Friday, February 17, 2023

Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph I

My distractions have been reduced a little, and I've started reading this book by Jan Swafford. As I prefer, it is quite long, and I can spend a lot of time on it. Swafford is a composer, but this biography is more complete than one I read a few years ago, because it focuses more on biographical facts than on the technical aspects of Beethoven's works. Even so, there is a paucity of information on Beethoven's life, since he came from a relatively unprivileged background, grew up in a rural town, was not particularly intellectual and did not leave much of a written record of his life compared to most of the other people I've discussed. In the case of Beethoven, though he was an exceptional person, it is tempting to see him as a product of his times.

He was born in 1770 in Bonn, which was then a small, rural town. His grandfather, also named Ludwig van Beethoven, was born in Flanders and showed musical talent at an early age. He moved to Bonn when he was young and later became the Kapellmeister, which was the highest musical position in the town, and stayed there for the remainder of his life. Besides his musical abilities, he was known to be resourceful and supplemented his musical income as a wine merchant. He married and had one child, Johann, who was not as talented, either in music or business, though he was a tenor in local performances. Johann married a woman named Maria, who came from a good family. Maria's first husband and child had died, and she and Johann produced seven more children, four of whom died before reaching adulthood. Ludwig had an older brother, also named Ludwig, who died a year before he was born. His two younger brothers, Nikolaus Johann and Caspar Anton Carl, survived to adulthood.

Johann had trouble making enough money to support his family, and when he recognized that Ludwig was musically talented he attempted to model him as a young prodigy, like Mozart, who was still alive and had performed in the area when he was young. This got Ludwig off to an early start, but he disliked his father, who was a poor teacher. In later years, Johann, who was gregarious, became an alcoholic. While Ludwig was growing up, he was also taught by others, who were more competent, such as Christian Neefe. At an early age, Ludwig became interested in composition. The training was rather demanding and usually required singing and playing several instruments. He liked to improvise, and, to this end, he studied some of the works of J.S. Bach and Mozart.

Ludwig was closest to his mother, who seems to have been a serious, quiet person. Ludwig himself was not sociable and seems to have spent much of his time practicing on instruments. His formal academic studies ended when he was ten, and I was surprised to learn that he was never taught multiplication, and throughout his life he simply added a column of numbers instead of multiplying. In his early years he was often unkempt and had a brusque manner. As he got older, he became acquainted with the aristocrats living in Bonn because of their interest in music. Eventually, Count Waldstein became his primary sponsor.

In 1787, when he was sixteen, Ludwig travelled alone to Vienna under circumstances not clearly understood. He met Mozart, but there does not appear to be a completely reliable account of the meeting. His trip ended abruptly after two weeks when his father informed him that his mother was severely ill. He returned home, and she died shortly after, from tuberculosis, for which there was no cure in those days. She was only forty years old.

So, I'm off to a good start with this book and will attempt to make more frequent posts. What I notice so far is the uniqueness of the time and place. German Romanticism was underway. Goethe, Schiller and classical music were all popular, and the environment supported high spirits, brotherhood and optimism perhaps as never before. It is also significant that the piano was then a new instrument under development, and because of its percussive characteristics it was better-suited to emotive expression than the harpsichord, which plucks rather than strikes the strings. Although I listened mainly to Beethoven's symphonies while I was growing up, much later I came to prefer his piano sonatas. Though they are somewhat constricted by the formal requirements of classical music, I find them more expressive than the works of Mozart and more condensed than Beethoven's symphonies.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are moderated in order to remove spam.