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.

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