Beethoven – the answer to life

 

Forgive a slightly longer missive: Beethoven demands it.

You are going to read, and probably hear, a great deal about this complex man during 2020, this being the 250th anniversary of his birth.

I am no expert, no musicologist, just an amateur enthusiast, but Ludwig van Beethoven gets my vote as being one of the most influential people ever to walk the planet. The simple truth is that he threw away the rule book, and nothing in music, perhaps even the wider arts, was the same after him.

I remember the precise moment I first heard his music. I was taken as a young child to one of the early Charlie Brown films. Along with Linus and Snoopy the dog, Schroeder is Charlie Brown’s closest friend. But the other passion in Schroeder’s life is Beethoven. He is, you might say, nuts about him.

During the film, Schroeder plays the slow movement from the Pathétique sonata, and I went home resolved to learn the piece. (Battling the two outer movements came some years later. This became something of a pattern for me – ‘Oh, I could play that!’, only to discover that Beethoven rarely composed simple stand-alone works.)

Readers of these posts will know that Schubert is my favourite composer. And yet if I  had to single out the composer who has had the greatest impact on me in so many ways, it would have to be Beethoven. In the context of classical music, I am minded to replace the word ‘music’ in John Miles’s famous lyric to read ‘Beethoven was my first love and he will be my last.’

Why so?

It may sound hokey, but in Beethoven’s music you have everything of what it means to be human. Schulz’s cartoon above is more than just funny. Beethoven’s irascibility, temper, sartorial obliviousness, hopeless love-life, manifold dwellings, and general defiance of almost everything, are well known; as is his near thirty-year struggle with deafness, surely the cruellest possible affliction for a musician.

All of these traits and frustrations are writ large in his music: never before has the personality of a composer been so glaringly exposed in his output, be it symphony, concerto, sonata, overture, choral or chamber. All his music articulates life itself.

Lest you feel tempted to charge me with spewing out sentimental nonsense, let me try and demonstrate it with a piece of music with which you may not be familiar.

Beethoven wrote sixteen string quartets, a format first used by Haydn, then developed by Mozart. Conveniently, these fall into three periods in his life, early, middle, and late; and it is the slow movement of one of the late ones, no.13, which sums up humanity more than any piece I know.

Oh no, he’s going all heavy on me now, I hear you groan. Hold on.

Nothing demonstrates the difficulty of writing about music better than this. That’s because the Cavatina, as it is called, has no tune per se that will leave you humming it later. It’s not about melody, it’s about feeling. Marked molto espressivo, you may not ‘get’ it at first. I didn’t. But after a few listens, you will want to submit to its profound and ineffable beauty, yearning for it to go on when it comes to a sudden halt. At its centre is a searing violin. The music soon engulfs you in this heart-wrenching blanket of tenderness. About half way through comes a brief ‘choke’, a change of tempo, and it is widely believed that a blotch on the original score is a teardrop from the composer.

Beethoven could only hear these notes in his head – he couldn’t try it out on a keyboard. Composed less than two years before he died, you can feel the aching sorrow of his condition, but also a sense that after all the bang, crash, wallop we tend to associate with Beethoven, this, more than anything else, (and he wrote some truly gorgeous slow movements) is the purest summation of the man, his music, his life – and, by extension, humanity itself.

If that consigns me to Pseuds’ Corner, well – show me the way. But not before you’ve clicked the image.

 

 

 

Farewell to Christmas with Cornelius.

With impeccable timing I have just completed, through a combination of luck and discipline, the Christmas edition of The Spectator. In turning the final cover and consigning it to the waggerpaggerbagger beneath my desk, I say farewell to the season. (It was, incidentally, a Christmas-crackeringly good read.)

Tomorrow, the 6th of January, marks that occasion formally. The visit of the Three Wise Men to the infant Jesus, The Epiphany, gives me the perfect excuse to share my favourite Christmas melody with you, which I last did at the end of 2016; so it doesn’t seem overly early to re-issue it with a different singer, and one of my favourites, Gerald Finley.

Back in 2016, I put together the content for the programme for the concert in St.Paul’s Cathedral in aid of MS. It is there in full on YouTube, (Finlay about 10 minutes from the end) and the performaces of singers and actors still bring a lump to my throat. One of the thrills of being at the heart of the rehearsals on that day was having an element of control, enabling me to ask Gerry to sing it once more – not, of course, because there was anything wrong with the first rendition, on the contrary: it was so utterly delicious, that I just needed to hear it again.

What I had forgotten, and this applied to all participants on the night, is that professionals don’t give it their all in rehearsal. Something is always held back for the performance itself, the result being that however prepared you think you might be for what is about to follow, an unexpected variation, be it emotion or emphasis, will be thrown in – and suddenly the eyes fill up. And so it was that night. I remember shedding a tear during rehearsal of one the spoken pieces, then declining the offer of tissues just before the concert after I’d left my handkerchief in my wife’s coat, insisting, “I’ll be fine.”

I wasn’t.

Many have told me this was the lovelist version of The Three Kings by the German composer Peter Cornelius (1824-1874) they had ever heard. Poor old Cornelius: he did, in fact compose a number of works, including three operas, and was friendly with, and influential on, Wagner and Liszt, but he is now chiefly known for this.

But if you’re going to be known for one piece alone, you could do worse. Christina Rossetti published her poem In the Bleak Midwinter in 1874. We are all familiar with the sentiment in the final verse of offering the heart in the absence of sufficient means to bring anything else: if you listen to the third, final, verse here I think Cornelius might just have got there first.

And so farewell, Christmas. My thoughts and heart to you wherever you are for 2020.

Click on the image for another version by Gerald Finlay –