It is an irony that so little of Beethoven’s music is being played this year. Coronavirus restrictions mean that there is almost certainly less Beethoven being heard live in concert during the 250th anniversary of his birth than in any year since he died in 1827.
Unlike some composers, even including Bach and Handel, Beethoven never suffered a dip in popularity after his death. His music was already highly regarded throughout Europe, and there was to be no let-up in performances through the 19th century, or indeed to the present day.
Born of struggle and strife, his music has proved that it can renew its intellectual and emotional power for every generation. The Ninth Symphony stands out today as an uplifting affirmation of brotherly love at a time of racial discord, and its finale has been adopted as the anthem of the European Union. His only opera, Fidelio, in which a woman rescues her husband from internment as a political prisoner, could equally be a contemporary rallying cry.
It was always unlikely that the anniversary would bring about any major re-evaluation of his legacy. Some lesser-known works might come to the fore — Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra made a strong case for the rarely performed oratorio Christus am Ölberge before lockdown — but since the music fell silent, it has been left to biographers and researchers to stimulate discussion.
The only portrait of Beethoven known to have been done from life was painted by court artist Joseph Karl Stieler in around 1818-20. That picture was the basis for many that came after, each more fearsome than the last.
What they show is the archetypal Romantic composer, unkempt, unruly, born to struggle against fate and the injustices of the world. The picture struck a chord and became the 19th-century image of who Beethoven was.
The biggest blow to this ideal came in the last decades of the 20th century with the period-instrument movement. Specialists in early music and the Baroque approached Beethoven from the other side of musical history, stripping away late 19th-century grandeur so that the music sounded closer to the human level of Haydn and Mozart.
Nothing so revolutionary has happened in the area of biography. Instead, our understanding of Beethoven has been undergoing gradual change, especially over the past half century. One biographer, Maynard Solomon, put him on the Freudian couch. Another, Jan Swafford, joined the period-instrument conductors in reinventing him as an Enlightenment figure who “never really absorbed the Romantic age”.
The notebooks Beethoven used when his deafness made conversation difficult are also in the process of being translated into English and provide a down-to-earth account of his life in minute detail.
Jan Caeyers’s Beethoven, A Life, originally published in Dutch in 2009 and newly translated into English by Brent Annable, continues the journey towards a more complex and nuanced picture of the great composer. Inevitably, this involves taking further steps away from what he calls “Beethoven’s tragic, romanticised reputation as an outcast and a marginalised composer divorced from his audience. While certainly accurate, this is only half of the picture.”
Caeyers seeks to unravel the networks that influenced Beethoven’s career, to paint portraits of those who supported him, and to outline the many interests that were at play in forming Beethoven both as a man and an artist.
The life is no less interesting stripped of its Romantic trappings — the childhood in Bonn with an alcoholic father; the importance of early mentors; the move to cosmopolitan Vienna in 1792. The decline into a lonely late-middle age, accentuated by severe deafness, is sympathetically handled.
The result is a very readable book that, as a byproduct, offers a generous supply of scene-setting detail. This ranges from life in Vienna in the early 19th century to the grinding economic impact of the French revolution and its aftermath, and even the bathing customs in Bohemian spa towns (“guests would slowly revolve around the colonnade like ponies on a carousel”).
When one no longer wants to portray Beethoven as a lonely genius, his relationships with friends, colleagues and financial supporters become a key part of the story.
Many of those individuals — patron Prince Lobkowitz, violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh, friends and possible lovers Countess Josephine von Deym and Antonie Brentano — are treated to mini-biographies within the narrative.
Nowhere is this more important than in Beethoven’s truculent relations with the aristocracy. A generation earlier, Mozart had shown how a composer could start to make the break from aristocratic patronage. But even Mozart would have thought twice before writing, as Beethoven did to Count Lichnowsky, his first important patron, “Prince, what you are, you owe to chance and birth; what I am, I owe only to myself. Princes have and always will exist in their thousands — of Beethoven, there is only one.”
Among the recent research incorporated into this edition is new evidence as to who might have been Beethoven’s “Immortal Beloved”, the unknown woman to whom he poured out his heart in a deeply moving letter, believed to have been unsent. Caeyers seems cautiously to plump for the several-times-married Countess von Deym and leaves tantalisingly open the possibility of a child. By contrast, his treatment of Beethoven’s other famous unsent letter — the harrowing “Heiligenstadt Testament”, in which he writes of his desperation at the onset of deafness — is strangely offhand.
It no longer feels sufficient to grant Beethoven mythic status as a “genius” or “high priest of the arts”, as some 19th-century writers did. Reading of his endless negotiations with publishers, the daily piano lessons he gave, the afternoon visits to the tavern and the fact that he was forever moving house (about 70 to 80 times), the wonder is he ever had time to compose so many major works in the 56 years of his illness-prone life.
For Caeyers, Beethoven is “the prototypical modern artist . . . restless and obsessive”. Having attained an unheard-of level of fame across Europe, he was able to write the music he wanted with less regard to pleasing patrons, critics or audiences than any composer before him.
“I should thank heaven,” he wrote, “for so blessing me in my works that, although not wealthy, I am nonetheless able to work and to live for my art.”
A similar appraisal is to be found in the more compact but also rewarding Beethoven: A Life in Nine Pieces. Instead of following Beethoven’s life in its entirety, Laura Tunbridge has selected nine pieces of music, using each to explore a wider topic. Her choices are not always the most obvious, but a lot of information is packed into her musical portraits.
A chapter on Fidelio takes in patriotism, the ongoing threat from Napoleon, singers and their abilities, the heroine Leonore as the ideal wife, and even contemporary Vienna’s popular tableaux vivants. The chapter on “An die Geliebte” embraces the development of the song, Beethoven’s taste in literature and his love life.
Beethoven’s status as a great composer came about, concludes Tunbridge, “through hard work and industry networks, through making mistakes and having occasional good luck, as well as through his music”.
It is no coincidence that both of these books portray Beethoven in the context of his time. Some of the most interesting new recordings for the anniversary have similarly focused not on Beethoven’s own music, but on examples of his underrated contemporaries. The sketches that he left for a 10th Symphony are meanwhile being completed by artificial intelligence.
When the music starts again, it is a fair bet that Beethoven will be played without so much as a hiccup for at least another 250 years.
Beethoven, A Life, by Jan Caeyers, translated by Brent Annable, California University Press, RRP$34.95, 680 pages
Beethoven: A Life in Nine Pieces, by Laura Tunbridge, Viking, RRP£16.99, 288 pages
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