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History Of Music:
George Frederic Handel
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Ludwig Van Beethoven
The Romantic Composers
Development Of The Piano
Famous Operas And Their Composers
Wagner And His Music Dramas
Tristan And Isolde
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
In the year 1770, about the sixteenth of December, Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn, a little town in northern Germany. Of humble birth and family at times cruelly pov erty-stricken, Beethoven received but a very meagre school training. This was a sore grievance to him all his life, and even as a child was a great disappointment; but his father, a dissipated and somewhat worthless man, was determined that his son's time should be spent in developing his already marked genius. For the boy gave promising signs of becoming a prodigy, and in this possibility was seen a source of livelihood for the family.
Ludwig was at first instructed on the piano-forte and violin by his father, who was himself a tenor singer of good ability, and many tales are told of the severity imposed upon the lad in regard to his practice; among them is the story that when Ludwig was but four years of age his father would keep him at the keyboard for hours at a time. If this be true, it is marvelous that the child did not learn to despise music before his genius had a chance to assert itself. Later he was put under the supervision of Pfeiffer, a good musician but a man of irregular habits, and Neefe, who gave him his first instruction in composition. His first three sonatas, which were dedicated to the Elector, appeared before he was thirteen. With the possible exception of a trip to Holland, Beethoven did not leave home until 1787, when he went to Vienna. During his visit in that city he played before Mozart, who exclaimed: "Pay heed to this youth; he will make a noise in the world." His stay was cut short by the news that his mother was dying. He returned home at once and arrived while she was yet living, though the end came shortly after. She had been the one cheerful and helpful influence in the home, and drearier than ever seemed life to the motherless boy. His desolate grief was expressed in a few lines written to the friend who had aided him in his return journey from Vienna: "Who was happier than I when I could still pro nounce the sweet word 'mother' and have it heard? To whom can I speak it now?"
He spent the next few years in Bonn, busy with writing and teaching, and caring for his younger brothers. The death of his father in 1792 left Ludwig in charge of the other children, and the responsibility of directing their education fell upon him alone. During his four years' stay in Bonn he won warm friends in the family of Madame von Breuning and Count Waldstein (to whom was afterward dedicated the famous "Waldstein" sonata-Opus 53).
When he was twenty-two years of age, Beethoven was again able to go to Vienna, this time as a student or at least a systematic worker. He went with the intention of studying composition with Haydn, but this plan did not prove successful. Haydn, over sixty and extremely conservative, found the passionate and radical boy a great perplexity. Beethoven did not think he was receiving proper attention and went to other teachers. He is reported as having said: "It is true Haydn gave me lessons, but he taught me nothing." Probably no one could have helped him greatly, for his genius seems not to have needed outside guidance and he never received suggestions kindly.
Up to this time his compositions were few and not especially important; they showed a clear mind and no little talent, but none of them are played today. It was as a pianist that Beethoven was first known to the world. He won a widespread fame, not alone for his technical ability but by his marvelous skill in improvising; in this he excelled all others. We are told that he played with so much feeling that his hearers would be moved to tears by the pathos, or held spellbound by the brilliancy of his interpretation. His supply of themes was seemingly inexhaustive ; others rivaled him in mechanical skill, but none could approach him in unfailing richness of thought and intense individuality. Beethoven was the first musician of rank to profit by the establishment of the concert system, by which the composer was made independent of the patronage of the aristocracy, and was for the first time able to make his works directly known to the world by playing them before public audiences.
Aided by letters of introduction from the von Breunings and Count Waldstein, he won influential friends in Vienna. Chief among them were Prince Lichnowsky and his wife, who welcomed him at a11 times to their home; they were willing to overlook his external roughness of manner, for beneath it all they discerned the true character of the young genius. Money was of no moment to Beethoven and he looked with open contempt upon those high in social rank, on one occasion remarking: "My nobility is here, and here" (pointing to his heart and head). But, notwithstanding this superior scorn of worldly wealth and position, we note that he dedicated a vast number of his compositions to titled nobility. Beethoven's was a social nature and he loved the gaiety and splendor of the princely houses, in spite of the fact that he seemed to live in a world of his own. The fact that he was welcomed in the highest society, despite his unquestionable personal drawbacks, shows what respect his genius commanded.
He was of small stature, dark, ungraceful and almost ugly in appearance, but with a wonderful head and features that betrayed his intense passion and powers of emotion. He was frequently in love, passionately so, but seldom bestowed his affections for any length of time. His idiosyncrasies have been dwelt upon to great excess by some biographers, but deserve only passing attention.
There is no satisfactory biography of Beethoven written in English, and the best clue to his real views and personality may be found in his private letters and in his will. They Show him to be well aware of his personal faults and drawbacks, but he pleads his physical afflictions and necessarily solitary life as the cause. In them, too, is expressed his undying belief in a Divine Providence, although formalities of religion were to him but empty forms.
His illness of 1797 resulted in partial deafness, which rapidly grew worse, and within a year the hearing of one ear was totally destroyed. It is impossible to estimate the effect of this distressing malady upon his compositions. The direct result was to cause the sensitive man to retreat more and more from the outer world into one of his own creation, and this may, or may not, have altered the character of his work. In addition to bringing silence to this master of tones, it caused acute suffering, for noises roared and buzzed constantly in his aching head. This deafness, which was but one phase of his general ill-health, drove him to such anguish of mind that he once contemplated taking his own life. As he himself explained: "It was impossible for me to say to others: speak louder; shout! for I am deaf. AM was it possible for me to proclaim a deficiency in that one sense which in my case ought to have been more perfect than in all others. which I had once possessed in greatest perfection, to a degree of perfection, indeed, which few of my profession have ever enjoyed? How great was the humiliation when one who stood beside me heard the distant sound of a shepherd's pipe, and I heard nothing; or heard the shepherd singing, and I heard nothing. Such experiences brought me to the verge of despair-but little more and I should have put an end to my life. Art, art alone, deterred me." Surely a more tragic fate could not have befallen this rare genius.
As a boy Beethoven made a constant practice of carrying a note book with him upon his rambles in the beautiful country about Bonn, jotting down ideas and musical themes as im pressions came to him. Composing was not spontaneous with him as with some composers-he always admitted it to be somewhat of an effort; but he did it with all possible care and never had to retrace his steps. In a talk with Louis Schlosser, a young musician, Beethoven said:
"I carry my thoughts about me for a long time, often a very long time, before I write them down; meanwhile my memory is so faithful that I am sure never to forget, not even in years, a theme that has once occurred to me. I change many things, discard, and try again until I am satisfied. Then, however, there begins in my head the development in every direction, and, inasmuch as I know exactly what I want, the fundamental idea never deserts me-it arises before me, grows -I see and hear the picture in all its extent and dimensions stand before my mind like a cast, and there remains nothing for me but the labor of writing it down, which is quickly accomplished when I have the time, for I sometimes take up other work, but never to the confusion of one with the other. You will ask me where I get my ideas. That I cannot tell you with certainty; they come unsummoned, directly, indirectly-I could seize them with my hands-out in the open air; in the woods; while walking; in the silence of the nights; early in the morning; incited by moods which are translated by the poet into words, by me into tones that sound and roar and storm about me until I have set them down in notes."
Beethoven was the first to express all forms of passion in his music. We see the sublime, heroic, thoughtful, and occasionally the humorous (as illustrated in the Scherzo of Opus 31, No. 3 ) worked out with equal skill. Form and expression cannot be separated in any art. Beethoven's external form was not original with him; it had been used by Mozart and Haydn, but neither of them ever sacrificed perfection of form and pleasing melody to the expression of human emotions. Beethoven was a master of form, but he never allowed it to hamper his flow of thought in the least degree. He performed a great and lasting service to musical form, expanding, enriching the details and adding new intensity of expression. His later works show an ever-increasing tendency to break away from the conventional sonata structure, as if his genius could be bound by no rigid lines.
Although Beethoven was not such a master of counterpoint and fugue as Bach, in the perfection of theme development he far surpassed the earlier composer. The fugue seemed too confined and rigid a form for him to use with ease, and he attempted it but little. He did not depart altogether from the rules and ideas of the older composers, but he brought new principles into use and made radical changes in harmonies and rhythm. One important form that he greatly developed, both in his sonatas and symphonies, was the Variation. In his later works his variations depart more and more from the theme and show a vivid imagination.
It is difficult to draw a fixed line dividing any life into periods, but generally speaking, there may be said to be three epochs in Beethoven's work, which, though overlapping one another, nevertheless mark distinct stages in his musical development. The first includes his first twenty works. In these may be noticed the steadily growing independence with which he expresses his thoughts. It is interesting to note that the three sonatas of his Opus Two are dedicated to Joseph Haydn. In the second period he wrote the works best known to musical students and the concert-world. They include the so-called "Moonlight"' and "Appassionata" sonatas -perhaps all up to Opus 100-his greatest quartets and all but the last of his symphonies. The works of his later years are appalling in their difficulties and are seldom heard; they show the amazing development of a wonderful soul and seem the inspiration of another world.
It is unquestionably easier to trace Beethoven's artistic evolution in the sonata forms; they are less complex and afford a better opportunity for understanding his personality. But it is in his quartets and symphonies that he is at his greatest. It has been said that in the sonatas he refers to his innermost self, but in the symphonies the sentiment is more general in character and truly grander. In all he makes use of startling modulations, wonderfully rich harmonies and rushing arpeggio and scale passages. He was most at ease in writing for the orchestra, and his songs are not in popular use largely because of the fact that he frequently carries the parts quite out of voice range. He acknowledged that the symphony was his real element when he said: "When sounds ring in me I always hear the full orchestra; I can ask anything of instrumentalists, but when writing for the voice I must continually ask myself: `Can that be sung?'"
This title is wholly without warrant. "Its origin is due to Rellstab, who, in describing the first movement, drew a picture of a small boat in the moonlight on Lake Lucerne. In Vienna a tradition that Beethoven had composed it in an arbor gave rise to the title `Arbor sonata.' Titles of this character work much mischief in the amateur mind by giving rise to fantastic conceptions of the contents of the music."-H. E. Krehbiel.
Although Beethoven was the last of the so-called classical composers (the others being Bach, Handel, Haydn and Mozart), there is in his compositions a tendency toward defi nite expression, especially in his sonatas and symphonies with titles, that anticipates the Romantic School.
All his symphonies, with the exception of his last-the Ninth-are heard frequently and are known to every attendant of symphony concerts. Possibly the Fifth, in C minor, is the most popular, and is the work that has made him so widely known to the general public. The Third symphony, written in 1803, was dedicated to Napoleon, then the hero of the hour, whom Beethoven greatly admired. But when the news came that he had proclaimed himself Emperor and assumed the royal purple, Beethoven's rage knew no bounds. He seized the dedication page and tore it to shreds, while the manuscript of the "Heroic" symphony fell to the floor, where it lay untouched for days. This ardent lover of republicanism did not easily recover from the disappointment of seeing his idol fall shattered to the ground. It is said that he exclaimed with great feeling: "Pity I do not understand the art of war as I do the art of music; I should yet conquer Napoleon." This work was written in his later style and is in advance of his former compositions. The famous "Funeral March" forms the second movement, followed by a Scherzo in marked contrast to the sombre gloom of the death march.
The Ninth symphony is seldom performed in this country, as it involves choral work of intense difficulty. Wagner gave it as his opinion that Beethoven realized he had developed instrumental music to its limit, and felt that any further progress in musical expression lay in the combination of voices and instruments. His Mass in D is a colossal work written for the Catholic church, but its difficulty prevents its frequent use.
All the works of Beethoven's later life show a marked tendency to break away from the conventional forms. No better example of this is given than in the Sonata Opus 106, written in 1818; its first movement is constructed on two themes in violent contrast to each other, and the whole is built on a gigantic scale. These later works possess such magnitude 2 Bach and Handel properly belong to a contrapuntal school and complexity of thought that they required a wideness of scope not possible in the conventional forms.
Beethoven's one opera, "Fidelio," was a great success and is often heard today. The plot is not worthy of such masterly treatment but gives ample field for his marvelous betrayal of passion. The music has been criticised as following the text rather too closely, but the composer sought by this means to supplement the action by expressing definite thoughts instead of vague emotions.
The story of the opera is briefly this: Florestan, a Spanish nobleman, incurring the wrath of Don Pizarro, Governor of the state prison, is seized secretly and cast into a vile dun geon. Then Pizarro causes the report to be circulated that Florestan is dead; but his wife will not believe the evil report and determines to find out whether her husband has been imprisoned. Disguised in male attire, under the name of Fidelio she secures a position as assistant to Rocco, the jailer. She makes warm friends at the prison, among them Rocco himself and his daughter Marcelline, who falls violently in love with the supposed youth and forsakes her faithful lover, Jacquino. But try as she may, Fidelio cannot find her husband among the prisoners who daily file in and out the gate.
Finally Don Pizarro receives a letter announcing the approaching visit of the Minister to the prison. Now, Pizarro fears to have him find his friend Florestan cruelly treated, so resolves to kill his prisoner. He summons Rocco to dig a grave in the dungeon, that all traces of the crime may be hidden. The jailer confides the secret to Fidelio, who begs to help him in the work. Together they go and find Florestan chained to a stone and wasted to a skeleton for lack of food. He is so exhausted that he is gradually losing his reason and calls incessantly for his wife. When she sees his awful state she almost faints, but by a mighty effort goes on with her work. When the dire task is accomplished Rocco leaves, but Fidelio hides behind a pillar, resolved to save her husband or die with him.
Pizarro then enters and, lifting high his dagger, rushes at Florestan, but Fidelio throws herself between him and his victim. Pizarro is so surprised that he loses his presence of mind, and she points her pistol at his head. At this moment trumpets sound announcing the Minister, and Pizarro is compelled to retreat. The Minister is much grieved to find Florestan in such a state and, learning the cause, has Pizarro led away in chains. The devoted husband and wife are thus united, and Marcelline, much embarrassed at her mistake, returns to her faithful Jacquino.
In 1815 Beethoven's brother Carl died, leaving him in care of a worthless nephew, to whom the composer was passionately devoted, but who gave him much worry and prob ably hastened his breakdown. His now total deafness made public performance and orchestral conducting impossible. The following story is told of one of his last appearances as conductor: "At the first performance of the Ninth Symphony the concert was arranged for amid great difficulties; the house was crowded by an immense audience. The people were eager not only to hear the work but to see the great composer. He, a dweller in silence, not only did not hear the thunderous applause that greeted him, but stood with his back to the audience still moving his baton. A singer touched him and drew his attention to the applauding people. `When the deaf musician bent his head in acknowledgment, many an eye among the faces he so calmly confronted was dim with tears.' "
In the winter of 1826 he was taken seriously ill and died within a few months, after intense suffering. The thousands that gathered at his funeral bore testimony to the place he held in the hearts of the people.
One of the incidental results of Beethoven's work was the improvement in the technical skill of pianists. In playing Mozart's piano compositions great skill is not required, but Beethoven exacted marvelous technique, great strength of arm, wrist and fingers. His compositions abound in difficulty of execution, but merely as a means of expression rather than an end in itself.
He wrote in a style far in advance of his time and, because misunderstood by his critics, was often misjudged. His was a peculiar, almost dual, nature. Compelled by fate to become a philosopher at the age of twenty-eight and endure life rather than enjoy it, he sought solace in music, which was to him the highest means of expression.
"Beethoven's relation to art might almost be described as personal. Art was his goddess to whom he made petition, to whom he rendered thanks, whom he defended. He praised her as his savior in times of despair; by his own confession it was only the prospect of her comforts that prevented him from laying violent hands on himself. Read his words and you shall find that it was his art that was his companion in his wanderings through field and forest, the sharer of the solitude to which his deafness condemned him. The concepts of Nature and Art were intimately bound up in his mind. His lofty and idealistic conception of art led him to proclaim the purity of his goddess with the hot zeal of a priestly fanatic. Every form of pseudo or bastard art stirred him with hatred to the bottom of his soul; hence his furious onslaughts on mere virtuosity and all efforts from influential sources to utilize art for other than purely artistic purposes. And his art rewarded his devotion richly; she made his sorrowful life worth living with gifts of purest joy."
Too great emphasis cannot be laid upon Beethoven's influence in nearly every form of music. He brought the sonata and symphony to a height hitherto undreamed of and never again equalled. He indirectly raised the standard of piano playing, set orchestration on a new and firmer basis and left a wealth of musical productions that will always be standards of form and make the world better because of their purity and unsurpassed beauty.
CLASSIFIED LIST OF HIS WORKS
Instrumental: Nine symphonies, nine overtures, one violin concerto, five piano concertos, string quartets, trios for piano and strings, ten sonatas for violin, five sonatas for cello, thirty-two sonatas for piano alone, sets of variations for piano. Vocal: Two masses, one oratorio, one opera and many songs.