How to make what is at issue for him evident to the non-musician is a crucial question here. Of course, my students’ drafts were made subtler and less stigmatizing in their final versions, which reflected some added research and at least acknowledged other views. Perhaps they had been intrigued by the notion that a sort of 'monster' or ‘sacred monster’ should have composed the music, or perhaps they were merely offended by a person lacking the adjusted, communal temperament most of them favor. My hope is that in their future lives, further listening to Beethoven’s music will lead them to a more fully complex understanding of the composer.
What listeners hear is, of course, the crucial point about Beethoven’s achievement. They can hear a deep inwardness in his adagios and a triumph of the spirit in his allegros; in the Ninth Symphony’s opening, there is the sound of creation out of the void, and in moments of its finale, listeners hear the music of transcendence – it seems to some the voice of God. In certain movements, there is the deepest utterance of grief, and in others unleashed joy. And almost without exception, there is the sense of an unfolding order in the deaf composer’s works, not merely entertainment or empty occasion, but the presence of meaning. So the listener is confronted with the products of a deeply engaged, wide ranging, and immensely productive imagination, beyond the scope and ken of ordinary creativity.
Beethoven was severely disabled. He became deaf by the time he was in his early thirties, and this disability was a sort of tragic irony, for it is particularly harmful and isolating for a composer of music, and it is a stunning, meaningful paradox that his music should emerge from silence. Of course, in the face of any disability, isolation as well as peculiar compensating behavior frequently ensues. Deafness is an especially isolating disability, particularly in the era long before the development of effective hearing aids. One is cut off from hearing, from receiving communication, from participating in ordinary society. The result is, even in forbearing temperaments, the setting up of added barriers to save one from embarrassment and to compensate for one’s disability. One can seem distracted and absent minded, and so one can seem rude and “truculent” – such is Beethoven’s term in the Heiligenstadt Testament of 1802 in which he explains the trauma of his fate to his brothers and asks for their help. In short, from 1800 to the end of his life in 1827, Beethoven was profoundly disabled by being deaf. This astounding fact intensifies one’s admiration for his achievement.
And so, despite his disability, it was Beethoven’s temperament to demand from himself the highest level of engagement, yielding in him a special forcefulness and intensity and producing music at the highest level of achievement. The demands he made exacted an extraordinary toll on him. The composer’s work differs, of course, from more routine employment, which in good circumstances can be left at the office or factory. Beethoven, however, was continually working out his demanding musical ideas – not merely on walks but continually.
In addition, at the level of basic humanity, this demand resulted partly from the responsibilities he felt toward his younger brothers, earlier toward his parents, and later toward his nephew. He needed to earn a fairly large sum for the purpose of maintaining them, and in the new role of self-employed composer (and an increasingly deaf and thus endangered one) he needed constantly to produce, perform, market, and publish his works. These pressures existed in addition to the creative pressures themselves.
There is much to say about the roles in Beethoven’s creative process of freedom and struggle, of will and fate (“it must be,” he writes in the initial measures of the last movement of his last work). I’ll turn in my next post to the ways in which some of these ideas relate to some of Beethoven’s early and middle period works.
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