Amidst the chaos of the pandemic, and the plethora of concerts and virtual events, we in India have almost overlooked what would have otherwise been a landmark event. Centrestage would have been given to the music of perhaps one of the most important composers of all time – Ludwig Van Beethoven. Born on December 17, 1770, we recently marked his 250th year in human consciousness.
Germany would have organised a year-long festival – in the streets, in cafes, in concert halls and in its missions abroad. Unfortunately, we are in the worst of times. And we only had a bunch of virtual happenings to rely on.
So what makes this composer more influential than others of his era? Is it the brilliance of his music, its transformative capacity or its bold inventiveness? If so, I am sure most Western classical music theorists would argue for other composers too – we have so many to pick from. And yet Beethoven evokes something special, his sound distinctive and edging on the serene supernal, many times a private conversation between him and his Maker.
We do know much of his life, as this is one composer whose life and times were fairly well documented. His copious letters to various individuals who marked his life leave an ample character testimony to a man who was torn between the annoying complexities of the mundane and a superlative aesthetic and creative gift.
Music and activism
So much so, that all these tussles find their way into the music. In my view, this is a composer who seems to have set the bar for music and activism long before that became a conscious and deliberative movement, or institutionalised in the way Salon des Refuses or others became in the later part of the 19th century. He was also a prodigious savant, almost single-handedly bringing in the Romantic era in music – embodying human emotion, lyricism, angst, joy and that undefinable yearning so often found in his music.
Five ideas strike me as significant from his life. Each of these were harbingers for whole movements that followed those ideologies, and others who were to come in his path.
To start with, Beethoven places music as a goal in itself, and equates it with triumph – a vindication of the spirit and the ultimate resolution of struggles and conflict. Indeed, in his detailed review of the Fifth Symphony, Beethoven’s contemporary ETA Hoffman uses the term “sinnenwelt” – the other-worldly realm beyond the senses, a sort of “superior” meta-state when you experience the music.
That he was able to do this while equally satisfying his patrons is an important consideration. This can show how “commercialised” or “commoditised” music can often also be other-wordly in its aesthetic.
Beethoven was a crowd-puller. For instance, Beethoven’s death in 1827 brought nearly 10,000 residents of Vienna out on the streets to witness the funeral cortege. How often do we, in today’s discourse, discuss the importance of music for its own sake – and quickly justify our inability to holistically create in a constrained-filled environment?
And we also quickly justify this by calling out “clients”, “patrons” and “organisers”, various hypothetical arguments that justify “playing to the gallery”. Beethoven did both.
In fact, it was his own contemporaries who celebrated him, venerated him and idolised him. Mozart and Haydn were both impressed by his prodigious skills as a composer – he was to become a student of the latter. No less a personality than Franz Liszt petitioned for and oversaw his memorial bust and its unveiling in Vienna. If anything, Beethoven did not play to the gallery.
His increasing deafness from the early 1800s saw him misjudge his own playing technique and that of the orchestras he worked with, resulting in ungainly performances when he was personally involved. And yet, the encores continued. And yet, his demand soared.
Second, the spiritual essence of his music. While there is no evidence of Beethoven ever being overly religious or adhering to any ritualistic practice, there seems to be a great belief in something beyond the mundane. Repeatedly, this solidifies into an idea of “brotherhood”, or a force that can unite all of humanity. This from a composer who had such strained relationships in his own personal life- with his family over the custodianship of his nephew, with his various failed romantic relationships and countless other conflicts.
The belief in the overall purpose of humanity coming together, of “Zuzammenhorigkeit” – is both explicit and innate in his thoughts and compositions. Indeed, in the famous “Heiligenstadt Statement”, written in the eponymous town during a self-imposed retreat owing to his failing eardrums, he admits to thoughts of suicide but ending on a note of optimism and the belief in music pulling humanity together, and his devotion to this idea of brotherhood.
Indeed, a message to all creators – to rise above the self-negating thoughts of rejection and rise towards the act of creation and contribution, regardless. Let us remember that the famous Ode to Joy chorale comes towards the end of his life, beleaguered as he was by his various troubles – and ultimate paean to a divine benevolence, and the celebration of human spirit. This particular section of Symphony No 9 is more famous than the composer, and finds itself as an anthem to hope and humanity - at the destruction of the Berlin Wall, at the protests against Brexit, and countless other important social movements.
Indeed, Beethoven embraces conflict. And uses this as yet another catalyst and component of his compositional style. Even in his earlier piano sonatas, such as the F minor Sonata Op.2 no.1, we can discern patterns of sharp and dramatic contrasts sometimes within the same bar. A progression of notes ascending in sequence often ends in a chord or resolution that is soft and muted; sometimes the exact opposite. Movements of vigour and frenzy are often followed by notes of the utmost tenderness in the next segment.
In Symphony No 6 (“Pastorale”) he introduces a fifth movement, both unconventional and freely innovative, changing the expectations and mindsets of audiences of that time. Despite his enfeeblement, Beethoven innovates – saws off the legs of the fortepiano and places the soundboard on the ground, lying down next to it so as to underscore these contrasts better by just sensing vibrations. This pattern of frenzy leading to tenderness leading to exhilaration – the exhibition of contrasts in moods, temperaments and variations continues throughout his oeuvre.
The truth-teller, the activist and avant-garde tears up his dedication to Napoleon in Symphony No.3. Originally conceiving of the latter as a true liberator of the masses, and an anti-royalist, Beethoven marks his disgust in seeing Napoleon crown himself emperor of France by declaring him “a mere mortal”. His disillusionment resulted in this symphony being termed “Eroica” or heroic, by editors subsequently.
In all of this, Beethoven embraces his vulnerability and his humanness. This quality, perhaps the best of all, marks his endearment to his audiences. He is open about his defeats, his lows and his disillusionments. He admits to his frailties, choosing instead to embody his music with such delicacy and unmistakable yearning – allowing it to vocalise his questions and his self-examination.
Someone recently told me that in India and indeed elsewhere, western classical music is often associated with the elite. As I write this, I hear a car reversing alarm play to the tune of “Fur Elise” – his greatness lies in the fact that his music and his sensibility has permeated our lives in so many innumerable ways that he has achieved the improbable. His music is indeed bigger than himself.
Pianist and music educator Anil Srinivasan organised the Beethoven 250 celebrations alongside Goethe Institut, Chennai, this year.