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Happy Birthday

December 16, 2020

By Jim Rhodes

Today is the 250th birthday of Ludwig van Beethoven.

I discovered Beethoven in the 1960s, when I was an undergraduate at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia. I happened to hear a recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto in the library’s listening room. My memory cells, as my wife can testify, are not always to be trusted these days, but I remember that experience vividly. I was immediately and totally bowled over, almost breathless, simultaneously stunned and charmed by the sheer musicality of the piece.

I started listening to everything I could get my hands on in the way of Beethoven records, and I fell into a companionship with several other like-minded students. We were at the age when we had more energy than good sense, and we thought it would be a good idea to stage a Beethoven Marathon of non-stop listening over several days and nights. And in 1968 we decided to hold a Beethoven’s Birthday Party just before leaving for the Christmas holiday break. It was the Master’s 198th. Through the years, we have continued the BBP tradition – albeit with long intermissions – regathering on December 16 for a reunion.

So, what’s so special about Beethoven? Why is he revered as the Greatest Musical Composer Who Ever Lived?

It’s partly because of his corpus of music that has no peer in history. And he was unable to hear his own music because he was deaf.

Yes, deaf.

He was born in Bonn December 16, 1770.  His grandfather and father were musicians in the court of the Elector of Cologne. As a five-year-old child, Beethoven – for some reason he is never referred to by his first name – he is always simply Beethoven – showed considerable talent on the piano, and his father (who was an alcoholic) decided there was good money to be made by promoting his son’s talents as a child prodigy in the same way that Leopold Mozart had cashed in on his son’s musical precocity. Beethoven’s first performance was in 1778. The boy was seven. By the age of 11 he had achieved considerable acclaim as a pianist, and the Elector recruited him as a part-time court organist.

In 1792, Beethoven moved from Bonn to Vienna, where he briefly studied under Hayden. He quickly earned a reputation as a piano virtuoso and published his first compositions. By 1800 his fame was well established as an up-and-coming composer.

Then came the deafness.

Beethoven later said that he started losing his hearing in 1798. He took the advice of a doctor and spent six months in 1802 in a small Austrian village, where he went into a tailspin of depression at his deepening deafness. He considered suicide. In an emotional document called the Heiligenstadt Testament, he wrote of his malady: “Ah how could I possibly admit such an infirmity in the one sense which should have been more perfect in me than in others, a sense which I once possessed in highest perfection, a perfection such as few surely in my profession enjoy or have enjoyed.” He continued: “What a humiliation when one stood beside me and heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone heard the shepherd singing and again I heard nothing, such incidents brought me to the verge of despair, but little more and I would have put an end to my life – only art it was that withheld me.”

But his greatest musical works still lay in the future, and on his return to Vienna he produced in quick order his Third, Fourth and Fifth Symphonies (you will of course be familiar with the latter’s “da-da-da-dum” opening notes).

Unable to communicate socially, he became a recluse, conversing with visitors only in writing. The hearing loss progressed into near-total deafness. He ceased performing, but he kept composing, and sonatas, trios, quartets, concertos, symphonies, oratorios and even an opera flowed from his pen over the next 25 years — every one of them perfect in its own way.

By the time of his famous Ninth Symphony with the choral “Ode to Joy,” his deafness was virtually total. At the symphony’s premiere he stood before the orchestra as honorary conductor. But the real conductor stood behind him leading the orchestra. At the end, Beethoven was still waving his hands. Unable to hear the applause, he had to be turned around to see the audience clapping.

Beethoven died in 1827 at the age of 56. There were two witnesses by his deathbed. They testified that during the afternoon there was a sudden clap of thunder. Beethoven opened his eyes and raised a clenched fist briefly, then died.

If you have not yet discovered Beethoven, now’s a good time to do so. A good place to start would be Leonard Bernstein’s Omnibus lecture on the Fifth Symphony televised in black-and-white in 1950, and now available for replay on YouTube. Bernstein defined Beethoven’s musical genius as a quality he characterized as “inevitability.”  Every single note of Beethoven’s music, Bernstein said, is followed by exactly the right note. But it didn’t come easy. Bernstein demonstrates how the Master struggled internally to get that quality of “rightness,” filling notebooks with rejected manuscripts before getting it just right inside his head behind the mask of deafness.

I’m told by musicians that you can read music without hearing it. They claim that reading a printed musical score creates the music inside one’s head in all its complexity – rather the way you might visualize in your mind’s eye the scenes and action when reading a good novel.

But I’m not entirely convinced.

And with that thought it’s time for me to join the zoom gathering of the BBP diaspora, where we’ll raise a virtual glass to the Master’s memory.