The other night I pulled out Herbert Von Karajan’s 1961-2 Beethoven Symphonies, all of them on vinyl in a box set I’ve had for years. My cd player is getting an upgrade so I’m now revisiting my lp collection.
I tend to like the 6th, 7th the most. It’s been said that the even-numbered symphonies are slower and more meditative; and the odd-numbers are more exuberant and energetic. And the “Ode to Joy” that ends B’s final symphony, the 9th, is a top 40 number I’ve gotten a bit tired of…even though it’s magnificent and triumphant, it’s been used so much–even in KCRW fundraisers over the years–so I’m a little sick of it. Too bad.
Listening to von Karajan–whom many despise because of his unrepentant nazism–was a small revelation. He conducts very differently than, say Wilhelm Furtwangler. Von Karajan moves forward with the momentum of a high-speed train, in perfect rhythm, whereas Furtwangler tends to move more slowly, like clouds passing.
I was struck, in listening to the 7th again after so many years, of the incredible voyage the music presents, of the great analog sound of the early 1960s recordings (and for once very good and quiet pressings), but also I couldn’t help but muse: how could Beethoven create such powerful and magisterial music while in such agonizing, constant physical pain? His music exudes transcendent joy, created in a state of anguish. He was going deaf. He had constant and acute stomach ailments. He drank too much to self-medicate. The cause of death was liver failure, cirrhosis due to alcohol abuse. Some doctors suspect he was also bipolar and subject to manic depression. In his manic period he could compose several major works simultaneously.
I know the analogy of the oyster and the pearl: that it’s the grit of sand that produces the pearl. But this oversimplification robs artists like Beethoven of their greatness and ultimately diminishes their genius.
One of the most moving and telling portraits of his anguish comes in the form of a letter called the Heiligenstadt Testament: in it he speaks of his inability to go out in public and be around other people, and in spite of his fame and popularity, he could not socialize or converse with others even though he would have loved to. There were no hearing aids then, and even then the ear-trumpet–the hearing-aid of the time– would have been insufficient to compensate for his profound deafness. As such, Beethoven lived alone in a silent world. And wrote the music he composed in his head without ever being able to hear it. It’s been said that he added more contrabasses in later works so he could at least feel the bass rhythms coming from the stage through the floor and into his seat at concerts of his work.
Beethoven also never married, confessing in a letter that he loved a woman named Fanny, but never married. He spoke of her in a letter saying, “I found only one whom I shall doubtless never possess.” As such he lived in both physical and emotional isolation, despite his wealth and success.
Here is the Heiligenstadt Testament. It is a heartbreaking letter. It reminds me of several other great artists: Tchaikovsky committing suicide–by drinking unboiled water during a cholera epidemic—after being outed and facing shame from on high, Mozart dying at 35 in a freezing Viennese apartment while writing his requiem, or Vincent Van Gogh frantically trying to sell a painting during his final years. He only sold one in his whole life.