Volatile Rune

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The ‘Immortal Beloved’ and A Red Letter Day in the History of Western Music

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Friday, May 7 1824.

"That evening in Vienna, a work was premiered whose manuscript has since become part of the UNESCO "Memory of the World": Beethoven's Ninth Symphony."  

Ironically, according to the author's note, it is the written manuscipt that has been so venerated, not the music itself.  

"None of the two thousand attendees could have anticipated the symbolism that the work would come to embody, nor could they have predicted the tragedy of its future commercialisation, trivialisation and relegation to the world of hackneyed, popular kitsch.  For let there be no mistake while Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" might be one of the most beloved melodies of all time it has also been bandied about with equal parts carelessness and cavalier disregard.  Debussy was right when he said that in this respect the melody shares its popular lot with the Mona Lisa and her quizzical smile."

So writes Jan Caeyers in his biography Beethoven, A Life (University of California Press,2020)

The Maestro’s funeral takes place in Vienna on Thursday March 29 1827,  a bitter cold day with remaining patches of snow – and an estimated 20,000 people turn out. The police are needed to hold back the crowds, such crowds indeed that the funeral cortege takes an hour and a half to travel five hundred meters and reach the Minorite Church of the Holy Trinity on Alsergasse.  There are robed escorts, Kapellmeisters (ironically a position which the young Ludwig had sought several times and been denied), students, actors,  musicians, poets,  all following behind a richly decorated coffin.   Orations are made in which Beethoven is described as “now among the greatest men of all time” and he who “inherited and surpassed the immortal fame of Handel and Bach”.

“Look back to this moment and remember,” the orator intones, “we were there when he was buried: and when he died, we wept!”

Such pathos.  Such adoration.

Such hypocrisy, according to the author of this immense and beautiful book,

“the sheer level of hypocrisy demonstrated that chilly afternoon.  The surging crowds and emotions were, after all, directly at odds with the marginalised existence that Beethoven had led towards the end of his career.”

Biographers, as the author states, are at the mercy of “the arbitrary manner in which history covers its tracks” including the loss and destruction of source materials.  In Beethoven’s case, one Anton Felix Schindler is known to have scavenged Beethoven’s lodgings for his notebooks after his death.  This man Schindler whom Caeyers describes as a “prototypical sycophant”  claimed a closeness to the great maestro that never existed.    More heinous than that, Schindler is known to have doctored and removed certain pages from the notebooks that he believed contained compromising material.  In the 1970’s researchers from Berlin’s Humboldt University,  using techniques originally devised to decipher terrorist communications and letter bombs, demonstrated that many of the ‘notebook entries’ had been added later by Schindler.  This discovery as might be imagined “sent schockwaves through entire swathes of Beethoven scholarship which could now be relegated to the scrapheap.”

That is not a fate that will ever await Caeyers’ book.  Caeyers demonstrates Beethoven’s constant struggles, examines minutely the circumstances relating to the “Heiligenstadt Testament” – agonised pages written by Beethoven in 1801 when he first realised that the severity of his encroaching deafness would affect his career as a concert pianist.

I did not know that he had not always intended to be a composer – that his first career was as a concert pianist.  And aye, here’s the rub.  It is possible that the Ninth Symphony or many of his other great works might never have come into being, had he not been forced into composing as a career by his deafness.

But far from being the much feted and beloved Viennese composer described in the funeral orations, Beethoven’s life was lived in a constant struggle to be properly rewarded for his work, to be properly housed, and saddest of all, to be loved.  Beethoven had wealthy patrons but they often fell into arrears on their payments, were neglectful if on some occasions well meaning,  leaving him desperately struggling to make deals with increasingly influential publishers over his written music to enable him to meet his financial commitments for himself and other members of his family.

The Letter to the Immortal Beloved

The identity of the intended recipient of “The Letter to the Immortal Beloved”   is to this day unknown.  This letter which Beethoven composed in July 1812 at Teplitz was found among his papers after his death which implies that it was never sent although even this is not known.  The name of the correspondent was left blank – a matter which has caused no lack of historical analysis, academic soul searching and good old fashioned guesswork to fill in the  blanks.  Caeyers comes firmly down on the side of the intended recipient having been Josephine von Brunsvik (later Deym Stackelberg) a member of the Viennese nobility whose family enjoyed the support of the Empress Maria Theresa herself, and to whom Beethoven was asked to give music lessons.  There are several other candidates for the identity of the immortal beloved,  including Josephine’s older sister, Therese.

Of their mother Countess Anna von Brunswick, Caeyers states:

“Securing piano lessons for Therese and Josephine from the most celebrated pianist in Vienna was a key element in her chosen strategy for increasing her daughters’ market value.”

Well, this is 1799!  But sadly for Josephine the increase in her ‘market value’ didn’t stop her dying alone, abandoned by a series of men and with her seven children taken away from her by the machinations of a separated husband, while Beethoven who had been considered an ineligible suitor by the Brunsvik family (far too lowly, darling) was able to do nothing but stand back and watch.

This inability to marry and love where he wished is only one of the great tragedies of Beethoven’s life. His deafness, his constant battles with other areas of his health, with money, with accommodation – he was known to trek his belongings from one lodgings to another and never owned a permanent home of his own.  The adoption of his nephew Karl resulted in disaster for both parties. In addition he faced battles with the old-guard, the gatekeepers of  theatrical venues and concert halls of Vienna whose vice-like grip on scheduling opportunities dominated all musicians lives.    Towards the end of Beethoven’s life – even when his principal works were being performed in Europe’s major capitals: “… the Missa Solemnis had premiered in  St. Petersburg and by 1827 the Ninth Symphony had already been aired in London…” the Viennese were lionising Rossini!

It is impossible to do justice to the 539 pages of masterly writing and musical erudiction that have gone into this work in a short review, or even a long one.   I admit there were some passages I didn’t understand (Caeyers is a conductor and musicologist – I am not).   But it is a remarkable and humanistic study of this man who came to epitomise the idea of the tormented genius.  Beethoven’s achievement is so much more than this, immeasurable.   The Ninth symphony embodies nothing less than an outward artistic expression of the inward transcendence of the human spirit.


The Volatile Muse

Poetry, literature, film and all things in between

Runes are ancient scripts, magical signs for secret or hidden laws.   I chose a name which I felt brought to mind the infinitely variable nature of the written word.


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