Monday, 5 January 2009

36 Steps to Vienna: 10 Pontecorvo, Abercrombie, Nelson & Co (3)

Beethoven was sometimes obscure about what outside factors had influenced his compositions. Asked about the 'meaning' of the Waldstein piano sonata, composed in 1804, a year after the Eroica, he replied 'Read The Tempest'. I expect this was extraordinarily frustrating for anyone who thereupon went scurrying off to a recital of the Waldstein sonata with a copy of Shakespeare's play, hoping to find a parallel narrative: passages in the music where the Viennese listener could whisper Ach ja, das muss der Caliban sein (Ah yes, that must be Caliban) or - we can have this in Viennese dialect, even - Wart a bisserl, ich glaube, das ist die Miranda, die sagt sowas wie: So a schöne neue Welt, und dann wohnen solche Leute drin! (Hold on, that's got to be Miranda saying 'O brave new world, that hath such people in it'.) Of course there aren't any such direct correspondences, and attempts to find any reduce the Waldstein sonata at best to the level of incidental music and to a Brush Up Your Shakespeare quiz at worst. So with the Eroica.

There is no biographical or narrative content in the Eroica. Shortly before its composition Beethoven poured out his despair, brought about by his chronic illness and ever-worsening deafness, in letters to friends and in his will. Several are quoted above. He felt death approaching. He was 32 (he may have believed he was 30) when he wrote the will known as the Heiligenstadt testament after the village where he wrote it, now an inner suburb of Vienna. Few 32-year-olds are concerned about making their wills, very few indeed in the terms of the Heiligenstadt testament. The will mentions thoughts of suicide. Beethoven believed his physical state was drawing the curtains about his art. It was the end. Will it not free me from a condition of endless suffering? Come when you [i.e. death] will, I will meet you with courage, he wrote among the final lines of his testament.

The Eroica was Beethoven's response. A year or two earlier he had expressed himself to Franz Wegeler, his doctor friend from Bonn days, with typically Beethovenian defiance: I will grasp Fate by the throat; it shall not conquer me. We don't know what last gasp of fate, or lightning flash of courage, or what misty dawn of hope, raised his spirit. Maybe it's more likely that there was just the slow, firm, onward tread of determination not to to succumb, not to surrender to despair. He had no conventional religion; his strength came from within him. Maybe work on the Eroica - which is very highly wrought - and other compositions was therapy in itself. Suggestions have been made that, in the absence of any evidence of opiates from the analysis of samples of his hair and bone that I outlined earlier, Beethoven could lose himself in composition so completely as to eclipse pain. So little are we taken with things of the spirit that we may find it hard to imagine the surge of uplift and joy Beethoven experienced, the shiver down his spine, as odd scraps and phrases destined to find their place in the Eroica found their way into his musical imagination. The hero, the Prometheus, trailing clouds of joy, coming with laughter from afar, was himself, and, through himself, us. The Eroica is a celebration of any human being, then or now, who has won against heavy odds and has shared the fruits of success.

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