Beethoven – The Man With The Eternal Scowl

On December 16 th , the world will celebrate the 231 st birth anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven. Cultural pilgrims from all over Europe, will flock to Bonn , to walk down Memory’s lane, and recall the genius of a musical giant, who still straddles the western musical firmament, with the wealth of his compositions. They will tread reverently through the 18 th Century Beethoven House at Bonngasse, peering at original manuscripts and personal bric-a-brac, safely displayed in glass cases, his pianos, and photographs of himself, his family and his benefactors.

There, in one of those rooms, is the Heiligenstadter Testament, his outpouring of sorrow, frustration and rage, against the inexplicable cruelty of life. At that time, the great composer, a man to whom sound and rhythm were the very essence of his life, was being irretrievably sucked into the stark, silent world of the deaf. There were no hearing aids or advanced surgical technology to come to the aid this desperate young man. Neither were there therapeutic counselors to help him sort out his insecurities. Beethoven had tried medicines and quack remedies, pills, herbs, nostrums and baths, but all to no avail. One can imagine how the “roaring in his ears” prior to total deafness, must have driven him to the verge of madness. Eventually, he listened to the advice of a doctor, who recommended an atmosphere of peace and quiet.

Beethoven took himself off to a small village called Heiligenstadt outside Vienna , in 1792. From his little house, he could look across verdant meadows, to the Danube, and beyond to the Carpathian Mountains . Legend had it, that there was a healing spring in the vicinity, which had been blest by Saint Severinus. Here he found solace in communion with Nature, as his deafness presented no obstacle to this.

Mozart, who had tutored him for a short period, was dead by now, and Haydn became his teacher. Count Waldstein his benefactor said, “By constant effort, you will receive Mozart’s spirit from Haydn’s hands.”

But though the work of these two musical giants Mozart and Haydn, had already set classical symphonic patterns for him to emulate, Beethoven was his own man. His music established a new era of Romanticism, interspersed with whiffs of revolution, which reflected his own character. Goethe called him an ”utterly untamed personality.” He wrote his first symphony when he was thirty. Confident of his musical prowess, he did not hesitate to introduce his own innovations, though he did not entirely break with accepted patterns of music. But this First symphony in D Minor, created quite a ruckus in the conservative Viennese world. Critics called it “the explosions of outrageous effrontery of a young man.” Some accused him of “the prodigal use of barbaric dissonances………Alas the ear is stabbed, but there is no appeal to the heart.”

Beethoven now became very depressed and dissatisfied with his creative efforts. It was in that state of mind that he wrote the Heiligenstadt Testament, on 10 th October, 1802 . It was a tirade against Destiny. He lamented that people found him misanthropic “ because I was forced to set myself apart at an early age, and spend my life in solitude………and yet, I am not able to say to them ‘ Speak more loudly; Yell for I am deaf’. “

Some critics say he was syphilitic too.

His gradual change of character into an angry, irascible man, subject to fits of depression alternating with manic frenzy, put that ugly scowl permanently on his face. Though Allesandra Commini a Beethoven scholar, believes that the frown on his face was a myth invented by Richard Wagner, to enhance his imperious airs, and add a touch of mystery to his music, the life mask which was taken when he was forty two, and the death mask taken at fifty six, and which are now preserved in Beethoven house, cannot lie. Neither does the portrait painted by Joseph Stieler, in 1820.

Beethoven’s portrait was painted 800 times during his lifetime. His brooding visage with its hooded eyebrows and hawk-like eyes, has been immortalised in “Beethon 86,” a 25-ton monolith in reinforced concrete, which stands three metres high, on the lawns of the Beethovenhalle, in the Bonn University campus. It was the work of a Dusseldorf Professor of Sculpture, and was installed in 1986, on the occasion of the 32 nd Beethoven festival.

Yet this short, ugly man with his wild crop of hair, and mesmerizing gaze, was a romantic at heart. He always fell in love with girls from noble families, well beyond his status. That Guiletta Guiccardi, his 17-year old pupil had married a Count Gallenberg came as a crushing blow to Beethoven. He had asked for her hand in marriage, and while one parent was favourably disposed, the other opposed it vehemently. He even thought of committing suicide, and wrote “Beethoven’s Will,” which was a cry of melancholy. Was she the “Immortal Beloved” of the unaddressed letter?

And was his Fourth Symphony which biographers called a “Symphony of Love,” addressed to Countess Theresa von Brunswick, whom Beethoven wooed and won for a short while, as Romain Roland believed? Or was it his testament of passion to the young Guiletta who had ditched him? Beethoven didn’t marry because he could never reconcile the divide between the real and the ideal. His biographer Peter Latham said, “ He idealized women; idealized them romantically without reference to realities; One after the other, the girls on whom he cast his eyes, were discarded because they failed to live up to his impossible standards.”

The critics say, that the Fourth Symphony must have been inspired during his rare periods of happiness, because it reflected mystery and romance, and was full of joy and sweetness.

Other claimants to his love were Josephine of Brunswick, later the Countess of Deym, to whom he addressed his song “I think of thee,” or Maxmilliane Brittano the daughter of his friend, who might have been the “Immortal Beloved.” Beethoven was not about to enlighten them. He must have silently chuckled at their guessing game.

That he was a man of strong passions was evident in the way, he behaved when Napoleon, whom he considered a true democratic liberator, proclaimed himself Emperor. Beethoven who had inscribed his Third Symphony to Bonaparte, now tore out the first three pages, and later renamed it Eroica.

As his deafness increased, Beethoven became slovenly and dirty. He was boorish and brusque even with friends. But the conflict and struggle within, translated into music. It was as if he was drawing from the deepest sources within him, to emerge victorious over his handicap. This struggle was reflected in his music. From despair and helplessness, through a brief truce, to defiance and victory. These were the moods audible in his music.

From 1815 onwards, he had to carry on conversations only with pencil and paper, because he could hear no sounds at all. His creative processes took part in his mind. Ideas vegetated there until he was able to put the completed work down on paper.

“ It begins in my head, the working out of breadth, height, depth. It mounts, it grows. I see before my mind, the picture in its whole extent, as if in a single grasp.”

It was the accepted practice for concert pianists to play with the music sheets before them. At one concert, Ritter von Seyfried offered to turn the pages of the music. He found to his chagrin, that Beethoven’s manuscripts were bare of notes. The page-turner wrote,

“ I saw almost nothing but empty leaves, with here and there, a few Egyptian hieroglyphics, wholly unintelligible to me, scribbled down to serve as clues to him. He played nearly all the solo passages from memory, and whenever he came to the end of an “invisible” passage, he gave me a secret nod. My evident anxiety not to miss the decisive moment, amused him greatly.”

There were bad moments with his orchestra too. He would berate some members cruelly, when he himself was at fault, either because he hadn’t heard the music properly, or he had absentmindedly played a repeat, which he had previously decided to omit. Many times, his orchestra members threatened to leave.

Eventually, he realized that he could no more play an ensemble.

The Ninth Symphony was his last. The final movement was a choral setting for Freidrich von Schiller’s “Ode to Joy.” That it was played to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall, 170 years after it was composed, shows how much his music is still loved.

Beethoven was a cult hero of the 19 th Century. The body of music he has left behind is prolific. Nine Symphonies, five concertos, one opera, and a load of other pieces for piano and orchestra! He gave great importance to the piano as the foremost musical instrument. He could improvise and balance sounds so beautifully, “like a river whose calm waters suddenly disappear, and only leave the subterranean bed, to plunge with a roar, into a foaming waterfall.”(Berlioz.)

Kings and Counts patronized him, and musicians like Wagner and Berlioz idolized him. They tolerated his bad moods and rudeness, because they recognized his genius.

His last years however, were plagued by ill health. He more or less took to his bed, with kidney ailments. This together with worry over his recalcitrant nephew Karl, hastened his end. Even Nature thundered and wept at his imminent demise. And on March 26 th 1827 , this dying iconoclast shook his fist at the heavens, as much as to say, “Get lost!”

Towering over the marketplace, on the Munsterplatz in Bonn , is the statue of Beethoven. It was raised in 1845, to mark the musician’s 75 th Birth anniversary. The first Beethoven concert was held that year. Money for the monument was collected from the citizens of that city. Franz Liszt chipped in with 10,000 taler, to make good the total amount needed.

Queen Victoria and King Frederick William IV of Prussia , stood on the balcony of a building, to watch the unveiling. When the covering shroud dropped, the King exclaimed,

“ Hey, he has his back to us!”

And someone standing near replied, “Yes, even in life, he was an ill-mannered fellow.”

The entire city of Bonn is a kind of Memorial to this musical genius, who spent only the first twenty one years in this city. He lies in an ornate tomb, in the company of other musicians like Strauss, Brahms, Moser, Schonberg, in Vienna ‘s Zentralfriedhof.

As Carlisle once said, “Silence is the element in which great things fashion themselves.”

Beethoven suffered through the loneliness of being deaf and the fear of being different. Yet 173 years after his death, the emotional power of his music bears us up to heights of rapture. The world celebrates his genius, on his 231 st birthday.


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