Friday, April 21, 2023

Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph VII

Beethoven remained relatively productive until his death at the age of fifty-six in 1827 as a result of various maladies. I don't particularly like most of the works that I'm familiar with from that period, such as the Hammerklavier piano sonata and the late string quartets. I do like to hear the Ninth Symphony occasionally because it is so spectacular, but it's too much for regular consumption. By the way, one of my doctors says that he is a descendant of the soprano who turned Beethoven toward the audience at the end of its first performance. Actually, that symphony was not particularly popular while Beethoven was alive. 

The saga with his nephew, Karl, continued up to his death. He didn't understand Karl well, partly because he was effectively deaf, and he adopted an insensitive, controlling attitude. He won complete custody of Karl through protracted court battles, though Karl seems to have preferred his mother. Karl did benefit from a good education, but, as a teenager, he decided that he wanted to join the military. When Beethoven forbade it, Karl attempted suicide, but he failed and recovered. Beethoven remained financially challenged right up to the end, and while he did leave a substantial bequest to Karl, he was never wealthy by rock star standards.

Swafford sums up the arc of Beethoven's career as follows:

So a trajectory in Beethoven's work began in Bonn, rose to its apogee in the Third and Fifth Symphonies and in Fidelio, and came to rest in the Ninth Symphony, which resonated with the accumulated political and ethical ideas and energies of the previous decades. The Eroica exalts the conquering hero; Fidelio is a testament to individual heroism and liberation; the Fifth Symphony is an implicit drama of an individual struggling with fate. The Eroica and the Ninth have to do with the fate of societies. As to the road to an ideal society, the Ninth repudiates in thunder the answer of the Eroica.

Beethoven was deeply influenced by a popular quotation of Kant that he read in a newspaper article:

There are two things which raise man above himself and lead to eternal, ever-increasing admiration: the moral law within me and the starry sky above me.

My feeling is that Swafford overreaches in his attempt to link Beethoven to Kant. There must have been popular aphorisms floating around, but I doubt that Beethoven read much, or any, Kant. He is best known for his Critique of Pure Reason, which is well beyond Beethoven's likely reading ability. I am somewhat familiar with Kant myself, as I took a seminar on him in college. His Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals was probably more accessible and influential, but it runs counter to everything I've written about morality on this blog, because it proposes a rational basis for morality through the categorical imperative – this is all nonsense to me. However, Kant covered many areas in his works, and I think that he may have been prescient in his distinction between phenomena and noumena, which is relevant today, because it provides a conceptual underpinning to what biologists are finding now about how neural systems mediate between organisms and the real world.

Overall, I found the book informative, but it reminded me of unpleasant experiences I've had attempting to read biographies of painters: their lives are often so chaotic that they don't actually make much sense.

Thursday, April 13, 2023

Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph VI

After Beethoven's relationship with Bettina Brentano collapsed, he apparently gave up on ever getting married. His personal life shifted to his brother Carl's family. Carl was sick with tuberculosis for some time and died on November 15, 1815. Beethoven detested Carl's wife, Johanna, who did have some conspicuous faults, but he seems to have been irrationally obsessed with taking their son, Karl, under his wing when his brother died. For me, there is nothing interesting in this, because the episode primarily shows that Beethoven had almost no people skills except in the realm of his professional work. At one point, Karl lived with him, and Beethoven obviously had no idea how to handle this situation. Swafford sums up Beethoven succinctly here:

His solipsistic view of the world, his blinkered ethics, his ironclad sense of duty, his relentless discipline and tenacity of purpose had served him well as an artist. They had saved him from suicide, kept him working through times of physical and mental suffering. In the case of Karl, that same blinkered tenacity fueled a struggle that ate up years of his creative life.

At this point, I am not finding Beethoven's life particularly interesting, because he himself did not seem to understand it. There is a different biography, which I haven't read, that concentrates on Beethoven's psychological makeup: that may have been more interesting to me, because, outside of his work, Beethoven seems to have been an odd psychiatric case. I think the evidence points to bipolar I disorder. But that doesn't really explain Beethoven's level of talent, and in slightly different circumstances he may have committed suicide or have been sent to a sanitarium. As a reader, I appreciate Swafford's effort to cover both the personal life and the creative work, but because Beethoven's life was so unnecessarily chaotic, I could have done with less of it. Then, as far as the music is concerned, there is some benefit to reading Swafford's explanations, though, on the whole, I think just plain listening to the music might be a better use of time.

So, even though there is still a large chunk of the book left, I am going to race through it and finish with my next post.

Friday, April 7, 2023

Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph V

In 1806, Beethoven engaged in a serious row with Lichnowsky, and they had a major falling-out. They were later partially reconciled, but he permanently lost his annual stipend. In the short term, this left him with insufficient income. Operas were popular in Vienna, but they were not Beethoven's forte. Later, in 1809, he pieced together a larger annual stipend with some other aristocrats that left him a stronger financial position. 

It is difficult to list all of Beethoven's musical connections, but I thought I'd mention Ignaz Schuppanzigh. Schuppanzigh was an innovator in string quartets and helped Beethoven excel in that medium.

Beethoven continued composing symphonies during this period and finished both the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies. I am most familiar with the Sixth Symphony, known as Pastoral, because it was the first one for which I owned a recording. 

In 1809, France attacked Austria, throwing the country into economic chaos for a time. Beethoven's hearing and health continued to decline. A source of income had been playing rather than composing, but the deterioration of his hearing increasingly made his public performances untenable.

Beethoven continued to pursue women, one of whom was Therese Malfatti, who was seventeen at the time they met in 1810. In this instance, the courtship was relatively constrained compared to his previous courtship, and he dedicated Für Elise to her. Another was Bettina Brentano, who was almost twenty-five when they met, also in 1810. Bettina was unlike the others in that she fit the profile as an artist herself, with multiple talents. She traveled in wide artistic circles and was a friend of Goethe. Bettina, Swafford thinks, is the most likely candidate referred to enigmatically by Beethoven as "Immortal Beloved."

Through this connection, Beethoven eventually met Goethe. While each knew that they were both at the respective peaks in their arts, they never developed a rapport. Beethoven was too spontaneous and wild for Goethe, and Goethe was too conservative and too much a part of the status quo compared to Beethoven, cherishing his court connections. His tastes were also more conservative: he preferred Mozart. Moreover, as Swafford points out, though Beethoven came to be associated with the Romantic movement, his formative years were spent in a more rationalistic environment, and he was not a true Romantic. Speaking for myself, I am more of a rationalist, though I still like some aspects of Romanticism.

While all this was going on, Beethoven was composing away, but with a lower output than previously. Piano Concerto No. 5, Emperor, was composed in 1809. I heard this live a few years ago, and it is my favorite of his piano concertos.

I am moving faster through the book now, but still have a long way to go.