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Ludwig van & the pandemic

Even without live concerts, Beethoven’s music is a salve

19 December 2020

9:00 AM

19 December 2020

9:00 AM

The past year was marked by pandemic-induced losses. Apart from illness, death and economic devastation, we sustained a serious cultural blow with the cancellation of eagerly awaited Beethoven celebrations to mark the 250th anniversary of his birth. Expanded commemorative festivals, such as Music in the Hunter, with a line-up of chamber music concerts and top performers, disappeared from the calendar.

Is live music necessary to appreciate Beethoven? Closure of concert venues banished his music to recordings. Despite their vital place and flawlessness, recordings defeat the reciprocity between artist and audience. Devoid of spontaneity and risk, recordings also lack the group electricity and social bonding shared by concertgoers. Absence of live performance diminished Beethoven’s power when he was needed more than ever. Able to target the listener with fierce immediacy and a crescendo of feel-good neurotransmitters, his music is a therapeutic tool in a pandemic that arrived like a monstrous comet, trailing financial, social and psychological debris. And Beethoven has much more to offer than short-term comfort, not least in sharing his individual, nuclear terrain where the DNA strands of struggle and depression combine with hope and triumph. His lofty aspirations are clearly articulated, particularly in the 9th Symphony, with its idealistic chorale of universal goodwill, and the opera Fidelio, which showcases a courageous heroine who rescues her unjustly imprisoned husband.

Gerard Willems, the renowned Beethoven pianist and pedagogue, has drawn attention to the organic quality of the composer’s music, whereby a seed that propagates musical sections can grow into a mighty symphony. Beethoven found inspiration in nature and his music reflects the alternating tension and relaxation of flowers that open and shut, or a storm followed by calm. During the turmoil of the pandemic, his music is a welcome reminder of the beauty and inherent forces in our natural environment.

The translation of feelings into Beethoven’s sound world presents a full spectrum of emotional diversity and subtlety. It embraces every part of our personality, speaks intimately and echoes our moods. The perception of inner conflict expressed in dialectical form is compelling and the clarity of structure and overall architecture facilitate the listener’s location in the score.

Although the music is complex, no technical knowledge is required to connect with it on a deep, pleasurable and spiritual level. The attraction is almost like a drug that excites and satisfies, making the world seem a better place.

During his childhood, Beethoven suffered from an abusive, alcoholic father, and throughout most of his life (1770 – 1827), he was plagued with deafness, as well as abdominal pain, headaches, joint pain and manic-depressive symptoms. Doctors prescribed useless remedies and were similarly impotent when faced with the calamitous periodic epidemics of smallpox and influenza.

Prone to infatuations with high-born women out of his reach, Beethoven was a scruffy, uncompromising misfit in aristocratic Vienna; a supernatural talent, who eschewed deference towards his benefactors. In his monumental output, he was a revolutionary, seeking to shock with dissonance and drama bordering on explosive rage and political agitation. Regarding performers, he was unapologetic in demanding perfection and complete devotion to the art.

He drank heavily, partly to overcome pain, and in turn, developed cirrhosis of the liver and lead toxicity from wine fortified with the heavy metal. In the Heiligenstadt Testament of 1802, Beethoven expressed suicidal intent and shook a fist at the heavens as he wrestled with his fate. Finally, he resolved to accept his deafness, renounce depression, and live for the sake of his art.

It was a turning point that moved him to communicate how he dealt with personal loss and enabled the glorious, life-affirming creativity of his ‘heroic’ middle period of composition.

In a programmatic and subjective illustration of surmounting loss, his Piano Sonata No. 26 (Les Adieux) is a farewell to his friend and patron, Archduke Rudolf, who left Vienna when Napoleon laid siege to the city in 1809. The stringent chords of the sad and uncertain first movement are not resolved until the end of the third when Rudolf returns and exhilaration bursts out with pealing church bells.

Beethoven’s music compels us to follow his typically abstract emotional narrative. Nina Maria Lee, the cellist of the Brentano Quartet, has remarked how a theme that starts with despair can mutate through many developments, as a metaphor for life’s passage. Finally, when the theme returns safely home, the listener has matured a fraction.

Following recovery from a serious illness, Beethoven expressed his gratitude in the third movement of a late period transcendental work, the Quartet in A Minor, Op. 132, written in 1825. The hymn-like song of thanksgiving is interspersed with faster elements of ‘renewed strength’, each more integrated than the last. Such a journey surpasses entertainment and diversion but requires the listener to focus attention and surrender to the music. The experience provides idiosyncratic reflection that can enlighten, invigorate and soothe, in a process that might be considered a form of therapy.

Like Mozart and other great composers, Beethoven can uplift and transport us away from the stress of a pandemic into a cathartic reverie, or even a transformative ethereal experience. Did some composers have a taste of the celestial? Austrian conductor, Josef Krips, reportedly quipped that Mozart came from heaven, while Beethoven goes to heaven. Indeed, Beethoven’s music is earthy, rugged and serious, but also folksy, riotous, tender and ultimately divine.

While contrasting beauty and ugliness as a realistic mirror of life, his works contain a sanguine core and a path to reinvigorate the self-empowerment and pursuit of individual freedom battered by the pandemic. Beethoven’s defiance, sublimation, and communion with nature are worthy of admiration if not identification, and his art and personal example enhance our capacity to master loss. He knew the abyss of affliction and offered his music as a paean of empathy and solace for the wellbeing of humanity.

When many musicians in his day complained that his compositions were too difficult for them to play, he retorted, ‘Don’t worry, this is music for the future’. How prescient!

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Ida Lichter, author of ‘Magic of Music: Conversations with Musical Masters’.

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