Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Eroica Meditations

Happy 240th!
These days in lieu of paying attention to the news I find myself taking note of significant dates in history. I figure if as long as I'm Van Winknled I can't quite live in, respond to, and comment upon the present, at least I can happily romp around in the distant past.

Today happens to be one of those days when long ago something significant happened, although at the time it wasn't news to anyone except a man and woman of little note.

Two hundred and forty years ago, in Bonn, Germany, a son was born. The parents named him Ludwig.

This was the same name given to their first child who had died young. It was also the name of little Ludwig's grandfather, a Court Capellmeister.

In his early years the fact that the boy was Ludwig Van Beethoven meant nothing to the world. He was just another kid in Germany. We know what church he was baptised in, what houses he lived in, but little else about him caused ripples until he took up a musical instrument. By age 8 we have it recorded that he gave a public concert in Cologne. Now it was becoming clear. He was a child prodigy. The next Mozart!

Another good reason to check out garage sales.
I learned these facts and more from a large book I bought at garage sale years ago. Produced for the Beethoven Bicentennial in 1970, it is filled with reproductions of period documents, original musical scores in the master's hand, and paintings of key historical figures and sites.

This book is the closest thing I know of to a Beethoven scrapbook. Buying it at the garage sale for a buck was an easy decision. After all the time I've spent listening to  Beethoven's music, how could I not want to know more about the man behind it?

Some of the first LPs we owned
Begin With the Ears
When I was a first grader my father did something quite remarkable for a former Oklahoma farm boy supporting a wife and three young sons on an entry-level accountant's salary. He went and bought us a Hi-Fi.

The Magnavox unit, a large piece of cherry wood furniture, was roughly the size of a kitchen cabinet. It contained an automatic record changer with a tone arm that weighed approximately 2 lbs. and an AM/FM radio. In its guts were glowing vacuum tubes.

The man at the music store knew we would need music to play on our new record changer. My father had heard and liked some classical music when he went to college, so the man suggested the Nutcracker Suite, Rhapsody and Blue, and the 1812 Overture. We stacked up the records. I sat back in my child's rocking chair. Immediately I was overwhelmed by the rich monaural sounds pouring out of the 12" speacker behind the gold and fabric grill. But the best was soon to come.


Over the years there would be many discovered treasures. The Pastorale. The. Eroica. The Ninth. The Appasionata. The Emperor. The encounters with Beethoven's music would be spread out over time, but the effect was always the same. The music left me searching for words to describe something so titanic, so emotional, so true.

How to Achieve Greatness
One day, several years and several houses after the hi-fi, a piano showed up. This was how it seemed to my brothers and me. Our parents would later claim they ran the idea past us, but I don't recall seriously contemplating what was suddenly about to be required: I was going to have to take piano lessons.

Truthfully, this seemed a little nerdy and what for? Neither of our parents played any kind of instrument. Sure, I liked to listen to the music on the hi-fi, but my early years of playing the piano was the furthest thing from that kind of music making. I played simplistic ditties or boring measures from the Czerny book, all of it resounding in a clanging cheap fashion on the Wurlitzer upright. To obtain such aural miseries I had to practice a half hour every day when I would rather have been reading history books or chasing horned toads in the dirt.

This was not a happy time.

Then we moved to Alaska and I finally got a better teacher who 1) had a baby grand piano which actually could be made to sound amazing during my lessons, 2) challenged me to reach a level of proficiency where I could some play music I cared about, and 3) made me meet the highest standards of technique and interpretation. I was still no Horowitz, but I now hated practice and lessons only 70% of the time instead of 100%.

For each lesson I received a grade on a scale of 100. I usually made a low 90. After so many lessons with a cumulative score of something or other, I qualified for a prize in the form of a miniature statue of a famous composer. Actually, this wasn't particularly motivating. Especially after I acquired all the major composers. Years later I threw away almost all of these plastic blandishments. But I kept Beethoven.

Not everyone can be a Schroeder (sigh).
Looking back, I realize my piano lessons weren't all for naught. They taught me that greatness begins with practice and excellent teachers. Even someone with the genius of Beethoven did not form himself without help.

I learned from the bicentennial book that as a child, Ludwig studied for two weeks with the mighty Mozart. Soon after that he had a year of lessons with the great Franz Joseph Haydn. After that he studied with other notables in Vienna who at the time were considered the very best. By his teachers Beethoven was challenged and he was encouraged. This is what good teachers do. The rest, of course, is up to the pupil. Does he or she have that mysterious quality that we think of as a "gift" or "talent"? Will he or she make the most of it?

The answer for me was no and no. But by the end of the my piano lessons I could limp through Fur Elise and I could play with feeling and satisfaction the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata. Sometimes if you can't be great yourself, you have to settle for touching the hem of the garment.

Mercurial Personality
By the time he was in his early 30's Beethoven knew that he had a reputation for something besides being an incomparably gifted composer and performer. In 1802 he inked out the so-called "Heiligenstadt Testament" and he dealt directly with the issue of his terrible interpersonal relationships.

To those who saw the side of him  that seemed (in his own words)"quarrelsome, peevish or misanthropic" Beethoven wanted them to know that this wasn't the real him. Inside was a tender man with nothing but outpourings of affection for humanity. Why did he come off as such a jerk in person? There was a "secret reason why I seem to you to be so," he wrote.  Beethoven went on to reveal that for the past 6 years he had suffered from an incurable condition. It caused him to withdraw in an effort to disguise his disability. He described his life as a "miserable existence." Of course, all us know what he strove to keep secret in the early years of his life. The composer was going deaf.

First pages of Heiligenstadt Testament
The ensuing years brought more masterpieces, but no improvement in Beethoven's disposition. In 1825 he received a letter from a copyist he had been working with and whom he had criticized for performing his work poorly. This man, Ferdinand Wolanek, decided to return the scores and withdraw from the assignment after Beethoven called him a "Bohemian blockhead." In his letter to Beethoven, Wolanek defended his professionalism and stated, in essence, that Beethoven was impossible to work with.

Beethoven's reaction was to place a giant X across the front of the letter and write in large letters: "Stupid, conceited ass of a fellow!"

That wasn't enough. Beethoven scribbled over the margins of the letter: "So I am to exchange compliments with such a scoundrel who steals my money. Instead I should pull his ass's ears." He flipped over the letter and wrote still more invective on the back. In today's parlance, Beethoven went ballistic.

Beethoven answers his mail

Don't Roll Over Beethoven
As fascinating as the lives of artists tend to be, especially ones like Beethoven who struggled against afflictions and adversity, in the end I have to admit that the personality is not all that important. The main thing is the notes in the air or the paint on the canvas or the words on the page--how they impact my body, mind and soul.

Recently I've been reading a book that makes this point. In Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee (with photos by Walker Evans) Agee recounts how he and Evans went down to Alabama during the depths of the Great Depression and lived among poor white sharecroppers for one month in the summer. Their plan was call to America's attention the plight of these ignored and ragged people and their children by using a combination of striking black and white photos and exquisitely poetic prose.

Agee was particularly concerned that the resulting book might be wrongly received as an aesthetic object. He worried that people would thus sidestep the real purpose of the book which was to do justice to the people who were the subject of it and then move the reader to relieve their distress.

Early in the book Agee states that a disillusioning attainment to the level of "art" is what habitually happens to the best creative human expression. What starts out as what Agee calls "fury," something "dangerous" to our conventionality and pre-conceived ideas, is taken over by others and tamed. It is officially accepted, hung on the walls of a museum, it is played in the concert hall, it is studied in school. Agee calls this "castration."

Agee turns to Beethoven as an example. He suggests that if one wishes to get back to what the composer intended, he should take a recording of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, turn it up as loudly as possible, get down on the floor, and put his ear next to the speaker and stay there, completely concentrated on listening.

"Is what you hear pretty? or beautiful? or legal? or acceptable in polite or any other society? It is beyond any calculation savage and dangerous and murderous to all equilibrium in human life as human life is..."

I think that starts to get at it. Those are some of the words I couldn't find to describe what I was feeling all those years ago and, indeed, still feel today whenever I listen to Beethoven. Music like his changes how I receive and think about life. Beethoven in my ears leads me through a world that is simultaneously more beautiful and tragic than I normally recognize.

Surely, he has this effect on others, although not everyone, of course. In that way, Beethoven is a bit like religion. Only the faithful can believe in his version of heaven or his hell. Yet Beethoven does not need to proselytize with missionaries or priests or use manipulations by emperors or kings to win adherents to his "church." For more than two hundred years his music has gone out and found those who have ears prepared to hear.

For those the music chooses, the result is absolute devotion, an urgent wish to hear more, so they can feel connected to something larger that this "deaf" man heard more loudly than the rest of us ever have.

"Anyone who understands my music will never be unhappy again," Beethoven is reported to have said at one point. All these years later I think that's the one of the most intriguing claims I've ever heard and it's reason enough for me to keep on listening, keep on trying to understand. - V.W.

PS: Also, historically important, today is my wife's birthday. Happy birthday, darling! How lucky you are to share a birthday with Ludwig!

PPS: For anyone who is wondering, "eroica" is Italian for "heroic" and it is the title Beethoven gave to his Third Symphony.


1 comment:

  1. I often listen to Beethoven at work (played at very low volume so not to appear be listening to music mor than working) as a means to calm myself. I knew I liked to listen Beethoven, now I have a better reason to understand why.