Mt. Washington Hotel, New Hampshire
Beethoven was a 1-Trick pony. He did some magnificent, historic and earth shattering tricks but he really was just a composer of music. Perhaps in the same way Michael Jordan was just a basketball player, Rembrandt was just a painter, or Bobby Fischer was just a chess player. But what if Jordan had one leg, or Fischer suffered short-term memory loss, or Rembrandt was blind, what then? Beethoven was deaf when he created his later symphonies and remarkably his most famous, the Ninth. He was going deaf for most of his creative life. The single most important sense for a musician would be his or her hearing. And yet, the most celebrated piece of music in human history was created by a deaf German composer. If Beethoven had only written his Ninth Symphony he'd still be considered a genius. The fact that five of his nine symphonies are considered masterpieces and stand as some of the greatest musical achievements in our history is simply astonishing. Not only was he deaf but he suffered from stomach and bowel disorders, some brought on by too much wine. A horrid diet and Inadequate nutrition kept him in physical pain for much of his adult life. It was the turn of the 19th century so no hearing aids available along with insufficient medical knowledge, surgeries or medicines to alleviate his myriad conditions. But still he composed.
Beethoven was a composing machine. Socially inept, overly arrogant (well, he was Beethoven), argumentative, stubborn, aloof and whatever other adjectives you can invent to describe someone you wouldn't want to spend 10 minutes with. Some of the appearance of aloofness and ineptness came from his increasing deafness which he was reluctant to acknowledge publicly.
Yet, he was always pondering, always composing, forever hearing his Muse.
How do we feel about singularly minded geniuses like that? Looking back we can admire him and excuse his peccidillos as we didn't have to suffer him.
Yet, that's pretty much all he did, his whole life. The music he left us was beyond anything we've heard since. His ninth symphony is so phenomenal, so awe inspiring that the European Union uses the 4th movement (Ode to Joy) as their anthem. Quote the first 4 notes of his Fifth Symphony and any child over 6 can most likely respond with the next 4. His music has entwined itself into our DNA, slowly infused for over 200 years. Unless you're a classical music fan there is probably no other composer whose music you can recognize with just a few notes. His music is as easily recognizable as "Happy Birthday."
For quite a while I was looking for an intelligent biography of Beethoven without having to take a master's course in music theory or be able to read a score. John Suchet wrote the bio I'd been looking for and succeeded in presenting the maestro as a human being. Even without the minutiae describing the motifs and themes of his music it still comes thru via his incredible life.
This read was part 2 of my dive into musical readings for the last third of 2020. I've finished a Joni Mitchell bio as well as the making of the historic Miles Davis album, "Kind of Blue". Those thoughts forthcoming.