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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

CHAPTER 9

BEETHOVEN THE MUSICIAN

To Beethoven’s friends the man who walked and talked with them in the streets of Vienna was the real man, a bundle of consistent inconsistencies, with an appeal to their loyalty that was simultaneously royal and lost-child-like.

To Beethoven himself it appeared that he realized his true being only in music and in the intercourse with nature which was for him an entrance into the unseen world.

One turns with something like relief from the troubled half-truths of his outer existence to the radiant truths of his inner life. Here were no inconsistencies, only an unswerving dedication of himself to an ideal of music which, for height, purity and grandeur resembled that of an inspired prophet. First glimpsed when he was a boy, he travelled towards the ever-growing splendour up to the moment when death opened for him the unknown doors into full light.

Before studying him as a composer, it is well to consider him as an executant, on the principle of proceeding from the less to the greater.

Beethoven, then, had learned to play the piano, organ, violin and viola, and he was a conductor, though an eccentric one. The organ he abandoned when still young, because the heavy vibrations affected his nerves. The conducting abandoned him when he became deaf. The violin was never his real métier. He roared with laughter at the legend of having charmed flies and spiders as a child, and told Schindler his scrapings were far more likely to have driven them away. Probably his viola playing was no better. But though Beethoven might not be a fine string player, he understood the soul of string instruments and was quick to appreciate the distinctions in style between the numerous violinists who performed his works. No one could suppose for a moment that he had the same player in view when he composed the Kreutzer Sonata and the Sonata in G major, Op. 96, for violin and piano. Indeed he had not, for the dashing Bridgetower was the first to play the ‘Kreutzer’ and Op. 96 was designed for the lofty, classic, calmly beautiful style of Rode.

As with the violin, so with all other instruments in the orchestra; Beethoven took pains to inform himself exactly of what they could and could not do. If he sometimes demanded so much from them that orchestral players laughed at his passages and declared them impossible (as, for example, the famous double bass passage in the trio of the fifth Symphony), it was because he formed his opinion on the capacity of exceptional players. Instinctively he knew that the ‘exceptional’ of one century becomes the ‘standard’ of the next in matters of executive technique.

So it must be remembered that Beethoven was intimate with the playing of such remarkable artists as Kreutzer, Clement, Rode, Schuppanzigh (violinists), Weiss (viola), Bernhard Romberg (cello), Dragonetti (double bass), Anton Reicha (flute), Ramm (oboe), Anton Romberg (bassoon), Punto (horn). Not that all of them were ready to learn from Beethoven. Bernhard Romberg once asked Spohr how he could play such barockes Zeug (absurd stuff) as Beethoven’s Quartets, Op. 18; he is also said to have thrown the first Rasoumovsky Quartet on the floor and trampled on it.

But while Beethoven was ready to learn from all these players, he stood second to none himself as a pianist. In youth his playing had rather too much of organ style about it; in age he was too vehement and (because of his deafness) inaccurate. A fantasia from him was enough to put a piano out of action, and once, in a rage, he broke six strings with the first chord. But when he was in his prime, say in the years 1796 to 1801, to hear him must have been the most memorable experience of a lifetime. Small, smooth-groomed playing never appealed to him, though he could imitate it elegantly when he liked. On the contrary, he loved a big, grand style, bordering on the orchestral, with a resultant diversity of tone-colouring then new, and a cantilena said to have often ‘stirring,’ full-toned and sustained like organ notes; the tones ran together in long, unbroken melodic lines, ‘like the drawing of a violin bow.’ Ah! if one could but hear Beethoven’s playing, instead of piecing together these written accounts. Tomaschek, who heard him in 1798 and called him ‘the giant among pianoforte players,’ said that Beethoven’s playing is extremely ‘brilliant, but has less delicacy [than that of Wölfl], and occasionally he is guilty of indistinctness’ - which looks as if Beethoven made considerable use of the penumbra of after-sounds obtainable through the pedal. Cherubini thought him rough as a player. He was also a variable one - sometimes confused and freakish, at others brilliant, intellectual, full of characteristic expression capable of producing the most extraordinary emotional effect upon his hearers. Czerny says that no one equalled Beethoven in the rapidity of his scales, double trills, skips, etc., and mentions that he used both pedals far more frequently than is indicated in his works. The school of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was the foundation of his technique. He attached great importance to the correct position of the fingers, and his own were very powerful, though not long. When playing, his demeanour was ‘masterfully quiet, noble and beautiful without the slightest grimace only bent forward low, as his deafness grew upon him.’

It was like him that for music he would bend that proud head which pain could not bow.

Beethoven was a king of musicians and he knew it with the directness of great dignity. When Frederick William of Prussia sent him a ring and a friend said something about his accepting it because it came from a king, Beethoven replied quite simply: ‘I too am a king.’

Being a king, he had little patience with pretenders, though towards pupils - the humble and meek - he was endlessly patient. There was a streak of the pretender in Ignaz Pleyel, Haydn’s former pupil and rival. Czerny relates that Pleyel had come from Paris bringing his newest quartets, and he and they were fêted at a big party at Prince Lobkowitz’s. Beethoven was present. After the programme ended, he was asked to play. Bad-tempered about it, he walked to the piano, picked up on the way the second violin part of one of Pleyel’s quartets, threw it on the desk upside down and began to improvise. Czerny continues:

He had never been heard to improvise more brilliantly, with more originality and splendour than on this evening, but through the entire improvisation there ran through the middle voices like a thread or cantus firmus the notes, in themselves utterly insignificant, which he found on the accidentally opened page of the quartet, upon which he built up the most daring melodies and harmonies in the most brilliant concerto style. Old Pleyel could show his amazement only by kissing his hands.

There was also an occasion when the renowned Abt Vogler and Beethoven extemporised to each other. What a subject for Browning to put into poetry! As it was, Gänsbacher, the man to whom we owe the account, preferred Vogler’s learned fuguing to Beethoven’s ‘abundance of the most beautiful thoughts.’

Today it is the fashion to deprecate extemporization, academic musicians regarding it as a spurious approach to composition. Really? A method which served in the production of such music as that of Gluck, Haydn and Beethoven cannot be seriously wrong. Besides, although Beethoven never attended a conservatorium, his voluntary academic training had been so rigorous that he could have got a Mus. Doc. at a university any day. There is another argument. Beethoven was acknowledged on all sides as supreme in extemporization long before his written compositions had shown the magnitude of his genius. This offers a personal parallel to Romain Rolland’s theory about the tendencies of a nation becoming audible in its music long before the events happen. It was so with Beethoven. He first found access to his ideal, and to true self-expression through extemporization; from that he advanced to the earliest full written personal expression in his piano music; and finally reached unfettered eloquence in all forms of music.

It is enthralling to trace the successive stages of his genius. In early years he certainly learned much that was never taught him; effects impressed on his sensitive nature by the music of other composers. Mozart was the predominant influence. Beethoven felt it so strongly that he realized the danger and for a time avoided hearing Mozart’s operas, lest they should destroy his individuality.

That Mozart affected him powerfully is not surprising, for Mozart was a revelation of perfection such as music had never known before. He has been called ‘the composer’s’ composer.’ Beethoven loved Mozart, and ‘that which I love educates me,’ as a modern composer has well said. Those magic touches of Mozart, simple yet miraculous, moved Beethoven to the core of his being. That we know - quite apart from the evidence of his music - by the story which Madame Cramer presented of her husband. John Cramer and Beethoven were walking in the Augarten, listening to a performance of Mozart’s piano Concerto in C minor (K. 491). - (Cramer, it is worth remembering, was the only pianist whom Beethoven praised.) As the concerto neared its end Beethoven suddenly stood still, drew Cramer’s attention to the lovely motive which is first introduced towards the close and exclaimed: ‘Cramer, Cramer, we shall never be able to do anything like that!’ and then surrendered himself entirely to the music, swaying to and fro and marking the rhythm in extreme delight. The love of Mozart remained throughout his life, though the danger of a swamped individuality passed. It may be fancy - yet I think not - that I seem to hear behind the ceremonial music of even so late a work as Beethoven’s overture, Die Weihe des Hauses (The Dedication of the House, 1824), the solemn tones and fugal dignity of Mozart’s Zauberflöte. It was Beethoven’s favourite Mozart opera.

Other influences that entered his early life are not so recognizable. M. Cucuel remarks thematic rapports - rather far-fetched perhaps - between Grétry’s operas, Le Tableau parlent, Richard Coeur de Lion, Le Jugement de Midas and La Rosière de Salency, given at Bonn when Beethoven was there, and Beethoven’s own Sonatas, Opp. 7, 13, 14, 27 and 31, no. 2, the Albumblatt für Elise, the Scene by the Brook in the Pastoral Symphony, the opening to the Waldstein Sonata, and the overture to King Stephen. Cucuel also asserts similarity between the theme of Joy, ninth Symphony, the final chorus of Fidelio and the final chorus of the Deserter by Monsigny. Other writers have alluded to certain harmonic and thematic devices imbibed from a study of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s music. Beethoven certainly valued his work, for as late as 1809 he wrote to Breitkopf that ‘of Emanuel Bach’s pianoforte works I have only a few things, yet a few by that true artist serve not only for high enjoyment, but also for study.’

Beethoven also valued Clementi, ‘the father of the pianoforte.’ How much of his work was known to Beethoven during early years is hard to determine, but M. Prod’homme, following Teodor de Wyzewa, thinks Neefe made him play Clementi’s Opp. 5. 6. 8 and 14 and that ‘the expression, so novel, which Clementi gave to his thoughts, must have pleased the pupil of Neefe.’ It is sure, however, not conjectural, that Beethoven’s compositions show traces of Clementi’s methods, though the two men never met till 1804 and did not make friends till 1807, when, ‘by a little management and without committing myself, I have at last made a conquest of the haughty beauty, Beethoven,’ wrote Clementi to Collard.

I am disposed to believe that Beethoven’s mental relations with the music of Handel, Gluck and J. S. Bach have not been sufficiently considered. He certainly became acquainted with works by all three composers at Bonn. In vocal writing his style is much nearer to Handel and Gluck than to Mozart for it has the same curious unplastic effect as Handel’s arias - an effect comparable to a frieze in bas-relief as against the fully rounded style of Mozart’s operatic writing. Young ears are receptive, and Beethoven had a glowing admiration for Handel. Towards the end of his life he raised Handel to the supreme place in his regard. ‘Whom do you consider the greatest composer that ever lived’ asked Stumpff. ‘Handel; to him I bow the knee,’ said Beethoven instantly, and bent one knee to the floor. At that time he knew only the scores of The Messiah and Alexander’s Feast. Two years later Stumpff gladdened Beethoven’s last days by a present of Handel’s complete works. With Gluck we are on less certain ground, but Beethoven heard his operas at Bonn, and Czerny refers to his playing of the scores of Handel and Gluck as unique, ‘in that he introduced a full-voicedness and a spirit which gave these works a new shape.’ The correspondence in feeling between a portion of Gluck’s music for the scene in the Elysian Fields in his opera Orfeo and Beethoven’s Scene by the Brook in his Pastoral Symphony merits more than casual thought. There is the same sort of glowing serenity and unbroken beauty when the birds appear in both.

In Beethoven’s time John Sebastian Bach had not come into his own. Nevertheless I feel convinced that Beethoven knew more of his music than is generally supposed. Neefe had seen to that when he grounded him on the Well tempered Clavier. The direct references to J.S. Bach in Beethoven’s letters are illuminating. To Hofmeister in 1801 he says: ‘The fact that you purpose to publish the works of Sebastian Bach does good to my heart, which beats only for the lofty and magnificent art of this patriarch of harmony. ... Set me down as a subscriber for the works of Johann Sebastian Bach, also Prince Lichnowsky.’ To Breitkopf in the same year, he calls Bach ‘the immortal god of harmony’ and offers to publish a work for the benefit of Bach’s daughter, now in poverty.

Again in 1803: ‘I thank you heartily for the beautiful things of Sebastian Bach, I will keep and study them. If any more follow, do please let me have them also.’

Then in 1810: ‘I would like to have all the works of Karl Philipp Emanuel Bach ... also a mass by J. Sebastian Bach in which there is the following Crucifixus with a basso ostinato’ (he meant the Mass in B minor). ‘Then you must have the best copy of Bach’s Tempered Clavier, and this also I beg you to send me!’

Finally, from 1822 to 1825, Beethoven projected an overture on the musical motive of Bach’s name: BACH. [In German B natural is called H.] Bach himself had employed the theme in his Art of Fugue and Beethoven perhaps planned his overture as a tribute.

Alas! it was never written, though sketches lie scattered about

among those for the last quartets.

So much, then, for direct references to Bach. The indirect ones are even more interesting, for they show J. S. Bach constantly in the background of Beethoven’s aesthetic code. At least, so it seems to me, though I must shoulder responsibility for the idea. I believe, then, that Beethoven’s strong feeling for key-character and key-colour was derived from J. S. Bach, as exemplified in his Well-tempered Clavier. Neefe, Beethoven’s best teacher during boyhood’s days (therefore during the most impressionable time), had come to Bonn steeped in the tradition of J. S. Bach at Leipzig. In turn he steeped his pupil in the wonderful forty-eight preludes and fugues of the Well-tempered Clavier, wherein Bach had enshrined his finest instincts and convictions with regard to key and scale. Bach was predominantly a contrapuntal composer, Beethoven predominantly of the new harmonic style, but key was the basis of that new style, and in the ‘48’ Bach established key in a security that lasted for nearly two hundred years. Beethoven’s mastery of key relations and contrasts has never bean equalled by any other composer. I believe it was Johann Sebastian Bach who put that key into his hands, if I may be forgiven the bad pun.

Few sayings of Beethoven on the aesthetics of music have come down to us. Happily a talk he had with August Kanne, a poet-musician, has been preserved. Kanne contended that it made no difference to a composition whether it stood in the original key or was transposed. Beethoven was positive that keys had definite inner significance. ‘He defended his position on logical grounds, claiming that each key is associated with certain moods, and that no piece of music should be transposed.’ From other records we know that Beethoven associated D flat major with solemnity and death; B flat minor for him was a ‘black’ key.

Without pushing the correspondence too far - which would reduce the feeling between Bach and Beethoven from the spirit to the letter - I think their similarity of view over key characteristics can be tested by any one who cares to compare their compositions. Take Bach’s two Preludes and Fugues in C sharp minor and then place beside them Beethoven’s Quartet in C sharp minor, Op. 131. Or compare Bach’s Fugue in E major, Book II (which Samuel Wesley called ‘The Saints in Glory’), with Beethoven’s Sonata for piano in E major, Op. 109. Look at the F major Fugue, Book I, and then turn to the andante from Beethoven’s first Symphony, or consider the character of Bach’s two G major Preludes and Fugues and note the sense one experiences of breathing the same atmosphere in Beethoven’s two Sonatas in G major for piano and violin.

Beethoven’s debt to Bach was unacknowledged because unconscious, His acknowledgments to Haydn were withheld, maybe, for the same reason, though I find it hard to believe he did not know that Haydn’s bold-strokes of enharmonic modulation were the starting-point for his own, or that the famous trumpet calls in his overtures, Leonora No. 2 and No. 3, had their prototype in the unaccompanied trumpet solo in Haydn’s Military Symphony. Whatever Beethoven chose to tell the world, his music proves again and again that in reality Haydn’s influence upon him was stronger and far more lasting than that of Mozart.

With smaller composers Beethoven was perfectly aware of his debt, as for instance with old Aloys Förster, from whom he learned the true art of writing quartets. His debt to Paer was more cynically acknowledged when he went to hear the latter’s opera Achilles. After repeated exclamations of praise, Beethoven exclaimed: ‘I must compose that!’ ‘That’ was the much admired Funeral March! Beethoven did exactly what he said - the first result was the Funeral March in his Sonata in A flat major for piano, Op. 76; the second, his Funeral March in the Eroica Symphony.

Of the outward times and seasons of Beethoven’s work we know that he spent the winters in Vienna, completing and scoring the music for which the inspirations had come to him during his summer and autumn sojourns in the country. His Viennese day was something like this. Rose very early, worked all the morning with breakfast somewhere, dinner some time after noon (if he remembered to eat it), then for a walk round the ramparts of Vienna, and to friends or the theatre in the evening. The routine naturally varied when he had rehearsals to attend or pupils to teach, but roughly it represented the winter norm.

In summer all was changed. Beethoven would rise at dawn to spend long days, and even nights, in the open air. Later he gave up night rambling and in his last autumn (1826) came in at midday for dinner and a rest before going out again till sunset.

Gluck was fond of composing in the open air. If I recollect rightly his biographers describe him as placing his clavier in a meadow, putting a bottle of champagne on it, and then proceeding to compose. But with Beethoven nature was a passion for which the best parallel can be found in Wordsworth. The poet, however, gleaned and gave out less than Beethoven, with whom it was as if in a special way he felt himself part of the great spiritual life of the universe. In old mythology and folk-lore there have been men who understood the speech of birds, the voice of waters, and could see the unseen things. Beethoven loved until he too something saw and understood.

Neate, the English pianist to whom Beethoven took a warm liking, testified that he had never met a man who so enjoyed nature, or who took such intense delight in flowers. in the clouds, in everything - nature was like food to him, he seemed really to live in it.

That is true. Beethoven did live in it because when with nature he was most himself, and to be ‘most himself’ meant for him, as for Mozart, to be most a musician. Their own records, all too brief, of how their inspirations came to them corroborate each other in a remarkable way. Here is Mozart’s:

When I am, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone, and of good cheer - say, travelling in a carriage or walking after a good meal, or during the night when I cannot sleep; it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly. Whence and How they come, I know not; nor can I force them. Those ideas that please me I retain in memory, and am accustomed, as I have been told, to hum them to myself. If I continue in this way, it soon occurs to me how I may turn them to account, so as to make a good dish of it, that is to say, agreeably to the rules of counterpoint, to the peculiarities of the various instruments. All this fires my soul, and, provided I am not disturbed, my subject enlarges itself, becomes methodised and defined, and the whole, though it be long, stands almost complete and finished in my mind, so that I can survey it, like a fine picture or a beautiful statue, at a glance. Nor do I hear in my imagination the parts successively, but I hear them, as it were, simultaneously (gleich alles zusammen). What a delight this is I cannot tell! All this inventing, this producing, takes place in a pleasing lively dream. Still the actual hearing of the tout ensemble is after all the best.

(If any- one wants to contend that it is impossible for a piece of music to be heard all at once, since music depends on its progress through Time, let them remember that Time is comprehended in Eternity. It is perfectly possible to transcend Time.)

Now hear Beethoven to Breitkopf:

 

If Heaven will only send patience till I can get abroad, I shall be able to get back to my real self again, which is the only possible happiness for man, and particularly for artist. Patience, only, if I am denied everything else, I can still find myself again in nature; at once again in my heavenly art, too; Heaven’s one true gift, this.

[Music and Letters, January 1934.]

Also to Schlosser:

I carry my thoughts about me for a long time, before I write them down. Meanwhile my memory is so tenacious 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, insomuch as I know already 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 for me nothing but the labour 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.

This tallies exactly with what Beethoven had told Wegeler many years previously, that ‘when one composition is scarce ended, another is already begun. As I compose at present, I frequently work on three or four compositions at the same time.’ His sketch-books prove this.

Beethoven continued to Schlosser:

You will ask where my ideas come from. I cannot say for certain. They come uncalled, sometimes independently, sometimes in association with other things. It seems to me that I could wrest them from Nature herself with my own hands, as I go walking in the woods. They come to me in the silence of the night or in the early morning, stirred into being by moods which the poet would translate into words, but which I put into sounds and these go through my head ringing and singing and storming until at last I have them before me as notes.

These accounts of the creative process in the minds of Mozart and Beethoven are profoundly interesting. Comparing them, one sees that with both men the first condition for good composition was to be ‘most himself’ - a happy state found most readily in the open air or at night. But whereas Mozart got his ideas in small glimpses which subsequently materialized in his thoughts into a completed whole before he wrote anything down (after which the labour was no more than placing the notes on paper), there is reason to think that Beethoven glimpsed the completed whole first, and his endless sketches were his repeated attempts to catch the true likeness of what he already knew in his soul to be the reality. Musicologists have spent enormous labour in demonstrating from Beethoven’s sketch-books how laboriously he built up his compositions, altering again and again almost to the scriptural seventy times seven. Even warm-hearted Sir George Grove went so far as to say: ‘One is prompted to believe not that he [Beethoven] had the idea first and then expressed it, but that it often came in the process of finding the expression.’

Mr. Ernest Newman, in his brilliant study of The Unconscious Beethoven, saw through that fallacy, just as he penetrated behind the sketches to their cause. Of the sketches for the Eroica Symphony he says:

Here, more than anywhere else, do we get that curious feeling that in his greatest works Beethoven was ‘possessed’ - the mere human instrument through which a vast musical design realized itself in all its marvellous logic . . . We have the conviction that his mind did not proceed from the particular to the whole, but began, in some curious way, with the whole and then worked back to the particular ... The long and painful search for the themes was simply an effort, not to find workable atoms out of which he could construct a musical edifice according to the conventions of symphonic form, but to reduce an already existing nebula, in which that edifice was implicit, to the atom, and then, by the orderly arrangement of these atoms, to make the implicit explicit.

That carries conviction. Furthermore, I should like to suggest that a distinctive feature of ideas which float up from the unconscious into consciousness is their evanescence, an evanescence comparable to that of the rainbow. One minute they are so bright, it seems impossible they could perish; the next they have faded and may never be seen again. Beethoven’s habit of sketching spring from such a feeling. He began it in boyhood, and there was no hour of the twenty-four when he had not a sketch-book at hand. He told the Archduke Rudolph in 1815 of ‘the bad habit which I have had from childhood of always having to write down my first ideas, without their often succeeding,’ and in another letter (1823) he advises him ‘specially to accustom yourself to note down at once, when at the pianoforte, any ideas that may come to you; for that purpose you ought to have a small table near the pianoforte. By such means not only will imagination be strengthened but one learns also how to fix at the moment the most out-of-the-way ideas.’ How to fix the ideas. In that sentence Beethoven explains the fundamental purpose of his sketches, and the apparent, but not real, discrepancy between his sketches and his statement that he never forgot any theme that had once occurred to him. The first sketch, tiny though it might be, was sufficient to anchor the metaphysical idea to the regions of material consciousness. Further, a close study of the processes by which Beethoven achieved his compositions strongly confirms the impression which many of his greatest works make of existing beyond the confines of this earth. In the first movement of the Choral Symphony, in the last quartets, and in the piano Sonatas Opp. 109 and 111 the location is definitely outside ordinary experience.

How was it, one asks, that Beethoven had access to this world of greater knowledge which has been known only to the few - to an Isaiah, a Socrates, Paul, Virgil, Dante - and which Christ came to reveal? It came, I think - and I say it very humbly - from Beethoven’s understanding of God. Organized religion and ritual meant very little to him; God meant everything. He was profoundly religious in his awareness of God’s reality, and his relation to that reality shaped his whole life. Every tree seemed to him to say: ‘Holy, holy ...’

On his desk stood constantly some sentences which he had written out and framed. They were his creed.

I am that which is.

I am all that is, that was, and that shall be.

No mortal man hath lifted my veil.

He is alone by Himself, and to Him alone do all things owe their being.

There is a precious manuscript page in the library of the Royal College of Music on which Beethoven copied some passages, drawn apparently from the sacred books of the East - the Upanishads, perhaps.

God is immaterial; as He is invisible, He can therefore have no form. But from what we are able to perceive in His works we conclude that He is eternal, almighty, omniscient and omnipresent. The mighty one, He alone is free from all desire or passion. There is no greater than He, Brahm; His mind is self-existent. He, the Almighty, is present in every part of space. His omniscience is self-inspired, and His conception includes every other. Of His all-embracing attributes the greatest is omniscience. For it there is no threefold kind of being - it is independent of everything O God! Thou art the true, eternal, blessed, unchangeable light of all time and space. Thy wisdom apprehends thousands and still thousands of laws, and yet Thou ever actest of Thy free will, and to Thy honour. Thou wast before all that we worship. To Thee is the praise and adoration. Thou alone art the true, Blessed (Bhagavan), Thou the best of all laws, the image of all wisdom, present throughout the whole world, Thou attainest all things. Sun, Ether, Brahm.’

(Beethoven crossed out these last three words.)

HYMN

Spirit of spirits, who, spreading Thyself through all space and endless time, art raised high above all limits of upward struggling thought, from riot didst Thou command beautiful order to arise. Before the {worlds/heavens} were, Thou wast, and before systems rolled below and above us. Before the earth swam in heavenly ether, Thou alone wast, until through Thy secret love that which was not sprang into being, and gratefully sang praises to Thee. What moved Thee to manifest Thy power and boundless goodness? What brilliant light directed Thy power? Wisdom beyond measure! How was it first manifested? Oh! direct my mind! Oh! raise it up from this grievous depth.

[Translation by J. S. Shedlock]

Alongside of these religious utterances must be read two accounts which have come down to us of Beethoven’s own words on the relation between religion and music. One is contained in a letter from Bettina von Arnim to Goethe, recounting her first talk with Beethoven:

He himself said: ‘When I open my eyes I must sigh, for what I see is contrary to my religion, and I must despise the world which does not know that music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy. ... Well I know that God is nearer to me than to other artists; I associate with Him without fear; I have always recognized and understood Him and have no fear for my music - it can meet no evil fate. Those who understand it must be freed by it from all the miseries which the others drag about with themselves. ... Music, verily, is the mediator between intellectual and sensuous life. ... Speak to Goethe about me; tell him to hear my symphonies and he will say that I am right in saying that music is the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge which comprehends mankind but which mankind cannot comprehend. ... We do not know what knowledge brings us. ... Every real creation of art is independent, more powerful than the artist himself and returns to the divine through its manifestation. It is one with man only in this, that it bears testimony to the mediation of the divine in him.’ [Translation by J. S. Shetlock.]

Beethoven truly speaks in these words. Bettina, clever as she was, could never have invented the thoughts they express, because such ideas are not to be reached by mere cleverness. The same argument applies to J. A. Stumpff’s report of what Beethoven said about composition; the ideas are unmistakably Beethoven’s, though the words have taken on a certain grandiloquence in Stumpff’s transcription.

Here they are:

When at eventide I contemplate in wonderment the firmament and the host of luminous bodies which we call worlds and suns, eternally revolving within its boundaries, my spirit soars beyond these stars many millions of miles away towards the fountain whence all created work springs and whence all new creation must still flow. ... What is to reach the heart must come from above: if it does not come thence, it will be nothing but notes - body without spirit. ... The spirit must rise up from the earth. ... Only by hard, persistent labour through such powers as are bestowed on a man can the work of art be made worthy of the Creator and Preserver of everlasting Nature!

If it is possible for any great genius to explain the mysterious source and goal of his music, Beethoven does so here.

An exquisite poet, Alice Meynell, once sang of a daisy:

Thou little veil for so great mystery

When shall I penetrate all things and thee,

And then look back?

and she ended her sonnet on the question:

O daisy mine, what will it be to look

From God’s side even of such a simple thing?

Beethoven had penetrated the veil and he looked back, in so far as any musician has ever done so, at the universe from God’s side.

What would it be if we could see Beethoven from God’s side? It is too wonderful to imagine.

 

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