Monday, November 10, 2008

Apple #350: Ludwig van Beethoven

This weekend I went to see a performance of Beethoven's 7th Symphony. It was absolutely fantastic. I had forgotten how vivacious, rich, stirring, and energetic that symphony is. I mean, the thing does not ever quit. I loved seeing the way the members of the orchestra had to work their tails off to match the vigor of the music they were playing.

Apparently, Beethoven himself once called it his "most excellent symphony." Here are a few other responses to the symphony by various composers and music lovers:

  • Emanates an immense joy
  • Full of bliss and pleasure of life
  • An apotheosis [supreme model of excellence] of dance
  • Dead good it is, even better than the Fifth . . . and a right bit of fun
  • The Allegretto. . . is one of the world's best-loved pieces of music
  • One can hardly decide what to think more astonishing: Beethoven’s amazing creative fantasy; the impeccable form; the amazing talent in using all the musical resources in developing the themes; or his compact, luscious, sumptuous instrumentation.

To put it another way, after it was over, I remarked to my friend who'd gone to the performance with me, "That is balls-out music."

Here it is, for your listening pleasure, as you read. I recommend turning up your speakers.

[In case the YouTube thing isn't embedded properly, you can get to the 7th's 2nd movement here.]

In general, I love the Beethoven. I don't know what it is -- his instrumentation, the vigorous rhythms, his genius in passing a phrase back and forth and mirroring it throughout a piece, the way he can shift moods in the transition from one note to the next -- but I always feel filled up when I listen to his music. It's as if all the hidden curves and corners of my soul that had gone untouched by anything else for a very long time were suddenly filled with his music. Magnificent.

Most of us know that Beethoven went deaf and that, by the time he wrote the 9th Symphony, he could barely hear at all. You've probably also heard the story that, at the conclusion of the 9th's initial performance, someone bodily turned him around to face the audience so he could see the standing ovation his work was receiving. But what are some other things about Beethoven's life that are maybe not so well-known?

  • Biographies will state when Beethoven was baptized (Dec 7, 1770), but they don't ever give his birth date. That's because nobody knows for sure what it was.
  • Even Beethoven was confused about his age. Before one performance when he was 7 and a half, his father introduced him to the audience as being 6 years old. So for years Beethoven insisted even to his family that he was younger than he actually was.
  • Beethoven was one of 7 children, but only he and two of his brothers survived childhood.
  • Though Beethoven lived in Germany and Austria for much of his life, his name was not German but Flemish (Dutch). The "van" does not signal nobility, as "von" does in German names.
  • Beethoven's father taught him about music and to play the piano. But his father was also an alcoholic and when he got home from drinking in the middle of the night, would wake up Ludwig and force him to practice.

People think this is Beethoven's father, Johann. He looks stern enough to be.
(Image from LvB, the Magnificent Master)

  • In 1802, Beethoven wrote a letter to his brothers about what it was like for him when he first realized he was going deaf. In this letter, now known as the Heiligenstadt Testament, he said that his deafness nearly drove him to despair and suicide.

. . . what a humiliation for me when someone standing next to me heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone standing next to me heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone heard a shepherd singing and again I heard nothing. Such incidents drove me almost to despair; a little more of that and I would have ended my life -- it was only my art that held me back. Ah, it seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had brought forth all that I felt was within me.

  • Not long after he wrote this letter, he started working on his 3rd symphony, the Eroica. People interpret that symphony today as describing a struggle, a death in a funeral march, followed by a rebirth in the scherzo movement, and finally a glorification.

Beethoven in 1803, after he had faced the fact that he was losing his hearing.
(Portrait by Hornemann, Image from Wikipedia)

  • A faithful reader asked me, hey, if Beethoven had tinnitus, couldn't that have been cured? So I looked into it, and here is what I found:
  • According to what I read, a lot of things can cause tinnitus. Wax build-up can make you hear your own internal head-sounds, and that gets called tinnitus. Get somebody to suck out that excess wax and bingo, you're cured. However, tinnitus can also happen when the nerve endings in your ears are damaged due to lots of different causes – exposure to loud noises over an extended period of time, too much aspirin, diseases of the inner ear, aneurysms, or head trauma. Some people today think that maybe when Beethoven’s dad whacked him in the head so many times, that may have caused his tinnitus. So Beethoven's tinnitus may have been of the incurable sort, even by today's standards.
  • Beethoven knew a Czech inventor named Maelzel, who made all sorts of devices to try to help Beethoven hear in spite of his tinnitus. Maelzel also invented the metronome, and many of Beethoven's compositions include specific notations about the speed at which he meant for his pieces to be performed.
  • In addition to his deafness, Beethoven also suffered from terrible stomach pains, which historians today think was probably lead poisoning.
  • He also had a volatile temper, (a "tumultuous personality" according to Goethe), and often turned angry and bitter at friends one day, only to write them apologetic letters assuring them how much he valued their kindness and compassion the next. Many people today suspect that he might have suffered from bipolar depression, which resulted in this volatility.
  • He also had little reverence for titled aristocracy. There is a famous story about Beethoven and Goethe going for a walk together and encountering a group of dukes and duchesses and various sorts of fancy people. Goethe made way for them, but Beethoven did not. He strode through the center of their party and they had to move aside for him. When Beethoven and Goethe met up on the other side of the group of noblepeople, Beethoven told Goethe he was too servile, and Goethe decided that Beethoven was "completely untamed."

The untamed Beethoven, around 1819
(Portrait by Stieler, from Ludwig van Beethoven, Magnificent Master)

  • After Beethoven's hearing loss became more profound, he "conversed" with people by writing down what he wanted to say in a notebook, and his interlocutor responded the same way. It is believed that over the years, he amassed some 400 notebooks like this. Unfortunately after his death, violinist Anton Schindler was entrusted with these notebooks, and he destroyed almost half of them in an attempt to preserve a favorable image of the composer.
  • One of the ways he earned his living was as a music teacher. Many of them were attractive young women, and he fell in love with several of them.
  • Though he fell in love several times in his adult life, for one reason or another, it never worked out and he never did marry. (One woman, to whom he was engaged, was named Giullietta Giucciardi.) In some instances, he was not aristocratic enough to suit the family of the women he loved. In others, he changed his mind and decided that he and she were not suited to each other.
Much as you love me - I love you more. . . . Is not our love truly a heavenly structure, and also as firm as the vault of heaven? . . . No one else can ever possess my heart - never - never - Oh God, why must one be parted from one whom one so loves. . . . Oh continue to love me - never misjudge the most faithful heart of your beloved.

Antonie Brentano, the woman whom many scholars think might have been the intended recipient of Beethoven's letters never sent.
(Image from LvB, the Magnificent Master)

  • One of the young students he loved was an 18 year-old named Therese. He was 40 at the time. He was so smitten, he asked a friend of his to get a copy of his birth certificate from Bonn, a preliminary to marriage arrangements. However, everything went wrong. At a party thrown by Therese's father, Beethoven was supposed to perform a new bagatelle, but he was so drunk he was unable to play it. He scrawled on the music "Fur Therese." When the manuscript was found many years later after Therese had died, his writing was so illegible, it was misread as "Fur Elise."

Therese Malfatti, the young woman for whom Beethoven wrote the erroneously-known "Fur Elise," is seated at the piano in this portrait with her family.
(Image from LvB, the Magnificent Master)

  • In 1823, when Beethoven was in his 50s, he completed his 9th symphony. According to manuscripts that survive, he had first begun work on it 7 years previously.

Beethoven in 1823, a year before his completed 9th Symphony was performed.
(Portrait by Waldmuller, from LvB, the Magnificent Master)

  • The performance of the 9th, called "the Academy," was a tremendous and now-famous success. He sat near the conductor and gave the conductor the tempos he wanted. At the end of the performance, the audience gave him a standing ovation, but his back was to the audience and he had no idea of their reaction. One of the sopranos who had performed, a woman named Caroline Unger, took his hand and turned him to see the audience.
The whole audience acclaimed him through standing ovations five times; there were handkerchiefs in the air, hats, raised hands, so that Beethoven, who could not hear the applause, could at least see the ovation gestures. The theatre house had never seen such enthusiasm in applause.

At that time, it was customary that the imperial couple be greeted with three ovations at their entrance in the hall. The fact that a private person, who wasn't even employed by the state, and all the more, was a musician (class of people who had been perceived as lackeys at court), received five ovations, was in itself inadmissible, almost indecent. Police agents present at the concert had to break off this spontaneous explosion of ovations. Beethoven left the concert deeply moved.

  • However, despite such enormous acclaim, the 9th symphony was not a financial success. And then pretty much everything in Beethoven's life hit a downward spiral:
  1. His health was continuing to decline, though he did have three surgical operations which tapped his dwindling funds.
  2. Added to his list of ailments was insomnia, and probably the physical decline associated with years of alcohol abuse.
  3. His nephew, of whom Beethoven assumed an obsessive-like control, tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide by shooting himself in the head. Some sources say his nephew, Karl, tried to kill himself because of his outsize gambling debts; others say it was because the courts awarded custody of Karl to Beethoven, instead of to his mother. Whatever the reason, Beethoven felt the blow and gave up trying to raise Karl. That was good for Karl, but Beethoven took it as a failure.
  4. Finally, he was also pretty much broke. He did have some money, but he was trying to save as much as possible to pass on to his nephew. His rooms were "shabby" and he spent money only on food.
  • The day he died, there was a terrible storm. But it wasn't just any storm; there was thunder, there was lightning, and there was a whirling snowstorm. Beethoven died with his fist clenched and raised toward the heavens while lightning flashed against the snow. Tempestuous, even in death.

Beethoven conducting his 6th symphony in 1808.
(Image from LvB's Biography)

  • He wrote 138 pieces of music that were published during his lifetime. Some 205 additional works have been found and were published after his death.

P.S. Your Apple Lady is aware of the tendency in Hollywood movies to denote a villain's villainy by showing him listening to classical music. Not all Hollywood villains like classical music, but lots of the "smart" ones often do. And you can bet that if somebody is listening to classical music, he or she is a bad guy:
  • Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs.
  • Alex in Fatal Attraction (she's the one who puts Madame Butterfly on the stereo).
  • Alex DeLarge in A Clockwork Orange absolutely loves Beethoven.
So let me state here, unequivocally, that your faithful Apple Lady is no villain. I am not hatching nefarious and demented plans while listening to classical music. I really like the Beethoven, and I think it is reverse-elitist, stupid, and by this time just plain cliched of the movie-makers to keep making their villains listen to classical music. (This blogger and his readers have some intriguing thoughts on the link between movie villains and classical music, and also Nazis.)

Classical Music Pages, Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No. 7, Opus 92
All About Beethoven, Symphony No. 7 and Beethoven's Life
NPR All Things Considered, Admirers of the Allegretto from Beethoven's 7th
Beethoven's website, Ludwig van Beethoven's biography
Wikipedia, Ludwig van Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven, The Magnificent Master
Buzzle, Biography of Beethoven
MSN Encarta, Ludwig van Beethoven


  1. Thank you for your brief review. Perhaps you will enjoy this work in progress, a documentary about Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

    Trailer here


    kerry candaele
    venice, ca

  2. Someone wrote a mystery novel titled "The Tenth" or something like that, has anyone heard of it? It involves Beethoven's 10th symphony, and a 20 thousand pound's worth of a music sheet.

  3. It is undeniable that Beethoven's father has made an impact in his musical career when he grew up. However, the sad side of the story is that his father is an alcoholic. But still he was an influential person to Beethoven's successful career later in life.

  4. Hmm, Anonymous, I've looked for such a novel without any success. Perhaps you're thinking of a play called "Beethoven's Tenth" by Peter Ustinov? It's online in full text via Google Books.

    Here's a description from a pdf that was mysteriously cut off mid-sentence:

    "The play is about a music critic who is writing a book about what Beethoven's tenth symphony
    might have been like, when who should appear in his living room but Ludvig himself, back from
    the dust of centuries. Of course he is deaf; and he wanders around muttering in German until the
    critic calls in a doctor friend with a special kind of hearing aid. Luckily, Beethoven has learned
    English in Heaven so he can engage in witty banter with the critic without a translator. Eventually,
    of course, Beethoven goes back to the Great Beyond, but not before he reveals who the mysterious"
    and that's where it stops.

  5. Thanks for the article.It is really good one.

    Ear tinnitus writer


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