This past Thursday, my better half and I attended a splendid concert featuring a stunning clarinet concerto by local artist-in-residence Dinuk Wijeratne with soloist Kinan Azmeh, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, performed by Symphony Nova Scotia. The latter staple of the concert repertoire is an incredibly dynamic, exuberant piece of music–which you can listen to here in one of many, many recordings–composed when Ludwig Van Beethoven (depicted above) was growing increasingly deaf and amidst the turbulence of the Napoleonic wars raging in Europe. What, then, explains the sheer joy running through this symphony?
Beethoven was born in 1770 into a musical family living in Bonn. His brutish father Johann wanted to exploit young Ludwig as a child prodigy in the mould of W.A. Mozart, but lacked the ability to foster his gifted son’s talents. The court-composer at Cologne took Beethoven under his wing, and suggested that the latter take lessons with Mozart in Vienna, which he did briefly until his mother’s illness; a year later, he went to study with Joseph Haydn, also in Vienna. Thus, moving from his provincial German town to the Austrian centre of music and government and studying with two of the greatest composers of the eighteenth-century was not only a ‘Bonn’ chance for the young German but also a ‘capital’ idea. Unfortunately, his radical musical style was not the best fit with the elderly Haydn, a composer from an earlier generation, and so Beethoven’s talents were largely ‘Haydn’ from view until his formidable abilities at the piano attracted wider attention. He acquired the patronage of Prince Lichnowsky, making his name among fashionable society despite his ungainly looks and boorish manners. It seems that as a pianist, the Viennese were willing to overlook his ‘key-boor’ style.
As a composer, Beethoven pushed the boundaries of traditional musical forms such as the piano sonata and, of course, the symphony. This was particularly apparent with the famous third symphony, composed in 1803. The work was not only twice as long as conventional symphonies, but contained Beethoven’s preference for dynamic rhythms and short motifs rather than the traditional lyrical themes and courtly styles of older symphonies. Stephen Fry has described it as ‘the Star Trek of symphonies’: boldly going where no man had gone before. Beethoven was a musical revolutionary, inspired by the radical ideas in the writings of Rousseau and excited by the political liberation promised by the French Revolution. Indeed, the third symphony, the Eroica–i.e., the ‘heroic’–was initially dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte, whom Beethoven idolised as the champion of revolutionary freedom. A year later, however, Napoleon crowned himself Emperor in Paris; Beethoven scratched out the name ‘Bonaparte’ and dedicated the symphony instead to ‘the memory of a great man’. Researchers at Early Modern Times’ Department of Pornographic Classics have uncovered another symphony composed by Beethoven at this time, featuring sexually explicit motifs expressing his lust for Napoleon, known as the Erotica. (To digress, that pun is inspired by my sister’s university roommate long ago; she took a course devoted to analysing Beethoven’s third symphony and proudly declared to me that her favourite piece of music is ‘the Erotica symphony’.)
Around this time, he discovered that he was growing deaf, but continued composing. 1808 saw the premieres of his groundbreaking fifth and sixth symphonies. But Beethoven’s continuing disen-‘chant’-ment with Napoleon developed as the Corsican-born Emperor of France overran Europe, occupying Ludwig’s adopted home of Vienna in 1809. The conflict caused major shortages of fuel and food, including of Vienna sausages (not to be confused with the cocktail wieners sold in grocery stores throughout North America). In other words, things turned to the ‘wurst’.
Napoleon, in his hubris, then attempted to invade Russia in 1812–failing to heed the warning that one must keep one’s eyes fully open when ‘Russian’ into battle. Fierce resistance and especially the brutal Russian winter forced Napoleon to retreat (as well as to retweet, ‘NO COLLISION with Russia!’) This retreat ‘froze’ the Emperor’s ambitions, while his army was chilled through their boots as they suffered the agony of ‘da feet’ in Russia, and later in the Iberian peninsula.
In his jubilation, Beethoven composed the seventh symphony in 1812 and premiered it in 1813. Later in the nineteenth symphony, Richard Wagner aptly described this work as ‘the apotheosis of the dance’; and given the context of the serious setbacks for Napoleon, it was also an anti-apotheosis of France. By this time, however, Beethoven was so deaf that he couldn’t hear the quieter sections of the symphony and so lost track while trying to conduct the work. Indeed, some considered the unconventional piece to be a product of madness, but it is now recognized as a masterwork. It may have ‘grated’ on conservative ears at the time, but proved its ‘greatness’ to posterity.
Later pieces, especially the ninth symphony, reflected Beethoven’s commitment to freedom–both in his music and his politics. This final symphony broke even more conventions of the form, including in its finale which combines orchestral and choral music, particularly a setting of Friedrich Schiller’s An die Freude (Ode to Joy)–now the anthem of the European Union in its vision of international brother- (and sister-) hood. Researchers at Early Modern Times’ Department of Musical Credit have informed me that the symphony was underwritten by a female patron to whom Beethoven was deeply indebted, such that the score also contains the inscription, ‘owed to Joy’.
‘Til next week,
Director, Early Modern Powdered Lud-wigs Studies Program