Monday, 26 May 2014

Nordrhein-Westfalen - Beethoven's 'Ode to Joy'

As well as having been the capital of West Germany for a good part of the 20th century, Bonn was also the birthplace of Ludwig van Beethoven, one of Europe's greatest composers.  At a time when Vienna dominated Europe's musical scene, it's hard to imagine how a backwater like Bonn could have produced a talent as prodigious as Beethoven's.

Except that Bonn wasn't really a backwater in the late 18th century, being part of the Electorate of Cologne, a vestige of the Holy Roman Emperor, it was ruled by the Archduke Maximilian Francis, youngest child of the Hapsburg ruler Maria Theresa.  Max Franz was a big music fan and an early patron of Beethoven, Bonn's very own child prodigy, later seen as a musical successor to Vienna's Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  

In the Shadow of Mozart

It's hard with the distance of time, to separate the different eras in which European composers lived, so I was surprised to learn that Beethoven wasn't so much a contemporary of Mozart, as a generation later than Mozart and a composer who, in many ways, grew up in Mozart's shadow.  Mozart was the original child prodigy who took Europe by storm in the years immediately before Beethoven's birth in 1770.  

13-year old Beethoven, by an unknown artist
Like all child prodigies, both Beethoven and Mozart had pushy fathers who channelled their own creative frustrations into their progeny.  Beethoven's father was an alcoholic who lied about Beethoven's age, to promote the idea of him as a child prodigy, the 'in' thing in European courts on the lookout for a 'new' Mozart. 

Actually, Beethoven's father held him back in many ways.  Because of his father's alcoholism and the death of his mother when he was just seventeen, Beethoven took over the guardianship of his younger siblings, a responsibility that hampered his creative development and kept him in Bonn, at a time when he wanted to live in Vienna.

We're not sure whether or not Beethoven actually met Mozart, when he first travelled to Vienna in 1787. It's possible that Beethoven sat in the audience at one of Mozart's concerts, but didn't actually get to meet the great maestro.  By the time Beethoven moved to Vienna in 1792, Mozart was dead.  

Phenomena and Noumena

The music of Mozart and Beethoven heralded a new departure in European culture and a move from the highly-ornate and complicated Baroque period, to the thematically simpler and romantic period, now known as Classical.  Both Mozart and Beethoven were influenced by the principles of the Enlightenment and the wider political and cultural changes that were transforming late 18th-century Europe.  

Rain, steam and speed (1844) JMW Turner
Revolutions in the American colonies and in France rocked the status quo and prompted an artistic response that celebrated the 'brotherhood of man', the poetry of Friedrich Schiller and William Blake, as well as the music of Mozart, Beethoven and many others. Beethoven spent his teenage years reading Schiller and he used the words of Schiller's Ode to Joy in his Ninth Symphony, perhaps his most famous work. 

Artists of the time were also influenced by the Prussian philosopher, Immanuel Kant.  Kant talked a lot about the difference between phenomena, i.e. things as we experience them and noumena, things as they exist in themselves, beyond our direct experience.  When you listen to Beethoven's music, you can sense that he moved his art into the realm of noumena rather than phenomena.  I guess it was the noumena which gave Romanticism its characteristically uplifting (and occasionally frightening) nature.  Just look at the paintings of J.M.W. Turner or read the poetry of John Keats and you'll see what I mean.  

A self-sustaining Artist

Beethoven graffiti in Graz by southtyrolean
Both Mozart and Beethoven gave us an image of 'the artist', that remains popular today; tortured by their own creativity, misunderstood, impoverished, romantic and wild.  Beethoven's appearance was shabby and many in his audience wondered how such an unkempt figure could produce music that was so beautiful.

In the Baroque period, composers and musicians were seen as little more than servants, more important than the kitchen staff, but less important than the valets. However, at a time when revolution loomed and royal purses became more constrained, many courts could no longer afford to pay for an entire orchestra and this seems to have prompted a move towards the self-sustaining artist.  Mozart was one of the first to attempt to have a career that was independent of the patronage of a single court and this unsettled his contemporaries.  He was a bit ahead of his time, unfortunately, and died in poverty at the early age of 35.  

By the time Beethoven came along, the idea of a self-sustaining artist had gained more currency and Beethoven was able to win patronage from many different sources and sustain an unprecedented level of independence.  It's interesting when you compare this with Joseph Haydn, who spent most of his career in the servitude of the Hungarian Esterházy family and was only able to work for himself towards the very end of his life.  

The Music of Beethoven

During my research into Beethoven, I sometimes found it difficult to get my hands on full-length versions of many of his symphonies, piano concertos and sonatas or string quartets.  These days, our 'knowledge' of classical composers like Beethoven, Mozart or Haydn, generally comes from television advertisements or popular CD collections along the lines of Best of . . . In our increasingly fast-paced world, it seems as though we don't really have the patience for an entire symphony or concerto.  

It means that much of Beethoven's work will remain unheard by a sensory-overloaded 21st century audience. I tried to listen to as much of Beethoven's work as I could, but there was so much of it that I find myself discriminating (as The Best of collections do) in favour of his most well-known works.

If you only listen to one entire symphony in your life, then it should be the Symphony no. 9 in D minor, opus 125, aka 'Beethoven's Ninth'. It's perhaps the best piece of music ever written and resonates down the centuries in a way that inspires the noblest feelings, even in a 21st century listener.  I'm embedding a YouTube video, so you can listen to the whole thing (it's only an hour long - just sit back, close your eyes and submit to Beethoven's noumenal journey to the essence of human existence).  

The terribly sad thing about Beethoven's Ninth is that he never got to hear it himself.  Perhaps because of his rigorous training in childhood, Beethoven began to lose his hearing when he was only 26 years old.  It's quite tragic that he couldn't fully interact with the world and enjoy the full volume of the orchestra performing his greatest works but, perhaps, his deafness forced the music inside him and increased the noumenal quality of work he produced in later life?

A Song for Europe

The final movements of Beethoven's Ninth contain the Ode to Joy, Schiller's words set to music.  It's a really inspirational piece and exudes an optimism that promises a better world in which all men (and women?) are equal.  

O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!
Sondern lasst uns angenehmere anstimmen,
und freudenvollere.

Oh friends, not these sounds!
Let us instead strike up more pleasing
and more joyful ones!

This piece of the Ninth Symphony is used as the Anthem of Europe, by the European Union.  On a day when the results of the recent European elections have come in, I find myself wanting to listen to Beethoven's Ninth more than ever!

Image credits:

The image of the painting of 13-year old Beethoven by an unknown artist is taken from Wikimedia commons and is believed to be in the public domain.  You can see more information about the file at its description page.

The image of Turner's painting is also in the public domain.

The image of the Beethoven graffiti in Graz, Austria is by flickr member southtyrolean, who is originally from South Tyrol in Italy.  You can see more of southtyrolean's photos at his photo stream.  Thanks for sharing this image with us, using the Creative Commons license.  

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