Part One: The Man
You have only to look at the familiar portraits of Ludwig van Beethoven to realize that he probably wasn't the easiest of people to be with. Impressive, certainly; exciting perhaps; but rarely what German speakers would call gemütlich - a word meaning something like 'cosy', 'amiable', or 'good-natured'. The great German writer and thinker Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) probably spoke for many when he said, 'A more-self-contained, energetic, sincere artist I never saw'. But Goethe added a significant rider to that observation: 'His talent amazed me; unfortunately he is an utterly untamed personality, not altogether wrong in holding the world to be detestable, but who does not make it any more enjoyable either for himself or others by his attitude'.
But we should remember that Goethe is talking about a man who had suffered much. Beethoven's trials began at a very young age. Though his extraordinary talents were recognized early, Beethoven's father, Johann, was a far less positive influence on his development than Mozart's father Leopold. Johann van Beethoven may have been an accomplished musician, with a responsible position at the Court in the city of Bonn, he was also unstable, increasingly dependent on drink, and a bully. There are horrifying accounts of the young Ludwig being dragged out of bed, often late at night, to play the violin or the keyboard for Ludwig's drunken friends, or of his being severely beaten or locked in the cellar for the slightest offences. One childhood acquaintance remembered seeing him standing, weeping, on a footstool in front of the piano, while his father yelled at him.
Most people would be put off music for life by such experiences. But Beethoven's talents blossomed, so much so that the Bonn court organist Christian Gottlob Neefe took the boy under his wing, encouraging both his playing and his composing. Other children found him odd: ill-groomed, often surly or lost in thought, and given to taking long solitary walks. And yet in some of those early accounts we also see something of the emerging idealist. A contemporary, Cäcilia Fischer remembered seeing him staring from his bedroom window, head in hands. 'What are you looking at Ludwig?' she called. Silence. 'No answer is also an answer', Cäcilia cleverly replied. 'Oh no', said Beethoven. 'It's not like that. Forgive me. I was so wrapped up with deep and beautiful thoughts that I just couldn't bear to be disturbed.'
Encouragement came from more exalted sources. In 1787 the 16 year-old Beethoven went to Vienna, where he played for Mozart. 'Very pretty, but studied', was Mozart's somewhat surprising initial reaction. But when Beethoven began to improvise, the older composer began to listen more intently: 'Keep an eye on him', he told the other listeners. 'One day he will give the world something to talk about.' Three years later, the other outstanding composer of the age, Joseph Haydn, visited Bonn, where he was shown Beethoven's Cantata on the death of the Emperor Joseph II. Immediately Haydn agreed to take Beethoven as a pupil, and Beethoven set off for Vienna - the Austrian capital was to be his home for the rest of his life. On the way there he had his first full-on encounter with world politics. French revolutionary troops had invaded the Rhinelands and conflict was intensifying. Beethoven's account book mentions a special tip for the coachman, 'because the fellow drove us at the risk of a cudgelling right through the Hessian army, going like the devil'. A little later he only just avoided being cut off by the French army near the town of Limburg.
Beethoven's first years in Vienna were a mixture of triumph and stress. His relationship with his teacher Haydn may have been musically productive, but personally it was fraught. Beethoven later claimed that he learned nothing from Haydn - a transparently ridiculous remark, as Beethoven's first mature works very clearly show. His music was performed, published and widely admired, though it also stirred up plenty of controversy - not that Beethoven seems to have minded that. His playing at the piano - and particularly his improvisations - were something of a sensation. But physical ill health and a tendency to depression dogged him, as they were to do for the rest of his life. Though he was popular with women, and made many musical female friends, he was frustrated by his lack of success at finding a wife - that was to be another lifelong source of pain to him. Though one can perhaps sympathize with those women who found this turbulent, troubled, rage-prone man less than enticing as a prospective husband. But as Beethoven approached thirty and the turn of the century, something truly terrible began to happen to him. One of the first people to notice was the ten year-old prodigy pianist Carl Czerny, who was taken to meet Beethoven in 1799. Czerny recalled 'a very barren-looking room, with papers and clothes thrown about all over the place, a few bare walls, hardly a single chair except for a wobbly one by the piano.' Beethoven, shabbily dressed and unshaven greeted Czerny gruffly. Then Czerny noticed 'that his ears were stuffed with cotton-wool which seemed to have been dipped in some kind of yellow liquid.' Eventually, after a long struggle with himself, Beethoven confessed the truth to a few close friends. He was going deaf. In time this would prove fatal to his concert career, as he quickly realized. And yet Beethoven continued, almost up to the last year of his life. It takes an effort to believe that the man who created such astonishing new sounds in his late string quartets and piano works and in the monumental Choral Symphony (No 9) was by then completely incapable of hearing a note. The famous yet enigmatic Heiligenstadt Testament (was it a will, a public confession or a suicide note?) that he wrote in 1802 then hid in his drawer tells poignantly of his almost frantic distress. Like Jacob in the Biblical story he wrestles with God - why has Almighty Providence done this to him, of all people? But the Testament also reveals that part of Beethoven that remained uncrushable - the idealist refuses to die. 'I was on the point of putting an end to my life - The only thing that held me back was my art . For indeed it seemed impossible to me to leave this world before I had produced all the works that I felt the urge to compose; and thus I have dragged on this miserable existence.'
Aside from that redeeming belief in his art, the rest of Beethoven's life-story makes fairly distressing reading: the gradually despairing searches for a cure for his deafness; constantly recurring illness; political disillusionment after Napoleon declared himself Emperor, the apparent death of the French revolutionary ideal after the post-war Congress of Vienna (1815) imposed conservative rule all over Europe, and the eternal failure to find a love. In his final years Beethoven was involved in a long, gruelling tug-of-love with his sister-in-law to adopt his nephew Karl - the affair ended when Karl attempted suicide in 1826. No wonder that one eye-witness account of Beethoven's death attributes to him the grimly ironic last words Plaudite, amici, comedia finita est - 'Applaud, my friends, the comedy is over'.
The miracle is that, through all of this, Beethoven's devotion to his art not only kept him alive, but enabled him to express his heroic determination and belief in humanity in music that still speaks of those qualities to people today, nearly two centuries after his death. 'I will seize Fate by the throat; it shall certainly not bend and crush me completely', he told a friend - and we hear that will to survive, that spiritual triumph in the face of terrible pain and desolation, in work after work. We also hear warmth, tenderness, an extraordinary delicacy and - in the very last works - a quality that can only be described as visionary. In the crucible of his suffering, Beethoven distilled something - an essence of human spirituality - that can help us understand at the deepest level why life is worth living.
© Stephen Johnson