Beethoven 250: 2020 vision

It’s an oxymoron of a year, this 2020 that is a little over two weeks from its conclusion.

Social butterflies (those of us who self-identify as extroverts & are therefore energized by other people) have no choice but to go back into our chrysalis, or do our socializing with our pets (we make baby-talk to our dogs?).

But I digress. The introverts meanwhile smile quietly at the irony, at this great excuse to avoid gathering. “The meek shall inherit the Earth”, someone said. And so in this bizarre year we discover the anti-performance, the virtual rather than the real.

Perhaps 2020 is a tiny bit of what it must have been like to be Beethoven, which is apt considering that it was a deaf man who taught us how to hear. Isn’t it perfect that the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birthday should fall in this upside down year, when live performance isn’t permitted, when the celebration of this anniversary is confined to the virtual realm of online concerts..?

It reminds me of nothing so much as Beethoven himself.

What must it be like to be composing music entirely using your inner ear? Yes it can be done. Of course composers have a few options.

1-They can draw or write something entirely using music software. SPOILER ALERT: this wasn’t an option for Beethoven.

2-They can go back and forth between writing and testing their experiment. You think of something that might sound good and then like a cook, tasting their creation, they test it on the instrument to see how it sounds. Needless to say, if you’re becoming deaf this becomes difficult or impossible.

3- …OR as I mentioned above, one can compose entirely in one’s head. I have done this before. I am not saying the result was immortal, or even good. But I was working on the score for an adaptation of Pericles in the early 1980s while I was working in a small bookstore. I had a bit of a struggle shutting the mall’s Muzak out while trying to hear what was scored on the page.

(hm do they still have Muzak nowadays? Do millennials know the meaning of the word? do they even have malls? But do large places play music on the sound system anymore?)

But wow it’s distracting when you’re trying to compose something, to hear other music blaring at you. I only mention this because that last option –composing entirely in his head—became the only option available for Beethoven, who might try to sing a tune aloud, perhaps to hear it inside his head, but couldn’t simply plunk out a tune on his piano.

I am reminded of that scene in Immortal Beloved when we see him playing a piano, unaware of someone behind him, as he explores the sounds. He is testing a new instrument.

Did he perhaps begin to understand the piano as a sonorous wonderland, with amazing potential? His writing took the instrument far beyond what anyone else had done.

Or that famous story of the premiere of his 9th symphony, supposedly unaware of the riotous applause from the audience behind him until a soloist turned him around. He was like an exile from the world, progressively further & further away from society as his hearing loss grew more complete.

I am also reminded of someone entirely different. I just finished reading Alex Ross’s huge book about Richard Wagner, which is why he’s on my mind. Because Wagner was involved in a failed revolt, he fled capture by the police, going into exile with his wife and probably with a dog as well. For the next several years he would be a pamphlet writer, railing against the conventions of the world while in exile, living with generous friends such as Franz Liszt and later Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria, both of whom took him in and helped facilitate premieres of his works. No Wagner wasn’t deaf: but he also didn’t have access to a theatre, and so no wonder he reinvented opera in this period, while writing radical essays about “the art of the future”. He noticed what was wrong with opera while unable to make any opera, and wrote the single most insightful essay on the subject, “Opera and Drama”: making the simple critique that a form meant to use music to make drama, instead tended to use drama as a form to make music. Distance offers perspective, a chance to learn, and there is no distance like exile.

Like Wagner, Beethoven was separated from his music, something like what we have all lived during the pandemic. No we didn’t go anywhere (nor did Beethoven). But the concerts and operas went away, except on our computers. For Beethoven the music receded away from him like water in a lake that was drying up. The result of such profound changes as what we’re living through in 2020 is a kind of alienation, leaving some people confused, depressed, traumatized, and worse. If you are sad living through 2020 imagine what Beethoven lived through, and consider what one can learn from this experience.

It may be difficult yet it is also an opportunity.

Remember how wonderful the music sounded in a concert hall: that is when you could actually go into a concert hall..? I am grateful even recalling the banality of lining up to pee at Roy Thomson Hall, or Four Seasons Centre. In December 2020 one walks the streets, the restaurants & stores mostly locked down. We are often masked, unable to even see a smile. Beethoven was perceived to be grouchy, miserable. I can relate. Under a mask no one can see your smile (or lack thereof).

Beethoven sometimes composed counter-intuitively, against our expectation. Listen for instance to the first movement of his violin concerto, where the two main ideas are a melody on the fiddle plus a repeated idea for the drum. It’s almost like an abstract exercise. Can you make something so beautiful out of the repeated pounding of a drum as to let it be a motif, a significant musical idea? The drama of the opening mvmt of his violin concerto could be a self-portrait in those two opposing ideas: a melody for violin, soft pounding of the drum. Is this something that one dreams up when far away, estranged, exiled?

Beethoven was the first to write a song cycle. Its title sounds like an apt subject for 2020, this year of estrangement & physical distancing. “An die ferne Geliebte” or “to the distant beloved”, is a series of songs for male voice, addressing a love who is far away.

I am thinking too of the letters to his Immortal Beloved (that I mentioned recently in context with the film), who was in a sense distant from him. He is again in a kind of alienated place, trying to get to someone. No wonder, then that his song cycle celebrates love from afar.

Do we listen differently alone? I suspect we do. But do we make music differently as performers and composers, making music without an audience? I know I make music differently when I know someone will hear. I wonder when the dog is under the piano (channeling Gerald Moore) “am I playing too loudly”?

The face reflected in the piano

When my wife is in the house I prefer to make a sound that is pleasant rather than noisy. If I am playing something that’s too difficult she can hear a struggle, picks up on the drama. I’ve re-thought and re-learned how to play and/or sing from hearing her feedback, coming to understand some compositions differently as a result. Some pieces must be dramatic (Erlkönig!?), while some should aim to be free of drama (Satie’s Gymnopédies?). Maybe that is what we understand by a genre, both in the implications for the artist and the implicit signals to audiences. But what if one has no such feedback? What if one is truly deaf? Usually at that point, music-making isn’t even an option let alone an interest and a passion. It is forever amazing to reflect on what Beethoven accomplished.

Of course composition changed under his influence, but perhaps too it changes with what his deafness implies, with the implications of sounds inside the head as the ideal, not the ones we hear. So the first glimmering of the “modern” might be with him, in the willingness to make music without any pressure to be “beautiful”. His beauty is at times radical, pointing the way to the Wagner-Mahler-Berg modernism, composers who push music away from the usual path into new ones of ever more daring. Any bold composer in 2020 can think of Beethoven as the avatar of bold exploration.

And naturally in 2020 we speak of things with precision, such as the percentage efficacy of a vaccine. But when we speak of Beethoven’s birthday we don’t know it. We know that he was baptized on December 17th 1770, which is 250 years ago this Thursday. Was he born that day? It seems unlikely although I have seen that date put forth. I often see Dec 16th or 15th which are conjecture. I am guessing that in 1770, December 17th fell on a Sunday. But perhaps not. My mom tells me that at least one of my sibs was baptized in the hospital automatically, and not via church. Perhaps something like that was possible in the 18th century.

But I merely finish by pointing out that it’s not a beginning that can be ascertained with scientific accuracy. But even if it were possible, that’s not what matters.

It’s the music.

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