Wednesday, 3 June 2009

36 Steps to Vienna: 12 A Group of Noble Dames (3)

Immortal Beloved candidate N0. 94: Therese von Brunswick

The question remains: why did Beethoven keep the Immortal Beloved letter among his private papers from 1812 until his death some fifteen years later?

In his days as a virtuoso pianist and while his hearing was still reasonably good Beethoven was famous for his extraordinary mastery of existing works, including his own, but also for his powers of improvisation, for inventing music as he sat at the keyboard. Almost a forgotten art nowadays, limited to jazz musicians and church organists, in Beethoven's day the ability of keyboard players to improvise was taken for granted. Many reports exist of listeners' reactions to Beethoven's improvisation, and mostly they speak of the sublime emotional power of his free extemporisation at the keyboard and of the utter captivation of his listeners. I suspect that some of the conquests which Franz Wegeler quotes above originated in Beethoven's improvisations, and that this Adonis of the piano's ability to charm women off the trees was no less developed than Liszt's or Chopin's, two other virtuoso improvisers. The 'conquests' Wegeler refers to were probably more innocent than the wider morality of a later age might encourage us to believe, and in any case girls who swoon over sweeping arpeggios and melting andante cantabiles don't usually become immediate life partners and surrogate mothers.

I suspect also, probably deeply unfashionably, that until his deafness became virtually total, the mainspring of his musical invention lay in improvisation. This isn't the place to explore the correlation between improvisation, his deafness and his finished, published work in depth and detail, but it does strike me that up until about 1805 Beethoven was reluctant to relinquish control over his more passionately intimate and emotional music by writing it in media that would require a group of musicians rather than a soloist to realise it. The great majority of what could crudely and crassly be called his love music is written for piano, hence primarily for Beethoven himself to play, and possibly - although this is the merest conjecture - for a piano-playing immortal beloved to feel the depth of his passion for her. As one might expect, given his genius for improvisation, such music is often cast in the slow movements of his piano sonatas. One has only to think of the famous slow movement of the Pathétique sonata of c.1798 or that of the Appassionata sonata of c.1806 to canvas the possibility that this music was so private, so expressive of intimate feeling, such a communion between composer and immortal beloved, that no one but a soloist could be expected to get inside it. No hidden ciphers, no coy messages of love such as Schumann encoded for his girlies in his piano suite Carnaval, none of the melting moments there are in the vast corpus of Schubert piano duets, where the composer might touch fingers or overlay hands with the beautiful pupil beside him: Beethoven's music is on a quite different, indeed elemental, level.

I think the slow movement of the Appassionata (his publisher Cranz's subtitle, not Beethoven's) is in some senses a parallel text to the Immortal Beloved letter. I expect there are many other similar movements, but I would like to analyse this one in what I admit are enjoyably unconventional terms, and I can only hope sincerely that my analysis won't be thought so erotic, indeed salacious, that the piece is withdrawn immediately as a set work by any Mrs Grundys lurking round the premises of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music.

This movement is cast in theme-and-variation form, alone of the recognised classical forms which allows for cumulative, uninterrupted dramatic build-up. Written in the greatest dignity with two slow beats in each bar, set plumb in the baritone register, the tune is possibly the simplest Beethoven ever wrote: in the first eight bars only four different notes are used. It mostly consists of simple chords, soft and low, slowly melding from one to the next with the velvet regularity of day turning into night, of ebb succeeding flow - and of the seamless rise and fall of a serene, timeless coition. This is the coitus that knows no lust, and there is nothing more beautiful between loving couples on this earth, nor anything more susceptible to ignoble degradation. The intensity grows while the twofold pulse remains stable, until after about three minutes of this sublime music the direction comes poco più mosso, a little faster. The web of delectably intense, tingling sound spun out of the initial chords leads towards climax; but then there comes, as it has to, knowing Beethoven's circumstances, the direction dimin[uendo] e rit[ardando], growing softer and slower. The original tune is broken into an exchange between the baritone and the soprano registers, as though between man and woman, and finally there is a soft, heart-breaking chord of despair. This leads us straight into the last movement of the sonata, a swirling, stuttering passion of disappointment and rage. There has been no climax. The expectation has led to nothing. Beethoven's love has been despised and rejected.

Was Beethoven conscious or unconscious of all this? I've no idea, but I feel perfectly at ease with a glorious agnosticism.

There are several conclusions to the Immortal Beloved saga. Firstly, her identity is unimportant, and musicological deerstalker and magnifying-glass work merely distracts from Beethoven's music. What matters is the depth of feeling the various women in his life engendered in him, feeling expressed firstly mainly in his piano music and later, as his deafness worsened and approached totality, in his symphonic work as well.

And then I think he kept the letter because it marked an important turning point in his life. Just as the 1802 Heiligenstadt Testament, which he also kept with this letter, marked his agonised coming to terms with his health and deafness, so after the Immortal Beloved episode he would renounce the idea of marriage. Whoever she was, she and her sisterhood live on in so much of Beethoven's music. Thank you, ladies. We owe you a great deal.


Dave said...

I am putting this blog in the X-cert folder on my desktop.

Rog said...

My theory is that if Therese von Brunswick awoke such ardent passion then blindness as well as deafness may have been a factor at work.

I'm also shocked to discover that Dave possesses an X-cert folder at all.

Vicus Scurra said...

Ignoring the attempts of my two colleagues above to lower the tone, (where do you find such friends?), it had not occurred to me that if only he had a means of recording his improvisations how much more he would have been able to score. Would his 6th, 7th and 8th piano concertos have been even better than the 4th and 5th? (that's enough of the serious stuff, Ed.)

Christopher Campbell-Howes said...

Dave: Well, I'm sure you must have a finely honed nose for such things. At least it's on your desktop, you haven't hidden it in your drawers.

Rog: Besides those you mention there may have been other, more transitory factors to compensate for B.'s hardness of hearing. Is it for nothing that the family title may have been corrupted from 'Brunswick' to 'Airwick'?

Vicus: At least one of the above correspondents, who I understand are of Jutish descent and whose remarks I am sometimes put to it to answer at an appropriate level, scores every Saturday, and even goes to the trouble of recording - and publishing - his sometimes improvised efforts.

Seriously, though, yes. I do think B.'s later works are sometimes clogged with material he would have rejected or modified had he been able to hear. The Grosse Fuge, for one thing. I expect I shall roast in hell for this heresy.