Thursday, December 16, 2010

I Love To Listen To Beethoven

Although the exact date of birth for Ludwig van Beethoven is not known, his family celebrated the event on December 16th, which is good enough for me; the year of his birth, though, we do know - 1770 - as well as the place, Bonn, where today the house in which he was born serves as a museum.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketEven within his lifetime, Beethoven was considered one of the world's foremost composers by his contemporaries... He studied with Joseph Haydn and Antonio Salieri and was inspired by Mozart; his work bridges the gap between the Classical and Romantic eras in music, containing as it does echoes from Bach as well as innovations which were wholly his own. In this he was guided by the ideals of the Enlightenment, which was then all the rage in Europe.

Although* a genius, Beethoven was troubled; physically abused by his drunken father from childhood, he began to lose his hearing at the age of 26, suffered abdominal cramping which may have been caused by lead poisoning, and generally became renowned for his irascibility. He would stop playing if there was any chatter in the audience, refused to play on short notice, and generally behaved so abominably that his patron Archduke Rudolph (the youngest son of Emperor Leopold II) had to waive the usual rules of court etiquette to accommodate his favourite composer. Despite this, and the fact that he may have suffered from bipolar disorder, Beethoven maintained a close circle of friends throughout his life who provided him with ample moral support.

In October 1802, while staying outside of Vienna and contemplating suicide, Beethoven wrote the Heiligenstadt Testament, one of the profoundest statements ever made by an artist concerning the whys and wherefores of the creative process; in fact, he continued to live for his art long after living his life had become unbearably painful. Yet for all its power, it was only one of two cryptic documents Beethoven wrote in his lifetime; the other, a love letter to an unnamed woman (possibly Antonie Brentano) coined the phrase with which he is most associated - Unsterbliche Geliebte**. He lasted until March 1827, at which point he died; more than 20,000 people lined the streets of Vienna to witness his burial, at the cemetery in the city's Währing district. His body was exhumed in 1862 so they could be studied, whereupon his remains were reburied at Zentralfriedhof in 1888.

Although in modern times Beethoven never had a greater champion than Schroeder (in Charles M. Schulz's comic strip Peanuts) he's only recently been played onscreen by Ed Harris (in Agnieszka Holland's 2006 film Copying Beethoven), and more memorably still by Gary Oldman in the 1994 film Immortal Beloved (which admittedly is an altogether catchier title than Unsterbliche Geliebte).

Oldman's portrayal is an even greater triumph when considering the perils with which it is fraught. Many of Beethoven's letters - not to mention the more scurrilous of his famous conversation books - were destroyed upon his death (in March 1827) by his secretary Anton Schindler. Ostensibly this was done to protect Beethoven's reputation, with no foresight into the apologism his future biographers - myself included - would inevitably try to bring to their critical understanding of the man and his moods as they relate to the creation of his inestimable musical legacy. What it did accomplish, though, was to obscure the total picture of a great man, forcing us who did not know him to fill in the blanks...

*Another word that also works in this space is 'because'...
**Or 'immortal beloved'.

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