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Beethoven at 250

Remembering the world’s first rock star

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Published: 20 Feb 2020


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Hush! I want air; I must go outside. It is incredible, wonderful! It stirred and affected and disturbed me to such a degree that when I came out of the box and tried to put on my hat I could not find my own head!1

This was 70-year-old French composer Jean-Francois Le Sueur’s reaction to hearing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in Paris for the first time in 1828, as documented by his student Hector Berlioz. Among Beethoven’s contemporaries and the audiences of his time, “moved and disturbed” were common reactions. Most people handled Beethoven with a mix of trepidation, intrigue and fascination: his appearance was unruly (he wore commoner’s clothing instead of wigs and silk stockings at court, leading Italian composer Luigi Cherubini to describe him as “an unlicked bear cub”2); he ignored social conventions (he once called a Count a “swine” for speaking during his performance, and when listeners were moved to tears by his improvisations, he chided them for crying instead of applauding); and did as he pleased, refusing to play when he did not feel like doing so.

Musicians of his time were considered servants of the court, and treated like any other cook, butler or chamberlain. Instead of sitting with the rest of the servants, Beethoven not only demanded that he be treated equally as the nobility, but to be seated with the royalty at the head table.3 While any other composer would have been thrown out and banned, Beethoven’s magnetic talent and larger-than-life personality gained him admirers among the nobility who granted him exceptions.

The quest for the perfect piano

In his years as the superstar of the piano, many piano makers were eager for him to try their instruments. They asked for his opinions and listened to what he said, sending him their latest inventions. These were bigger pianos made from stronger material, but still inadequate to capture the dynamics and nuances of his playing. He demanded more sound! Greater flexibility! Wider ranges! Higher notes! His dream piano was one that he could alter tone colour with—one that had a wide range of notes from treble to bass, a bigger range of volume, and one that was responsive enough to emote his compositions from flowing legato to concise, piercing staccatos. He was a powerful pianist, notorious for breaking hammers and strings with the sheer power of his playing. But he was also acclaimed for his singing legato, the velocity of his scales, and the techniques of double and triple trills, which he invented. 

 

Battling deafness and depression

The deafness started as a faint buzz in his ear. Despite trying numerous suggestions by doctors from cold baths to filling his ears with almond oil, the degree of hearing loss increased steadily until he was completely deaf. As deafness set in, Beethoven struggled against it. Shredded strings were entangled all over his piano due to frantic pounding, in his desperation to hear. He even removed the legs of one of his pianos, so he could sit on the floor and feel the vibrations of notes from it. His career as a pianist was over.

Frustrated, physically and emotionally tormented, he was unable to function in social events, withdrawing to the countryside to isolate himself. However, the loneliness drove him to consider suicide. He turned to composition, which remained his only saving grace, writing that it was “impossible to leave the world until I had brought forth all that I felt was within me”.4

In his music he poured out his ideals, his inner struggles, and his triumphs over them. His style took on an intensely personal nature that differentiated him from his contemporaries. He was pushing boundaries and breaking them, leading the change towards Romanticism. All too soon we are left with an image of him at the piano, fingers at the keys and improvising for hours, the sounds he imagined sounding nothing like those that came out of his broken piano. 

 

Writing for posterity

Most of Beethoven’s music was built from the most economical of means. He spun out the first movement of his Moonlight Sonata from an inverted triad, improvised the slow movement of his Seventh Symphony from a rhythm rather than melody, and conjured up the entire Fifth Symphony from a theme of four notes. In his music, anything could happen. A tense and ominous start could give way to a light-hearted symphony, or what seems like accompaniment could become a melody. 

Beethoven wrote his music for posterity, revising, altering and frequently editing passages of his music until he was satisfied that he had chosen the best for publication. His output was far less than Mozart’s or Haydn’s, especially in the symphonic form, but he made up for this in their content: each of his symphonies have a vastly different character, and all join up in a stupendous narrative, each one rising above the previous.

By the time of his death in 1827, more than 20,000 people filled the streets for his funeral. Soldiers were called to ensure order; schools were closed; all of Bonn and beyond mourned him. Eight years after his death, people suggested putting up a Beethoven monument in Bonn, and various memorial benefit concerts were organised in the following years to raise money for the monument. 

 

Recording technology also evolved partly because of Beethoven: the first 12-inch commercial LP records were made to hold up to 15 minutes per side so a record could contain Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and the duration of the first compact disc was set at 74 minutes so that it could contain the entire Ninth Symphony.

A legacy beyond music

In 1845, the first Beethoven Festival was held. The monument was unveiled and inaugurated; all his symphonies were performed in succession for the first time, and Beethoven merchandise was sold. Beethoven was no longer just a skilled servant of the court, but Romanticism’s poster-boy, an artist—one who underwent isolation, rebelled against the system, and suffered for his art to express victory and genius through music. No musician had ever been celebrated in such a way before: Beethoven was the world’s first rockstar. 

Beethoven’s influence extended far beyond his time and impacted not only the music industry, but society at large in vast number of ways. His quest for the perfect piano shaped the development of the modern piano; the art of conducting emerged in his wake; and bigger professional orchestras were formed as a tool to satisfy the unceasing demand for performances of his symphonies. Listening to music underwent a fundamental change: because of the concentration one needed to follow Beethoven’s narratives, a hush fell upon the concert hall and the stage became a revered platform for drama to unfurl.

Recording technology also evolved partly because of Beethoven: the first 12-inch commercial LP records were made to hold up to 15 minutes per side so a record could contain Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and the duration of the first compact disc was set at 74 minutes so that it could contain the entire Ninth Symphony.

His music has been sent into space on the Voyager, heard in films from A Clockwork Orange to The King's Speech, used as the official anthem of the European Union, and became a symbol of the free world when it was played at the fall of the Berlin Wall—what is it that makes it so beloved? 

Perhaps the answer is in the music itself: music that is accessible without being ordinary, music that reaches directly to people from all walks of life; music that speaks of the universality of thought, love, and freedom; therein lies the magic that no amount of talk can explain. 

To the man who gave the world such precious music as this: Happy 250th, Herr Beethoven.  

Join homegrown musician Gabriel Hoe on Feb 28, 2020 as he performs a selection of Beethoven’s piano sonatas to commemorate the composer’s 250th birthday.

 

Footnotes

1 Berlioz, Hector, Memoirs of Hector Berlioz, from 1803 to 1865, comprising his travels in Germany, Italy, Russia and England, trans. Holmes, Rachel & Holmes, Eleanor. New York: Dover, 1966.

2 As quoted in McGlaughlin, Bill, Beethoven: The Emerson Expedition, American Public Media. Accessed 30 Jan 2020. <https://saintpaulsunday.publicradio.org/features/9710_emerson/docs/upbringing_content.html>

3 He once wrote to Prince Lichnowsky, a patron and advocate of his music, “Prince, what you are, you are through chance and birth; what I am, I am through my own labor. There are many princes and there will continue to be thousands more, but there is only one Beethoven."

4 Beethoven chronicled the experience of his deafness and his thoughts in a testament to his brothers, now known as the Heiligenstadt Testament.


Contributed by:

Natalie Ng

Natalie Ng writes about music, plays three instruments and dances to music. She is a programmer at Esplanade.


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