The Genius of Beethoven

By Madeline Clark

If there is one thing we have learned from the observance of this Bicentennial Year of Beethoven's birth (December 16,1770), it is that genius is as great a mystery as ever and this mystery may never be penetrated. Beethoven in his personal life has always been an enigma, but about his music there can be no doubt that it has inspired listeners, they know not how, to come in touch with their higher faculties.

Numbers of writers have produced biographical studies, articles, reviews, and have attempted to analyze the situation of a human being possessed of genius yet having to cope with everyday life; and more than one has likened Beethoven to a Prometheus snatching from the invisible realms the lightnings and thunders, as well as the heavenly strains filled with consolation, that mankind has received as music. But how he came to be that, no one has been able to fathom.

Among the books brought forth by this Bicentennial, George Marek's classic biography (Beethoven: Biography of a Genius, by George R. Marek. Funk and Wagnalls, New York, 1970, 696 pages, $10.00.) has received high praise, and justly so. Aside from his excellent presentation, we have to thank him for his thorough research, wealth of information, splendid Index and Chronology, very fine Bibliography and Who's Who of People Important in Beethoven's Life. And lastly, but not least, the copious illustrations and artistic beauty of the finished volume.

Then there is Martin Cooper's profound study, (Beethoven: The Last Decade, 1817-1827, by Martin Cooper. Oxford University Press, New York, 1970, 483 pages, $12.75.) dealing with the master's latest compositions, which are recognized as representing a form of music that we are groping for today, and which therefore need analysis. This the author has given us in a masterly and comprehensible manner, poetic and delightful -- a book invaluable to students and music lovers generally. Martin Cooper has also accorded us a special courtesy. Whereas some other reviewers seem to relish a discussion of Beethoven's lifelong and grievous illnesses (and their causes), Cooper took a different course. He asked a physician friend, Dr. Edward Larkin, to write on "Beethoven's Medical History." This appears as an Appendix and is of special value, because it lays to rest some dark conjectures impugning the composer's moral character. Dr. Larkin brings to his statement the merciful and factual spirit of his profession, agreeing with some of his colleagues that it is unseemly to air a man's "mishaps before the general public," and that "the only Beethoven that matters is the one who speaks out in the music." He includes a Bibliography of all his sources.

Michael Hamburger, in his Beethoven: Letters, Journals and Conversations, (Anchor Book Edition, 1960, paperback, 290 pages) edited and translated by himself, has also a wise and sensible approach. His intention is "to provide the reader with a basis upon which he may construct his own biography of Beethoven."

Read in any Encyclopedia the marvelous story of Beethoven's budding and blossoming genius: first in Bonn, where his father was a musician at the Electoral Court, and where young Ludwig himself soon played a part as organist, violin or viola in the orchestra, and even conductor. Then began the incredibly busy years in Vienna, where he was welcomed in the most brilliant musical circles, enchanting gatherings in the great houses with his improvisations on the piano, in which he showed an inexhaustible wealth of musical ideas, together with a special skill in his own legato style which has never since been equaled. (No tape recorders in those days, alas!) Later came public performances of his larger works: symphonies, sonatas, concertos, overtures: within six years (1804-9) no fewer than sixteen of his principal compositions came through.

In Hamburger's book are incidents and comments that reveal something of the pattern that Beethoven's life was destined to take. He early showed a remarkable self-direction and habit of study, so that even his improvisations were based on careful attention to the canons of music. His eagerness for perfection led him to seek out the best-qualified teachers. Haydn himself had invited Beethoven to study with him in Vienna, but after some months Beethoven began to seek out other instruction. He had immense stores of original ideas which went beyond the forms that Haydn and Mozart had perfected. And while Beethoven used these forms as a foundation, it became immediately evident that the scope of his works would be something new -- would open liberating fields of invention, deeper, wider, more charged with cosmic energies.

With the death of his cherished mother in 1787, and of his little sister, Beethoven had the first inkling that personal earthly ties and comfortable security were not for him; and later this pattern persisted in his ill-success in gaining a wife, and in his efforts to acquire a permanent post in the household of some nobleman as chief musician. He was to be strictly on his own. Above all, the onset of deafness from about his 30th year still further turned him away from easy intercourse with his fellows, in which he had taken such keen pleasure. And yet, in the minds of some, perhaps he would not otherwise have had the full power of his gift.

Many an entry by Beethoven in his Notebooks testifies to this inner consciousness of what his life must be. (1812): ". . . for you there can be no more happiness, except within yourself, in your art." (1819): "There is scarcely any goodness without sacrifice and it seems that the more virtuous and noble of men are intended to make such sacrifices, . . . so that their virtues may be put to the test." Nevertheless, Beethoven had many warm and lasting friendships both in Bonn and in Vienna, a devoted circle of friends who helped and served him in the exigencies of daily life when need arose.

Beethoven's idea in regard to his music was that it was his means of serving humanity; the phrase "suffering humanity" was often on his lips and is to be found in his letters. The way Beethoven could and did assist in relieving human troubles was to inaugurate a concert and give the proceeds to those in need. His attitude towards his fellowmen is shown in this letter to his friend Zmeskall:
I have tried to acquire the habit of not condemning the whole man on account of specific weaknesses, but to be just and fair, to bear in mind what is good in men, and whenever this affected me personally and I was able to put these principles into practice, I have not only shown myself to be a friend of the whole human race, but have always considered individual members of it as my friends. -- Letters, Journals and Conversations

All this is more or less on the serious side, but Beethoven had a great sense of humor, loved punning, had quaint nicknames for his friends; but his greatest fun came in his music, in his rollicking scherzos, which often follow after a slow and solemn movement; and in unexpected turns -- tricks, surprises -- here and there, especially in the symphonies, that make one laugh aloud in delight. He seemed to dislike seeing his hearers moved to tears by some improvisation; he would do something sudden to break the spell, like drumming his hand "hideously" upon the keys, "roaring derisively over their consternation." Why did he do this?

According to Robert Haven Schauffler:

Beethoven derived immense enjoyment from naively bad music, and he often went with zest to the Sign of the Three Ravens, a tavern . . . on the outskirts of Vienna. There an orchestra of seven wholly unsophisticated peasants held forth. They were quite unconscious of their privilege in being the first to introduce Beethoven to the unadulterated Austrian folk-music. . . .
The Master made friends with these humble colleagues . . . more than once he composed dances for them, adapting the easy notes with laughing sympathy to the curious habits of these children of nature. -- The Man Who Freed Music

It seems that at least one or another of these rustics would lower his instrument and doze off for a brief nap, then wake up with a start and take up his part again, usually managing to hit the right key! Beethoven noticed this, and arranged the dances so that at intervals different instruments in turn could take a rest.

Beethoven seemed to realize the value of musical therapy long before it came into general use. When the Countess Ertmann (a fine pianist as well as friend, one of the greatest interpreters of his piano music) was inconsolable having lost her last child, Beethoven invited her to his studio, and said: "Now we will talk, but in notes, not words." He opened the piano and improvised for her for over an hour; and the Countess understood the message and left feeling at peace and comforted.

Likewise, when Antonie Brentano, wife of Franz Brentano, an old friend of Beethoven, was very ill and could not bear visitors, Beethoven called every day, but only to enter an adjoining room, sit down to the piano, and play for half an hour, then leave as silently as he had come. Antonie found this helped to cure her more effectively than all the doctors and medicines.

It remains to mention Beethoven's great love of nature, his happiness in the forest, where he hastened every day, rain or shine, for there his best inspirations came unbidden. Or in walks under the stars. Carl Czerny, Beethoven's pupil for many years, recalls that the theme for the majestic Adagio in the second Rasoumowsky Quartet occurred to Beethoven one evening "as he gazed at the firmament and thought about the music of the spheres." Another old friend, Andreas Stumpff, related Beethoven's discourse on a walk out in the country:

When in the evening I contemplate the sky in wonder and the host of luminous bodies continually revolving within their orbits, suns or earths by name, then my spirit rises beyond these constellations . . . to the primeval source from which all creation flows and from which new creations shall flow eternally. . . . The spirit must rise from the earth, in which for a time the divine spark is confined, and much like the field to which the ploughman entrusts precious seed, it must flower and bear many fruits, and, thus multiplied, rise again towards the source from which it has flown. -- Letters, Journals

Beethoven's personal life was a stormy one at times, largely because of his relations with the nephew whom he adopted when the boy's father died in 1815. This, and increasing ill-health with much suffering, tended to obscure, in the eyes of the unobservant, the actual flowering that was taking place in Beethoven's nature. To those who took the superficial view, Martin Cooper has a reply -- and he is talking about the last years, the last great works which contain many passages that are very far from being obviously or conventionally 'beautiful."'

. . . to discover and appreciate their 'beauty' and significance needs exactly the same patience, discernment, and humility in the listener as are needed to see past the superficial inequalities and roughness of Beethoven's character to the diamond quality which they effectively conceal from the too casual observer. . . . How in fact Beethoven maintained against all the odds of illness and personal anxieties his inner, creative life at the intensity and for the long periods needed to create the great works of his last ten years will never cease to be a marvel.

All students of Beethoven's life have felt likewise, for the stream of inspiration and creation of the music came in strong and clear to the end, going from strength to strength. And the music of this last period: the Ninth Symphony, Missa Solemnis, the three Sonatas and the four Quartets that were finished even during the final illness, are of a quality beyond anything that had come before, so that they "somehow encompass the universe and eternity." And Hugh Wood, writing in The Listener for 10th September of this year, says: "Beethoven's music above all has some mysterious quality which is extra to the notes: we must recognize in it what I can only call an immense moral power. . . . For well over a century now Beethoven has been a figure who looms over the whole of our culture -- part of the consciousness of every civilized person.

In keeping with Beethoven's hopes for human progress were his keen interest in science and invention and his wide reading. In his library after his death were found both the ancient and the modern classics -- marked and dog-eared, or quoted in his notebooks. Shakespeare he knew "as well as his own scores," according to Schindler. (Anton Felix Schindler, friend and biographer of Beethoven.) He became interested in Indian culture, and not only copied quotations from its literature and philosophy, but studied its "scale of tones" (Marek). Framed on his desk was the ancient Egyptian motto attributed to Isis: "I am that which is. I am all that is, that was, and will be. No mortal man has lifted my veil."

Marek describes the death of Beethoven, March 26, 1827: "The day was very cold; snow had fallen. Around five o'clock a sudden thunderstorm obscured the sky. It became very dark. Suddenly there was a great flash of lightning which illuminated the death chamber, accompanied by violent claps of thunder. At the flash of lightning, Beethoven opened his eyes, raised his tightly clenched right hand, and fell back dead." And this very thorough researcher adds: "This abnormality of Nature, a thunderstorm in March, has been verified by the Vienna Meteorological Bureau and other sources." He then quotes the lines from Julius Caesar:

When beggars die, there are no comets seen;
The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.

The mystery of genius is still with us, but whatever there is of profound and masterly knowledge that manifests in the individual who comes to share it with us is his by right of his own evolution, uneven though he may have allowed it to be. Stored in the soul's immense and forgotten past, it finally pours through with such force that the human frame can hardly withstand it. So far as is known, this last solution has never been advanced to explain the health difficulties that Beethoven for so long withstood in his quest for self-discovery. Beethoven said himself that music was his real means of communication; and today 150 years later, he still speaks to us as we listen -- really listen -- to him.

 (From Sunrise magazine, December 1970; copyright © 1970 Theosophical University Press)

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