THE NAME MUST HAVE SOMETHING to do with it. How many guys named Beethoven do you know? You associate it with music, that name, just as Shakespeare is the fellow who wrote those plays. (There was a Bill Shakespeare who played in the Ray Noble Orchestra during the ‘30s, but I’m convinced that he kept the name so he could have fun with phone operators and the like.)
Photo by Christian Steiner
His music never will let you down – even his garbage is interesting – so it would be a shame to let snobby canonization of the man drive you away. Here, then, is all you need to know about him – at least to get you started.
He was born in Bonn in 1770. His dad was a musician at the court of a local prince, where young Ludwig got his first gigs as an organist. When he was 17, Beethoven played for Mozart, who was impressed: “Keep an eye on him,” the older composer told whomever it was who writes down such things. “He will make a noise some day.”
This piano playing of Beethoven’s dazzled the music lovers in Vienna. He established himself in that city and rarely left it, although he changed lodgings many times. Vienna boasts as many beds for Beethoven as Connecticut does for George Washington.
He studied with Haydn for a while, who warned him that his temperament – a touchy thing – would get him in trouble with the nobility that supported musical activitites. Sounds like the setup for a Paul Muni film, doesn’t it? You know that’s exactly what would happen.
Still, Beethoven impressed one of his royal patrons enough to secure a stipend for life, although it wasn’t enough to support him even when added to his fees as a piano teacher. He went out hawking his compositions, often selling the same work to six or seven publishers, letting it go to the highest advance-payer – and keeping whatever anyone else gave him, too. He believed that, being Beethoven, he deserved it. History won’t argue with that. Try using that argument on your parents some time.
Beethoven first noticed signs of his deafness while in his late ’20s. It would plague him the rest of his life. In 1802, during a stay at a summer resort called Heilegenstadt, he wrote an open letter to his relatives in which he raged against his affliction, contemplated suicide, and concluded that he would live to pursue his art: “I will take Fate by the throat. It will not overcome me.”
This tied in with the ideals of the French Revolution, ideals popular with much of the middle class of the rest of the world: Man as master of his fate. Beethoven hyped his music as something that exemplified such thoughts, drawing some very politically polarized audiences. This also was the source of the attraction to a younger generation of fans who supported Beethoven during his final years.
Like Shakespeare, Beethoven lived a life shrouded in mystery, especially where his love life was concerned. Who were his girlfriends? Why didn’t he marry? Was his deafness the result of a “social disease?” If so, how could this same man loose a sheriff on his own brother when the latter was living, unmarried, with a woman? There were so many contradictory aspects to him that you might say the contrariness itself was the rule.
It was, finally, bad weather that did him in. A nasty attack of dropsy felled him after a ride in an open coach It is documented that Beethoven said something like, “The comedy is ended!” shortly before he died.. He was given to such pronouncements.
This weekend you'll have a chance to see Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 performed by the Albany Symphony Orchestra Friday at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall and Saturday at the Palace (both shows at 8:30 PM). It’s an unusual work, coming chronologically between two bulwarks of the symphonic repertory. Robert Schumann called it “a slender Greek maiden between two Norse giants.” It is interesting that so many commentators immediately focus on the slow movement as the only part worthy of examination, and I think it’s because they’re intimidated by Beethoven’s great sense of humor. His is some of the funniest stuff around – and I don’t mean in a slapstick, Spike Jones sense; it’s a more subtle wittiness, cocking a snoot at the dull-minded kings and queens.
A theory has been put forth that Beethoven had a romance going full steam ahead while he was working on the symphony (1806), and that’s what explains its rollicking good nature. I think it may just have been some good Viennese wine.
JEFFREY KAHANE WON THE 1983 Arthus Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition. He will be the soloist with the Albany Symphony in Rachmanimoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,” in the above-mentioned concert. Julius Hegyi will conduct the concerts.
In addition to the music by Rachmaninoff and Beethoven, the program includes “And the Fallen Petals,” by Chou Wen-Chung, a piece described as a short poem for orchestra reflecting a common Chinese artistic philosophy: “Affinity to nature in conception, allusiveness in expression, and terseness in realization.” Another contemporary composer, Lyndol Mitchell, is represented by “Kentucky Mountain Portraits,” three short, folksong-based orchestral pieces written between 1948 and 1956.
Tickets for the concerts are on sale at the Palace box office, the Troy Music Hall, and all CBO outlets. Call 465-4755 for more information.
PIANIST RUTH LAREDO WILL PRESENT a recital in the Main Theater of the Egg on Sunday at 2 P.M. The program will include Beethoven’s Appassiomua Sonata, Samuel Barber’s Piano Sonata, and music of Chopin, Rachmaninoff and Mussorgsky. Laredo appeared at the Egg in 1982 to a sellout crowd, and is well known for her recordings of Rachmaniniff’s complete solo piano works. Tickets are available at the box office at the Egg, and at all CBO outlets.
– Metroland Magazine, 23 February 1984