Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph IV

Beethoven remained phenomenally productive during the early 1800's. At that point, he admired Napoleon, who had essentially become a dictator in France in 1802. He began a symphony, which was originally to be called Bonaparte, and eventually became Symphony No. 3, Eroica. As of 1803, he was thinking of traveling to Paris. The conceptual underpinnings of Beethoven's music seem quite trivial to me. He believed in liberté and fraternité, but not égalité. Napoleon, like him, was supposed to be a great genius whose talent set him apart from most of mankind. This meant that they were not the same as ordinary mortals and should be treated accordingly. To me, this sounds like a naïve early version of Ayn Rand's ridiculous worldview expressed in Atlas Shrugged. That year, he also worked on Waldstein, another of my favorite piano sonatas. Eroica was eventually published in 1806, and, because of its originality, it took time for listeners to absorb. At this point in his career, Beethoven was composing almost exclusively for connoisseurs, and he made few compromises for the public in order to become more popular – as I said earlier, this is the opposite of what one finds now in popular arts. Eroica seems to have been the work that permanently elevated him to the level of Mozart and Hayden, i.e., one of the greatest composers ever.

In other respects, Beethoven's life hardly seems interesting to me. He was attracted to young, aristocratic women who universally did not reciprocate. There does not seem to be any specific knowledge of his sex life, though Swafford suggests that brothels were widely used by men during that period. I found this example, provided by Ferdinand Ries, one of Beethoven's students, amusing:

One day in Baden, Ries stumbled into a situation that gives a portrait of Beethoven's style with amours of the moment. Ries appeared for a lesson and found his master sitting on a sofa with an attractive young woman. Embarrassed, he turned to leave, but Beethoven cried, "Sit down and play for a while!" Ries did as ordered, facing away from the pair and playing bits of Beethoven pieced together with his own transitions. Suddenly, Beethoven called out "Ries, play something romantic!" Then, "Something melancholy!" Then, "Something passionate!" Finally Beethoven jumped up and theatrically exclaimed "Why, those are all things that I've written!" This, hoping the young lady would be impressed. Instead, she seemed offended by something and left abruptly.

In this example, perhaps we are seeing Beethoven's heavy-handed way of flirting. He also made a more serious pursuit of Josephine Deym, née Brunsvik, whose husband had recently died. She was an aristocrat and apparently was not in the least bit interested in Beethoven or his prolonged courtship, which completely failed.

This book is moving very slowly for me, and I am at the point of just recording some basic facts. Swafford is probably best at describing the details of Beethoven's compositions. This can be rewarding if you are familiar with the particular piece under discussion, but otherwise it less satisfying. Overall, I am finding the book worthwhile, though often in the slightly negative sense of discovering that Beethoven as a person is not really an interesting topic. I'm about halfway through and will attempt to pick up speed so that I can move on to something else soon.

Wednesday, March 22, 2023


I'm taking a short break from Beethoven for some personal news. If you have been reading my Diary entries recently, you may have noticed signs that cracks have developed in my relationship with my partner. Although I had thought that the relationship was salvageable, it has gradually been collapsing over the last two years or longer. There are several reasons for this, and I won't go into all of them now. The two main ones, from my perspective, are different interests and an absence of psychological concordance. After we moved to Vermont, it became apparent that she prefers to participate in the local garden club and other hobby groups, mostly with rich retirees in the eighty-plus age group. This in itself would not be bad except for the fact that I don't identify with these people, because they represent an earlier generation than mine. Although I don't really identify with the Baby Boomers, they are my generation. Thus, I am somewhat anti-materialistic and like the outdoors, whereas she likes physical possessions and dislikes insects and sweating. She prefers being indoors knitting, cooking, painting pictures or working on interior decoration projects. Also, I am interested in eclectic nonfiction, particularly biographies and science writing, which don't seem to capture her imagination. This leads to the second group of differences, which concerns our psychological profiles. Although she does have intellectual proclivities, she doesn't read as widely as I do and is not as interested in the human psyche as I am. In some ways, that is the main topic of this blog, which she stopped reading some time ago.

The upshot is that she has decided to move to Seattle to be near her younger son and is selling her house here in Middlebury. Since I won't be leaving with her, I am going to attempt to buy a house locally and move into it, which will take some time and effort. This probably won't have much effect on my blog production, though it could slow me down a little. Although I'm not exactly happy with this state of affairs, note that, historically, humans have engaged in serial monogamy, and this particular relationship has already lasted for about two decades. I should also mention that biology is probably at work in situations like this. The theory is that the reason why women continue living after menopause is in order to help others, particularly their living descendants. It is readily apparent that, in this age of mobility, elderly parents tend to move close to their children. In a situation where an aging couple each had children with a different partner, there is less of a biological incentive for them to invest in unrelated offspring. I think that the data would support this theory. As with many similar points I've made, reason may play little role in the decision to end relationships in situations like this.

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph III

As time passes, more descriptions of Beethoven are emerging from his contemporaries. Carl Friedrich, Baron Kübeck von Kübau, wrote:

He was a small man with unkempt, bristling hair with no powder, which was unusual. He had a face deformed by pock-marks, small, shining eyes, and a continuous movement of every limb in his body...Whoever sees Beethoven for the first time and knows nothing about him would surely take him for a malicious, ill-natured and quarrelsome drunk who has no feeling for music...On the other hand, he who sees him for the first time surrounded by his fame and his glory, will surely see musical talent in every feature of an ugly face.

In 1798, Beethoven met Karl Freidrich Amenda, a violin prodigy, and he became his closest friend since Bonn. That year, he began to experience hearing loss and tinnitus. The cause may have been lead in the cheap wine that he drank. I wonder whether all the loud piano playing damaged his ears – Swafford doesn't mention this possibility. In 1799 he published Op. 13, Grande Sonate Pathétique, which became one of his most popular piano sonatas. That year, he acquired a piano competitor when Joseph Wölffl arrived in town; Wölffl played as well as he did and they remained on good terms.

In 1800, Prince Lichnowsky provided Beethoven with an annuity, which relieved his financial pressures somewhat. Otherwise, most of his income came from the publication of his works. To that end he worked tirelessly producing more music and marketing it himself to various publishers. At this age (twenty-nine), he still accepted students.

The actual romantic aspects of Beethoven's life are reflected in his relationship with countess Giulietta Guicciardi. In 1801, when she was seventeen, she became his piano student, and he fell in love with her. As Swafford describes the situation, there was no realistic possibility of a marriage:

A woman of nobility who married a commoner lost the privileges of her class; her children could not inherit a title. Few noblewomen were prepared to give up so much, least of all to marry a freelance composer of uncertain income, however celebrated, who was meanwhile homely, hot-tempered, utterly self-involved, and afflicted with chronic diarrhea. The other matter, his growing deafness, he would have kept hidden from Julie.

Op. 27 No. 2, Moonlight, one of my favorite piano sonatas, was dedicated to her and published in 1801. This quickly became Beethoven's most popular work. I can see why.

In 1802, Ludwig had a colossal fight with his brother, Carl, who had moved to Vienna. Carl had been rummaging through Ludwig's music manuscripts and attempting to sell them to his own publishers at excessive prices. Carl also sold pieces in Ludwig's name that had not been composed by him. Needless to say, when Ludwig learned of this, he was outraged, and they literally came to blows.

So, the main patterns in Beethoven's life are in evidence now. It is more than half-over, and he has major works ahead of him while his health deteriorates. I still don't have a sense that in person he would be that appealing, because, although passionate, his main talent was in music, and his views on other matters may not have been that interesting. His temper could and did lead to various feuds throughout his life. What is most interesting about him is his ability to mix classical formality with conventional emotions and express them harmoniously. This is something that I don't think either Bach or Mozart ever attempted. You might say that Beethoven was the first composer to make classical music accessible to the common man without ruining it. For comparison's sake, American popular music, some of which I like, is thematically static. Some of it is based on acoustic and electric guitars, which, as far as I know, have seen little design change in decades. Modern composers of popular music need only pick from a bag of established styles and throw in easy lyrics that don't stand up to critical scrutiny. No popular modern composers have changed music to the extent that Beethoven did. As far as I can tell, there has not been an improvement in popular American music in decades, and that is why, when you turn on your radio today, you are likely to hear something that was popular over fifty years ago.

Friday, March 3, 2023

Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph II

During the remaining years of Beethoven's youth, the University of Bonn was founded in 1786 and locally the popularity of music increased. The mood in Bonn was progressive and forward-looking. However, a long, serious chain of events began in 1789 with the French Revolution, which was followed by the Jacobin movement, which endangered monarchists throughout Europe. This was followed by the rise of Napoleon, who organized attacks on Austria and Italy in 1796 before staging a successful coup in France in 1799. The atmosphere in Europe became more nationalistic and patriotic than it had been previously.

Beethoven continued his musical training playing in the court theater, switching to the viola in 1791. In 1792, Joseph Haydn stopped in Bonn on the way back from England. He heard Beethoven play and looked at some of his scores. Recognizing Beethoven's talent, a plan was made to send Beethoven to Vienna to study under Haydn, who was then considered to be the greatest living composer in Europe, since Mozart had died the previous year. By that point, Beethoven's father was retired and Ludwig had been given financial responsibility for his two brothers. An arrangement was made by Max Franz, the Elector of Bonn, also a music aficionado, to finance Beethoven's move to Vienna.

Upon arrival in Vienna, Beethoven's keyboard skill was recognized immediately. He composed musical works of increasing value, but did not immediately produce masterpieces comparable to his later works. Socially, he was quickly accepted by the highest social stratum, which consisted of classical music fanatics. Chief among them was Prince Karl Lichnowsky, who had been "a patron, student, and Masonic lodge brother of Mozart...." Lichnowsky's family and friends were on good terms with Count Waldstein from Bonn. Besides Lichnowsky, Prince Lobkowitz, "another indefatigable aristocratic music fancier, from one of the most prominent and influential families in Austria" became a friend and supporter. In those days, though it was inhabited by many talented musicians, Vienna was overcrowded and didn't have many suitable venues for musical performances, so many of them were conducted privately in people's homes.

Swafford is primarily interested in Beethoven's musical development, which is certainly a worthy topic, but I am more interested in Beethoven's personality and thoughts. Despite his astounding professional success in Vienna, Beethoven seems somewhat disagreeable as a person and seems to lack any interesting ideas outside of music. Although he was consorting regularly with the aristocracy, in his personal life he was lacking in social graces. He had a short temper and frequently had disagreements with Haydn and Lobkowitz. He often appeared improperly groomed in aristocratic settings. It seems that he had relationships with women, but they tended to end badly, with the women finding him socially inept. I hope that in the remainder of the book more information will be provided so that I can sort this out better. At the moment, Beethoven resembles a slightly buffoonish lower-middle-class male from Bonn of that period who completely lacked social graces but was able to get away with it purely on the basis of his musical reputation. However, it does not appear that his musical talent was sufficient to assuage the fears of potential spouses. So Beethoven is looking a bit oafish at the moment, and it may be that he was a savant whose talents covered only a limited range. I should also mention that he was in fact operating in a highly competitive environment and may not have been unrealistic about protecting himself from competitors. 

In fairness to Beethoven, I should also mention that a recurring theme on this blog has been that the U.S. has never created fine art at the level of the best European fiction or painting. To that list you can add music. The reason for this is quite simple: an environment suitable for the creation of great art requires highly sophisticated patrons, such as wealthy aristocrats. Any art form that becomes dominated by the profit motive, as everything has in the U.S., is unlikely to surpass the best art of the past. American art forms tend to be vernacular, which I think limits their aesthetic appeal. This is not a land of aesthetes.

I'm up to 1797, with Beethoven, who is only twenty-six, fabulously successful, profusely publishing his music and touring Europe. By all rights I should be proceeding much faster through this book than I am currently.