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Listening to Beethoven

April 30, 2013

by Sir John Russell

When Sir John Russell visited Beethoven in 1821, he found a composer “perhaps soured” by deafness but able to call up “demons” with his music. This account, from Sir John’s A Tour in Germany, and Some of the Southern Provinces of the Austrian Empire, in 1820, 1821, 1822, was published in 1828.

Beethoven is the most celebrated of the living composers in Vienna and, in certain departments, the foremost of his day. Though not an old man, he is lost to society in consequence of his extreme deafness, which has rendered him almost unsocial. The neglect of his person which he exhibits gives him a somewhat wild appearance. His features are strong and prominent; his eye is full of rude energy; his hair, which neither comb nor scissors seem to have visited for years, overshadows his broad brow in a quantity and confusion to which only the snakes round a Gorgon’s head offer a parallel. His general behavior does not ill accord with the unpromising exterior. Except when he is among his chosen friends, kindliness or affability are not his characteristics. The total loss of hearing has deprived him of all the pleasure which society can give, and perhaps soured his temper. He used to frequent a particular cellar, where he spent the evening in a corner, beyond the reach of all the chattering and disputation of a public room, drinking wine and beer, eating cheese and red herrings, and studying the newspapers. One evening a person took a seat near him whose countenance did not please him. He looked hard at the stranger, and spat on the floor as if he had seen a toad; then glanced at the newspaper, then again at the intruder, and spat again, his hair bristling gradually into more shaggy ferocity, till he closed the alternation of spitting and staring, by fairly exclaiming “What a scoundrelly phiz!” and rushing out of the room. Even among his oldest friends he must be humored like a wayward child. He has always a small paper book with him, and what conversation takes place is carried on in writing. In this, too, although it is not lined, he instantly jots down any musical idea which strikes him. These notes would be utterly unintelligible even to another musician, for they have thus no comparative value; he alone has in his own mind the thread by which he brings out of this labyrinth of dots and circles the richest and most astounding harmonies. The moment he is seated at the piano, he is evidently unconscious that there is anything in existence but himself and his instrument; and, considering how very deaf he is, it seems impossible that he should hear all he plays. Accordingly, when playing very piano, he often does not bring out a single note. He hears it himself in the “mind’s ear.” While his eye, and the almost imperceptible motion of his fingers, show that he is following out the strain in his own soul through all its dying gradations, the instrument is actually as dumb as the musician is deaf.

I have heard him play; but to bring him so far required some management, so great is his horror of being anything like exhibited. Had he been plainly asked to do the company that favor, he would have flatly refused; he had to be cheated into it. Every person left the room, except Beethoven and the master of the house, one of his most intimate acquaintances. These two carried on a conversation in the paper book about bank stock. The gentleman, as if by chance, struck the keys of the open piano, beside which they were sitting, gradually began to run over one of Beethoven’s own compositions, made a thousand errors, and speedily blundered one passage so thoroughly, that the composer condescended to stretch out his hand and put him right. It was enough; the hand was on the piano; his companion immediately left him, on some pretext, and joined the rest of the company, who in the next room, from which they could see and hear everything, were patiently waiting the issue of this tiresome conjuration. Beethoven, left alone, seated himself at the piano. At first he only struck now and then a few hurried and interrupted notes, as if afraid of being detected in a crime; but gradually he forgot everything else, and ran on during half an hour in a fantasy, in a style extremely varied, and marked, above all, by the most abrupt transitions. The amateurs were enraptured; to the uninitiated it was more interesting to observe how the music of the man’s soul passed over his countenance. He seems to feel the bold, the commanding, and the impetuous; more than what is soothing or gentle. The muscles of the face swell, and its veins start out; the wild eye rolls doubly wild, the mouth quivers, and Beethoven looks like a wizard, overpowered by the demons whom he himself has called up.

Postscript

by Michael Steinberg

“To the uninitiated,” Sir John says, “it was more interesting to observe how the music of the man’s soul passed over his countenance.” To those of us today who have listened to Beethoven over and over again, how does the man’s music pass over our souls? How do we live with what he left us? How do we approach a series of Beethoven concerts when the world of Western concert music is a perpetual series of Beethoven conerts? It is not always easy to come with fresh response to something as familiar as most of Beethoven’s music. Recognition comes more readily than shock. And there’s the trouble. For most listeners, when the Eroica starts, or the Seventh, or the Ninth, the Eroica-button is pressed (or the Seventh- or Ninth-button) and we respond the way we have learned to respond to these pieces. We are apt, that is, to respond to the fact of the performance more than to the piece itself. It can get to be like driving the MacArthur freeway or Van Ness: the familiar exits and cross-streets go by—McAllister, Golden Gate, Turk, Eddy, Ellis, and so on—and that’s all very reassuring. Which is the very thing it ought not to be.

For performers it’s not less difficult. The most dedicated and responsible pianists and chamber music players need to get away from the Appassionato and from the Archduke once in a while—to get away and reconsider. For orchestra players it’s particularly hard to look at yet another Eroica performance as an exciting event, though there are conductors who can make it happen. Most Beethoven performances are, in a sense, automatic. They sound as though they have come about not as a result of fresh and searching study, but because “we know that that’s how the piece goes.” I am not saying we should have eccentric performances or ones that seek originality for its own sake, but we do want to come closer to the ideal of playing the classics as though they were new. Accents get blunted with the passage of years, and dynamics are flattened out. Most particularly many of the traditional tempi—they, too, responses to convenience and habit—need to be reconsidered in the light of what the scores say and imply.

To his contemporaries Beethoven was a shocking artist. Some of those contemporaries delighted in that quality in him; some resisted it from the beginning; some went along up to a point, to lose contact and wax censorious a bit later (the Eroica marked the parting of the ways for many of his early followers). E.T.A. Hoffmann, that vital and original writer, musician, and artist, who, among other accomplishments, produced the first body of valuable Beethoven criticism, recognized the shocking newness of Beethoven’s art, but, also recognizing Beethoven’s “self-possession,” suggested to his critical colleagues that if they failed to see the merit in what he was doing, the fault was most likely to be found in their own limited perceptions. But in these 200 or so years, we have gotten to be awfully comfortable with Beethoven—comfortable, unshocked, and unshockable. Often in his music, he traces for us the path from stress to victory—and the very idea that music might, without words, aspire to such a task is part of Beethoven’s newness—but the victory is diminished if we have not truly experienced the stress. Any sense of that unshockable comfort in us would surely provoke one of Beethoven’s famous and terrifying rages. He would want to challenge us still, to jolt and unsettle us—in the end to make the reassurance the firmer and deeper for it. To do that, he would have us listen—really listen, not overhear, not nod to familiar landmarks in pleased recognition, but listen as though for the first time and as though it might be the last.

Of all the composers, Beethoven is the one who most insistently tells us that we can’t do without him. From that insistence—to which we respond so gladly—grows the paradox that the more time we spend in the presence of his music, the harder it is truly to hear it. There is the crux of his challenge to all of us—on both sides of the footlights.

INTO THE MUSIC

MTT and the Orchestra tell their own stories about Beethoven for Keeping Score. All nine Keeping Score installments are available on DVD, with MTT and SFS musicians also discussing the music and lives of Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Copland, Berlioz, Ives, Shostakovich, and Mahler. Also check out keepingscore.org and explore the composer’s world, musical concepts, theories, and more.

During the Beethoven Project, May 2-11, 2013, MTT, the SFS, and special guests bring their exploration of the great composer to the stage. Visit sfsymphony.org/beethoven for more information and to purchase tickets.