Posts for:  October 2011

Charming Young Beethoven

This week I’ll be giving a recital that’s a departure from my usual kind of program: I’ll be playing the work of a single composer (Beethoven,) from only one opus (an early one, Nr. 10,) and I’ll be talking a great deal about the music. The talking portion has involved quite a bit of research, and I want to share some of it with you, because it’s fascinating.

It’s hard not to view everything Beethoven did and wrote from the context of the monumental Ninth Symphony, the middle and late Sonatas and String Quartets, and from the viewpoint of his tragic deafness. But before Beethoven became “Beethoven,” he was just a young buck amid a horde of other talented young musicians competing for attention in Vienna. He’d moved there from his hometown of Bonn at the age of 22, ostensibly to study with Haydn and others, and with the intention of returning to Bonn where he had a close circle of friends and a good job waiting for him. But the opportunity, freedom, and creative stimulation he found in Vienna proved to be the right environment for him, and he never went home again.

One of the most important things Beethoven could find in Vienna that he couldn’t find at home was an abundance of wealthy people who were crazy about music, and for whom patronizing important young artists was a way of increasing their social status. Within a short time of his arrival, Beethoven became inundated with gifts of money, horses, clothes, and offers to live and dine, indefinitely, for free, in the mansions of the wealthy.

Later, he would chafe at the sense of obligation this patronage would impose on him, but the support of the nobility was significant, because it allowed Beethoven the freedom to compose, and it created lots of buzz around his name. His father had died of alcoholism and his mother of tuberculosis, and he had to provide for his younger siblings at the time. Accepting the patronage of the nobility allowed him not to have to take a fulltime teaching job, as Bach and Chopin had to do — a good thing too, because by all accounts, Beethoven abhorred teaching.

What endeared him to these patrons? At first, it was not black notes printed on white paper – that is, not his compositions. It was his playing, and especially his improvising. Here is a quote by Czerny about Beethoven’s playing:

“In rapidity of scale passages, trills, leaps, etc., no one equaled him. But Beethoven’s playing in adagios and legato, in the sustained style, made an almost magical impression on every hearer, and, so far as I know, has never been surpassed.”

That he used his own ingenious piano compositions to showcase his playing, and that he could improvise with an abundance of astonishing musical ideas which seemed to just pour from him, only increased his “wow” factor. By 1800, about five different publishing houses were bidding on the rights to publish his work.

A portrait of Beethoven by Christian Horneman, painted when the composer was 33, shows an intelligent young man with a stylish haircut, sideburns, and a rather open, engaging expression.

Of course, they had their own version of Photoshop at the time. It’s known that Beethoven had had smallpox, but no pocks appear on his face. And paintings and photos don’t tell all – already Beethoven was beginning to experience a loss of hearing in the higher frequencies and an abnormal ringing, rushing sound in his ears. Already he’d written his heartbreaking Heiligenstadt Testament. But I like to think that the portrait shows the kind of man Beethoven always strove to be – an optimist and a humanist. His guiding light was art, in the service of mankind.

As he wrote in 1817:

“Continue to translate yourself to the heaven of art; there is no more undisturbed, unmixed, purer happiness than may thus be attained.”

I couldn’t agree more.