio Salieri, and the fabled maestro of counterpoint Johann Albrechtsberger, the stubborn youngster became the composer who would eventually revolutionize both the public (symphonies, concertos) and domestic (sonatas, chamber music) music scenes. We’ve been told about jealousy and even disrespect among Beethoven and his teachers. Such things probably existed, but from his works we can also discern Beethoven’s deep respect for all his mentors. Beethoven may have been quick-tempered and insecure but in his musical work he was a consummate professional who knew a good thing when he saw one.

When I was working on “Beethoven the Virtuoso”, I came across works that reveal aspects of collaborative creative processes. You read correctly, I do mean collaborative compositions. The virtuoso of the French horn, Giovanni Punto, the celebrated Polish-born violinist George Bridgetower, the elegant master of the French violin school Pierre Rode, and others shared their performance techniques and lent their musical personalities to the Beethoven works they premiered. Often these works, like the Horn Sonata Op. 17, the Kreutzer Sonata Op. 47 (which really ought to be called the  “Bridgetower Sonata”), and the Violin Sonata Op. 96 were composed during periods of intense collaboration, or ardent friendships, between Beethoven and these men. They not only display a spirit of camaraderie, but numerous instances of actual passagework echo these instrumentalists’ own compositions in addition to the styles of their instrumental playing.

When preparing “En route towards Romanticism”, I learned that in fact Beethoven seems to have done just the reverse. In some ways his earliest works may also be his most romantic, certainly in the sense of Goethe’s Werther or Schiller’s Don Carlos (which Beethoven knew through Neefe); the very spirit of Sturm und Drang is present in the F-Minor Piano Sonata Op. 2 like never after. Clearly the evolution of Beethoven’s music during the following decades provided much in the way of example to later composers, but his own path was certainly not a one-way route to the future. Rather, he envisioned, imagined, and created sounds and works inspired by what was around him and before him.

The question of whether or not Beethoven’s turn towards complexity in his late works (the flagship of this trend being the Hammerklavier Sonata) represented a “Retaliation for Enlightenment” opens an intriguing line of thought, one that has been pursued by a number of scholars previously. The argument is that musical complexity belonged in the baroque while the enlightenment favored simpler music more easily grasped by laymen. The program consisting of the Hammerklavier Sonata Op. 106, the String Quartet Op. 130 with the Große Fuge as its finale was among the most gratifying combinations I’ve ever had the pleasure to present. Researching the topic, too, was fascinating. It revealed a complicated political and intellectual climate surrounding Beethoven at the time. It also revealed a lengthy creative process.

Beethoven’s late style is a curious hybrid. On one hand, the works are on the scale never heard before and their instrumental challenges even today put performers on a spot. On the other hand, Beethoven drew much from the past. His respect for Händel’s oratorios can be heard in the Ninth Symphony, the intimacy of a music connoisseur’s home is still the ideal space for a String Quartet, and the premises of Beethoven’s pianistic background, his arduous work on Johann Sebastian Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier with Neefe during 1780s, reaps glowing homage in the gigantic fugues of Op. 106 and Op. 130 composed four decades later. Whether or not Beethoven at this point, tired of the post-French Revolution disarray and intellectual tyranny as has been suggested, had given up on Enlightenment ideals altogether cannot be convincingly argued one way or another. And one must also recognize that from this musical complexity emerges Schiller’s “An die Freude” (or “An die Freiheit” as had been the poems earliest form) which, too, Beethoven had known since the 1780s and which emerges from the heart of the enlightened message.

This personally curated jubilee has been interrupted many times with the result that it will continue well into next year (three of the eight concerts have been postponed until spring 2021). Today we contemplate questions of inclusion, gender equality, and the chauvinist historic baggage of the music we love, and rightly so. Focus on Beethoven’s genius may be a dated approach but love for his music doesn’t seem to fade. I personally feel an enormous sense of gratitude to past generations for keeping Beethoven’s musical legacy alive. I feel lucky to be here now, at this time, a musician breathing new life into it and sharing it with people, be they listeners, commentators, or fellow performers.

I was recently editing an interview for inclusion in a documentary about the Väyläfestival last summer, the film being what was done when confronting a festival without people. Commenting on the lyrics of the famous Sami poet Nils Aslak Valkeapää, the interviewed artist’s words have stuck in my mind: “The best poets can set words in a way that enables the reader to find space between them to bring his or her own sorrows and joys into. ” Similarly, in Beethoven we have a composer whose music enables us still today to enter into it and find life within. This, to me, is why Beethoven’s music is worth a jubilee!



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