Friday, October 14, 2005

on Beethoven's art and heroism

I sometimes think that in approaching Beethoven, we emphasize his greatness so much that we forget his humanity. This week the New World Symphony has been rehearsing Beethoven's Third Symphony, the "Eroica," and our music director Michael Tilson Thomas made some comments about the composer's Heiligenstadt Testament that got me thinking about the emotional alchemy of artistic creation.

Beethoven wrote the Heiligenstadt Testament at the age of 32, in a state of nearly suicidal despair. His hearing had been in steep decline for four years - yet Beethoven's lament was not for his abilities to perform and improvise, or the fame that came with them. MTT emphasized a subtler reading, and a loss that Beethoven felt even more keenly:
My misfortune is doubly painful to me because I am bound to be misunderstood; for me there can be no relaxation with my fellow men, no refined conversations, no mutual exchange of ideas. I must live almost alone, like one who has been banished. I can mix with society only as much as true necessity demands. If I approach near to people a hot terror seizes upon me, and I fear being exposed to the danger that my condition might be noticed.
We don't shout our innermost thoughts and wishes - we whisper them intimately to someone we trust completely. I think of being at a loud party, or with a hearing-impaired grandparent, and how in speaking at the top of my voice I seem to be limited to the most banal and boring subjects. Even then, there is no guarantee that any real connection has been made, or that any sort of communication has transpired. For me this may be a trivial frustration, but for Beethoven it was to be his life - banished to wretched isolation even among friends, forced to pretend he had heard what he couldn't, and to hide what he most longed to express.

Of course, he did find an outlet for that expression through his art, and a means to communicate not only with his immediate contemporaries but with people of all times and places. His music was fiercely original, passionate, and uncompromising - it is also deeply, stirringly human. He wrote his "Eroica" symphony soon after the Heiligenstadt Testament, and to hear the one and read the other is a startling reminder: he may have addressed those lines to his brothers, but he was writing for all humankind, and his message was very much intended for people of the future like ourselves.


Lydia Si-Ngaw Lui said...

I was lucky enough this summer to visit Beethoven's house in Heiligenstadt, which is on the outskirts of Vienna. Maybe you've seen it? I have a few photos I took with my film camera- basically the house is very simple, no frills, and has a very nice little garden. Heiligenstadt itself is very quiet- in Beethoven's time it was considered "the country." One can understand why the doctors felt he should sojourn there to try to regain his hearing. It is a very beautiful area, close to the Vienna Woods and Mahler's grave, in Grinzig. It was quite something to see the Testament there, as well as a death mold of Beethoven's head, and locks of his hair.

Matt Heller said...

I haven't visited there, but it seems lovely and sad to think of a place where one might still hear a flute playing in the distance, or a shepherd singing - pleasures denied Beethoven by his condition. I wonder what Austrian shepherds like to sing these days?