Beethoven’s Heroism

In October 1802, the composer Ludwig van Beethoven visited the suburb of Heiligenstadt near Vienna, then a rural area immersed in greenery, before being industrialized in the mid-19th century. During this period, one of the most tumultuous in the composer’s life, Beethoven gradually realized the tragic fact that he was losing his hearing.

On the 6th of this month, he wrote an moving, turbulent document to his brother Carl and Johann, now familiar by the name the “The Heiligenstadt Testament” In the document he pours on paper his heroic struggle and his decision to end his miserable condition.

He writes thus: “O you men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn or misanthropic, how greatly do you wrong me, you do not know the secret causes of my seeming.

From childhood my heart and mind were disposed to the gentle feelings of good will, I was even ever eager to accomplish great deeds, but reflect now that for six years I have been a hopeless case, aggravated by senseless physicians, cheated year after year in the hope of improvement, finally compelled to face the prospect of a lasting malady (whose cure will take years or, perhaps, be impossible), born with an ardent and lively temperament, even susceptible to the diversions of society, I was compelled early to isolate myself, to live in loneliness, when I at times tried to forget all this.

Ah how could I possibly admit such an infirmity in the one sense which should have been more perfect in me than in others, a sense which I once possessed in highest perfection, a perfection such as few surely in my profession enjoy or have enjoyed.

Such incidents brought me to the verge of despair, but little more and I would have put an end to my life — only Art it was that withheld me, ah it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt called upon me to produce, and so I endured this wretched existence — truly wretched, an excitable body which a sudden change can throw from the best into the worst state — Patience — it is said that I must now choose for my guide, I have done so, I hope my determination will remain firm to endure until it please the inexorable parcae to break the thread, perhaps I shall get better, perhaps not, I am prepared. Forced already in my 28th year to become a philosopher.

O it is not easy, less easy for the artist than for anyone else — Divine One thou lookest into my inmost soul, thou knowest it, thou knowest that love of man and desire to do good live therein. O men, when some day you read these words, reflect that you did me wrong and let the unfortunate one comfort himself and find one of his kind who despite all obstacles of nature yet did all that was in his power to be accepted among worthy artists and men.”

On October the 10th he writes further:

“Thus do I take my farewell of thee — and indeed sadly — yes that beloved hope — which I brought with me when I came here to be cured at least in a degree — I must wholly abandon, as the leaves of autumn fall and are withered so hope has been blighted, almost as I came — I go away — even the high courage — which often inspired me in the beautiful days of summer — has disappeared — O Providence — grant me at least but one day of pure joy — it is so long since real joy echoed in my heart — O when — O when, O Divine One — shall I find it again in the temple of nature and of men — Never? no — O that would be too hard.”

Despite the deep depression evoked in those lines, the inner struggle of the ended in victory and willpower prevailed. The hope of creating music outlined the great composer’s destiny.

“The Heiligenstadt Testament”

It is customary to see the Fifth Symphony, in C minor, perhaps the most famous symphony in human history, as an echo of the fateful struggle which took place in Beethoven’s mind and soul prior to the writing of the symphony. The ‘Fate Motive” repeated throughout the four movements of the symphony, as well as the expressive power which permeates the work, ignited the imagination of critics and music lovers for many generations.

However, one might well wish to pause for a moment to examine the Sixth Symphony, “The Pastoral”, which Beethoven wrote at the same time as the 5th. It is considered the most optimistic and breezy symphony of all of Beethoven’s symphonies. A brief storm disrupts the rural wholesomeness and tranquility depicted in sounds. Herein lies much irony, for the same sounds of the rippling of the stream, the rattling of the wheels of the carriage and the chirping of birds are not a description of an external occurrence, but a memory and an echo: in five movements, Beethoven evokes a universe which, to him, is lost forever. This Symphony is indeed a nostalgic farewell. 

Equally interesting, in this context, is the Fourth Piano Concerto, written at the time. In the second, wondrous episode, Beethoven presents a struggle between the bellowing strings of the orchestra and the piano that weaves a touching, poignant melody. It is customary to interpret this movement according to the myth of Orpheus, and it is believed that Beethoven described here the legendary poet arriving at the Underworld, in his endeavors to put Cerberus, the underworld dog, to sleep. 

However, it is possible that Beethoven had an entirely different image in his mind. Here follows a brief explanation: each key of the piano hammers on three strings. In Beethoven’s time, the pianist was able to use either all three strings or one or two at the same time, using a special pedal. Beethoven indicates that the whole movement should be played “una corda”, meaning the use of one string only for each key. Only for a brief moment, towards the end of the movement, does Beethoven indicate that two, then three strings should be added, while a long trill (two adjacent notes played repeatedly and very quickly). This trill seems to penetrate the sadness and horror for a few seconds. Then the instruction “one string” returns, the strings relax and sigh and the movement comes to an end.

Today, instead of using such a special pedal, it is customary to mute the sound of the piano. But when the episode is played on an instrument that is an exact reconstruction of a piano from the Beethoven period (Fortepiano), and indeed the movement is played mostly on one string, the effect is utterly different. The piano is barely audible against the backdrop of the angry strings, and the growing trill evokes a completely different feeling. Could it be that in this episode Beethoven sought to express the sensation of his loss of hearing, as the famous whistle in the synagogue, penetrated the ears and hearts and reached straight to the heavens?

Author of the article: Kedem Berger

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