The year 2020 marks the 250th anniversary of Ludwig von Beethoven’s birth. Although the exact date of his birth is not known, he was baptized into the Catholic faith on Dec. 17, 1770, and presumably born either on that day or the previous day. His work continues to captivate musicians and listeners and to raise enduring questions about the intersection of suffering and artistic inspiration.
In his book “Beethoven for a Later Age: Living with the String Quartets,” Edward Dusinberre, first violinist of the Takacs Quartet, recounts a story demonstrating the groundbreaking and challenging nature of Beethoven’s late string quartets. Dusinberre writes, “The formal innovations and extraordinary range of expression of these later works shocked the first players and audiences who encountered them. Faced with trenchant criticism Beethoven retorted that they were music ‘for a later age.’”
The range of expression in these late quartets was fueled by Beethoven’s personal struggles, as Dusinberre confirms, relating a scribble made by Beethoven on one of his drafts that read, “Let your deafness be no more a secret—even in art.”
Beethoven was just 27 when he began to lose his hearing, a devastating blow for someone who had trained from childhood to compete on the world stage with the likes of Mozart and Haydn. He felt compelled to hide his deafness for many years for fear of what public knowledge might do to his career. At first he lived in the hope of finding a cure, but he eventually fell into a lifelong battle with despair, which was only alleviated through the purpose he found in composing music.
In “Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph,” biographer Jan Swafford chronicles Beethoven’s evolution into a composer capable of utilizing suffering to fuel his art. The seeds of that evolution were planted in childhood by his mother, who repeatedly counseled, “Without suffering there is no struggle, without struggle no victory, without victory no crown.”
Swafford finds hints of this idea taking shape in the D Major Piano Sonata of Opus 10, composed just after Beethoven recovered from typhus and shortly before he began to lose his hearing; it is a work in which joy and suffering blend into a single theme. Even Beethoven’s personal relationships seem to have been defined by his knowledge of suffering, at least his better moments within those relationships. For instance, when he was in his late 30s and struggling with chronic maladies in addition to worsening deafness, he sent an invitation for a visit to the Baroness Dorothea von Ertmann, a talented keyboardist and a favorite interpreter of his work. She had just lost a child, and when she arrived at his home, Beethoven sat at his piano and said, “Now we will converse in music,” and he proceeded to improvise for over an hour. The baroness later recalled, “He said everything to me, and finally gave me consolation.”
Swafford concludes, “It must have been a heartrending scene, Beethoven making music for a bereaved woman who played and understood his work as well as anybody alive. He gave voice to her grief and offered her hope. Here was a microcosm of what all his music does: it captures life in its breadth of sorrow and joy, spoken to and for the whole of humanity.”
This 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth was supposed to be filled with celebrations of his work, but that all changed once Covid-19 hit. Almost as if to echo the very essence of Beethoven’s suffering, our world fell silent during a time when it should have come alive with his music.
Some celebrations did take place before the pandemic, while others have been canceled or postponed until next year, and still others turned into virtual events. Beethoven Fest New York City has postponed a live celebration of Beethoven’s birthday until 2021, but they are holding a livestreamed fundraising event this Dec. 18, 19 and 20, with piano sonata performances from Manhattan, Milan, Italy, and Cologne, Germany, and expectations of helping to ignite a celebration of the composer’s actual 250th birthday.
In spite of the silence that has befallen the world in this milestone year for Beethoven and outside of the performances that have managed to come together, there have been profound reflections upon his life and music, such as Ruth Padel’s “Beethoven Variations: Poems on a Life,” in which poetry and personal experience illuminate the composer’s work.
One of the most poignant and timely stories on Beethoven this year came from Andrea Valentino for the BBC in a piece titled “Beethoven 250: The ultimate song of health after illness.” In his piece, Valentino recounts the story behind the creation of Beethoven’s “Holy Song of Thanksgiving” and relates that work to the health crisis facing the world in this anniversary year of the composer’s birth.
The Holy Song of Thanksgiving, as it has come to be known, was originally labeled by Beethoven as Holy song of thanks to God from a convalescent, in Lydian mode. The third movement of Opus 132, one of Beethoven’s late string quartets, it was composed just after he recovered from a severe intestinal disorder that he thought would take his life. The piece captures the range of emotions experienced by someone coming through an ordeal and feeling grateful to be alive.
The movement opens in the F Lydian mode, which is a scale that has a monotonous feel due to its lack of sharps or flats. “Combined with the molto adagio pacing,” Valentino writes, “the music feels stuck in an unending desert or an infinite sea.” This mode is interrupted twice throughout the movement with an interlude that Beethoven titled Feeling New Strength. These sections are characterized by Swafford as being like “joyful dance,” and Valentino notes that such “shattering changes” are characteristic of Beethoven’s work, writing, “The austere music of the first few minutes suddenly collapses into an optimistic universe of harmonies and trills.”
Ms. Padel’s poem In the Lydian Mode provides a meditation on faith and the intersection of joy and suffering in Beethoven’s Holy Song of Thanksgiving. She writes, “…Raw edges of a wound / coming together. God will find the pattern if you don’t.” And later she concludes, “…A holy city, / a halo of gold leaf, saying tomorrow/ is a mystery, today is a gift from God. / Without the dark we’d never see the stars.”
Composed just two years before his death, Beethoven’s Holy Song of Thanksgiving represents the culmination of his journey to channel suffering into artistic achievement. It also represents the height of innovation in his string quartets and was most certainly “for a later age” because it grapples with the human condition in ways that are forever new. As this tumultuous year draws to a close, Beethoven’s work seems to speak specifically to our time, pointing to the mystery that, in this life, suffering and joy will always be intertwined.