By Donald C. Peattie
The 19 century was just opening in Vienna when the fist of an implacable genius knocked like destiny upon the doors of musicThis was a new and liberating force, this fellow with the lunging shoulders, the tousled, lowering head and stormy blue eyes. At the piano, his broad, blunt hands could spin gossamer trills, or thunder on the keys like an advacing army. As a composer, he knew all the rules in the book --- and broke them as he pleased. He broke social conventions too. Not for a moment did Ludwig van Beethoven imagine that he was the equal of his titled patrons ; he knew himself their superior.
Yet he was born in poverty in Bonn, Germany, in 1770, and the "van" in his name did not signify nobility. He came of a Flemish family, and "van Beethoven" simply means "from the beet garden." His worthless, hard-drinking father was a tenor of sorts in the court singers of the Elector of Cologne. His mother was the daughter of the chief cook in the castle at Ehrenbreitstein. Tubercular, abused by her husband, she was the one woman to whom Ludwig ever gave all his heart.
Discovering musical talent in his son, Johann van Beethoven determined to exploit it. But dressing the stocky, scowling boy in flowered satin and knocking two years off his age did not make him an infant prodigy. His concert tour down the Rhine to Holland was unsuccessful. For though his gifts were probably the greatest ever bestowed on any musician, their growth was slow as an oak's --- and as sure.
Entirely too slow to please the ambitious father, who often came home drunk at 3 a.m. to drag his son out of bed to the piano, rewarding every stumble of sleep-numbed fingers with a box on the ears. By day, too, it was nothing but practice, practice, on the piano and viola, so that Ludwig got scarcely any of elementary schooling.
Presently even the alcoholic father notice that the boy would not play the notes set before him ; instead, his fingers chose others. That his son was a young giant beginning to stretch mighty sinews was beyond Johann's blurred understanding. But he did see that he had nothing more to teach him, and he went out to find those who had.2
Beethoven's teachers were mediocrities, but a genius teaches himself. At 16 this one journeyed to Vienna to meet his idol, Mozart. The great Austrian composer perceived his powers, but before Ludwig could reap the benefits of this interest, tragedy snatched him away.
In Bonn his mother was dying. Ludwig rushed home. No sooner was she dead than her husband sold off her clothes to buy drink. So sodden had the toper grown that Ludwig at 17 became head of the family, with two younger brothers to support. The Elector of Cologne, appealed to, retired the worthless Johann on a small pension --- enough so that he soon drank himself to death. Young Ludwig became one of the court musicians, playing the viola in the opera, the organ at church and the piano while the guests played cards after dinner.
He gave piano lessons, too, which brought him into the wealthy and cultivated von Breuning home, where he was practically adopted by the family. The mother gave him tactful hints on manners, on how to improve his dress; the four young people surrounded him with the first gay affection he had ever known, and took him about to other houses where music and books were loved. A whole world of thought, art, philosophy, beauty burst upon Ludwig like sunlight into a room that has always been darkened. And in his own abrupt, warm-hearted way this ugly, vigorous young man charmed everyone he met. He won a valuable ally in young Count Waldstein, who provided him with letters of introduction to people of influence in Vienna.
So, at 22, Ludwig set out again for the Austrian capital. Orchestras and concerts there were private affairs of the nobility; there were few public concerts. On the favor of the highly placed could forward a man's career. Beethoven won it, without truckling. The musical aristocracy, fascinated by his harsh and powerful charm, by his brilliant improvisation and even by his frequent rudeness, applauded and admired him. The Prince and Princess Lichnowsky took him into their home, gave him money, fine instruments to play and, best of all, understanding sympathy. Stormy, lonely, scornful, humble, Beethoven responded with unequal manners but steadily increasing production.3
Pieces for every instrument and combination of instruments poured from his marvelous imagination --- the famed "Kreutzer Sonata" for violin, the "Moonlight" and "Pathetique" sonatas, his first two symphonies, his first three piano concertos, serenades, string quartets. A flood of the joy of living pervades these early works, so that Beethoven could write on a manuscript the simple direction, "To be played from the heart to the heart."
All this was music free as it had never been free, liberated from the old strict forms which held even Mozart --- as though it burst through garland-painted doors into a world bounteous and ardent as Nature itself. Often it was first sketched ( in those notebooks which Beethoven always had with him ), under the sky in the Vienna woods "where," he wrote, "every tree seems to say 'Holy, Holy,'" Publishers now vied for the finished sheets; commissions poured in from all over the Austrian Empire and foreign lands.
And now, as Beethoven stood master of a world opening in radiant promise, an enemy came creeping up on him. The first warning, some years earlier, had been a ringing in his ears. Now loud sounds painted him, soft ones escaped him; he hugged his fear in secret, and fled his friends. Only after his death was found among his papers the cry of despair he wrote: "You, my fellow men who denounce me for morose, crabbed, misanthropic. How you wrong me! I have fallen into an incurable malady. Born with a fiery, lively temperament, inclined for the amusements of society, I was forced to isolate myself. I could not bring myself to say to people, 'Speak louder, shout, for I am deaf.'"
Deaf. A word like stone soundlessly entombing the world's greatest musician. All through the summer of 1802 Beethoven, striding the green countryside outside Vienna where birds sang unheard, beat furiously against the closing walls of this prison of silence. And all the while, in that bullish dark head, music stormed and soared as never before. Now, crippled in a musician's more vital sense, he must surrender to failure and despair or, by powers not yet found, must somehow triumph. "I shall take Fate by the throat." was his decision.4
His challenge is announced by the mighty "Eroica" or "Hero Symphony," not only the first great modern symphony, but Beethoven's own soul speaking from its profound depths. True that originally he called it the "Bonaparte Symphony," holding the hope that the Corsican soldier was a champion of the people. But when Napoleon crowned himself emperor, Beethoven struck out the first title and gave it the right one. For his ideal of a hero was a man of noble and unbreakable spirit. ( No mortal ever fitted that description better than Beethoven himself. )
He was now launched upon 11 years of creation surpassed by no composer before or since. From 1804, out of the growing silence walling him in, flowed glories that form the very heart of our musical heritage. His two most powerful piano sonatas, the "Waldstein" and the "Appassionata," have thrilled listeners for a century and a half, proving Beethoven right when he once declared that he wrote for the future. But when such music first broke upon his startled audience it was called "wild," "unplayable," "incomprehensible." Immortal, too, are the rejoicing Fourth Piano Concerto, and the Fifth, called the "Emperor" because it towers above all others.
Outwardly, Beethoven was a stumbling blunderer with uncouth manners, given to upsetting his inkpot into the piano and never able to manage his feet to the simplest ball-room tune. Within, at the core, lay harmony so perfect it may be called divine. For Beethoven's deepest impulse in composing was devout, and from it sprang the moral beauty which for generations has sustained millions of listening hearts.
Of the symphonies, numbers Four to Eight belong to this decade of outpoured riches. The Fifth opens with notes which have been called "destiny knocking at the door" --- a mighty summons which has rung round the world. For those three short raps and a longer knock parallel the "dot-dot- dot-dash" of Morse code sounding the letter "V." In World War II this theme became to the Allies a defiant prediction of Victory; street boys whistled it at Nazi occupation forces; in the cafés of captive lands patrons would tap it on their glasses. The Nazis fumed, helpless; this was the greatest of German music --- turned against them.5
With the publishing of these symphonies, Beethoven's fame spread wide, and money came pouring in. Yet he was driven ever deeper into loneliness. He could no longer play for an audience, for in his deafness he struck the keys so hard in the loud passages that the strings broke, and in the softer parts he failed to make the notes sound. Hurt, despairing, he needed friends more than ever. But those who stood by him were sorely tried, for in his bitter frustration he was likely to turn on them. The inward nobility of the man forever struggled with this discord in his own behavior.
Such a temperament could never make a woman happy, yet Beethoven longed for a wife. A good woman looked like an angel to him, and he fell in love easily as he might tumble into a ditch on those long walks of his when he went stumbling through the fields, his head filled with music. He slept sometimes where he happened to lie down, so that he was once arrested for vagrancy. Little wonder that the women he besought all chose in the end less famous and more livable husbands.6
For seven long years, from 1817 through 1823, his old friends heard only trifles from him. Few knew that he had in hand two tremendous works --- a "Solemn Mass," and the Ninth and final symphony. These are both compositions of vast design, in which a chorus of human voices joins with the orchestra to overwhelm the listener. They were first performed in 1824, with the master himself marking the time. The performers, however, were privately told to put no reliance on the baton of the poor deaf genius.
Beethoven stood, his back to the audience, thirsty eyes rushing over the score, beating time but hearing not even the thunder of the drums of the full-throated rejoicing of the chorus. When the audience, weeping and shouting, applauded till the walls echoed, still he stood beating the soundless air, till one of the singers gently turned him around that he might see his triumph.
This was his last public appearance. For some time he had been the victim of a stealthy liver disease; as its destruction progressed, the isolated inner Beethoven mounted to serene but lonely heights. There, like one in thinner, purer air who sees below him a world that he has left, he composed a series of string quartets, the last notes he ever wrote. They are his will and testament to us, affirming for all time that spirit transcends suffering, and even death itself.
And that drew close; throughout the first months of 1827 torturing ills besieged the tired flesh. With peasant strength the sinking giant fought them. But on March 26 the watchers at his bedside knew the end near, for he lay unconscious, while outside raged a furious storm. A flash of lightning lit the sickroom, a clap of thunder sounded as though heaven were pushing apart its gates. Beethoven opened his eyes, lifted a clenched fist --- to knock upon those doors? --- and passed within.