Of Metronome Markings and Comic Books
For me Beethoven conjures up images that run in two directions. First is the music, specifically the late works stretching from the Seventh Symphony through the late string quartets, some of the most sublime music ever composed. The second is the cultural identity that springs forth in a variety of popular images. It is that second road that I find even more interesting when I am whiling time thinking about the way that factual history becomes popular legend. Of all the composers in the "Pantheon" (that more or less non-partisan temple of western composers that have become proto-divine, Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, et. al.) it is Ludwig Van that has made the transition as the composer for the masses. Just about anyone who has ears can identity the ba-ba-ba-buuum of the Fifth Symphony as being "classical" music, though they may not recognize the theme from any other of his works. And certainly the popularity of the Ninth Symphony (perhaps overexposure would be a better description) demonstrates the ability of Beethoven to reach across more than a century and pinpoint the common human longings for happiness, freedom and creative expression. Both of these identities are good and grand facts. What I find fascinating is the odd ways by which Beethoven has become as much a part of the firmament of our popular culture as Shakespeare: the bust of the Master on Schroeder's piano in the comic strip Peanuts, the dynamism of Wendy Carlos's soundtrack for the film A Clockwork Orange (at the time of that film's release, the music was everywhere), scowling plaster statues on bookshelves, cheap boxed sets of the complete symphonies advertised in Time and Newsweek, the myth of the composer's love affair with the "Immortal Beloved," (Antonie Brentano wife of a Frankfurt merchant and mother of four), and of course, the endlessly recycled legend of his deafness.
The story of his hearing deficiency is especially grating because for many years I found myself swallowing it hook, line and sinker. I was first exposed to it in the third grade when I read a popular biography of Beethoven in the comic book Treasure Chest. The most profound panel showed the Master, leading an orchestra in a performance of a symphony, continuing to conduct after the music had ended. The audience wept as they suddenly realized that Beethoven was deaf! (As if this was some kind of well kept secret.) Later panels dramatized the composer's fight with his disability, and made much of his struggle to compose anything at all. It was the standard myth of the stricken man. People who assume themselves to be normal are fascinated by an artist's ability to create beauty if that artist has some sort of physical problem to overcome. They don't think twice about the same struggle for an artist who is happy and healthy and well adjusted, even though the process is the same. This same tokenistic nonsense occurs when we are amazed by the ability of people in wheelchairs to compete in basketball games, and Hollywood has exploited it expertly over the years, (most recently with films like Forrest Gump.) Ask the average man about Beethoven and the answer will be, "oh yeah, the deaf guy...."
The result was that when I was younger I could never shake off the impression that Beethoven was as deaf as a post when he composed all of his music, and so I only floated on the surface of his achievement. Over the years I left the legend behind and concentrated on the substance. Now his muse overwhelms me, but not because he was deaf. Rather, it is because it speaks of a period of history that was as turbulent as our own. When Beethoven composed, the American and French Revolutions declared the importance of every person, not just kings, queens, princes and barons; and in the arts passion, tenderness and eruptive emotions began to take the place of aristocratic elegance and grace. Additionally Beethoven did not just compose music. He reinvented it. Like Shakespeare, he defined everything that came after him with such dominance that others were intimidated into believing that they would never be able to rise to the heights in which he soared. In the way the Roman Senate declared dead emperors to be Gods, Wagner and his pals held Ludwig as the sum of an achievement that was impossible to duplicate, and they scoffed at anyone who even tried to speak the same musical language. (It was this attitude that intimidated Brahms, and thus we have only four symphonies and three string quartets from him.) Now if one stands on the top of the mountain of creativity that Beethoven built and shouts: "Look at the size of this! Believe it or not he was deaf and couldn't help himself!" that just introduces an aura of passivity that misses the entire point.
Unfortunately that pedantic attitude has permeated the field of musicology for many years. Beethoven was very specific about his metronome markings. He understood, in the words of Roger Norrington, "that the most powerful agent for the character of the music is, of course, tempo." The marks that he left behind are detailed, specific and Beethoven insisted that "they are a welcome means of assuring the performance of my works everywhere at tempi conceived by me, which to my great regret have been so often misunderstood." Now it is not a large jump to assume that if the composer took such care to be specific concerning his conceptions that he must, to some degree, have been able to hear them. Instead of assuming that he was lucky and got everything right as it flowed from his pen, or that his "genius" overcame his "handicap" would it be too much to ask for us all to give the guy a break and assume that he was totally aware of what he was doing? That would, of course, put him in the same category as you and me: people living one a day at a time and trying to deal with whatever happens to us, whether it be deafness or attempting to keep our checkbook balanced.
There are two schools of thought concerning this metronome miasma: some regard it as more evidence of Beethoven's genius, for the speeds are much faster or slower than traditionally interpreted in this century, others state it as proof for his infirmities, the work of a mind baffled by deafness. Recent scholarship has shown that Beethoven may not have been as muddled as my comic book led me to believe for all those years. The reports of eyewitnesses state that his piano was fitted out with a resonance device "beneath which he sat when he played, and which was meant to catch up and concentrate the sound about him." Frederick Wieck saw Beethoven mounting his ear-trumpet on the resonance plate and then making music. "He played in a flowing and genial manner," reports Weick, "for the most part orchestrally...weaving in the clearest and most charming melodies." This was in 1826, just before the composer's death. It is becoming evident that Beethoven composed his late works "not in a state of complete deafness, but rather a kind of limited hearing," and that he should be understood "not as the great composer who was deaf by 1801 but as the great composer who overcame his impairment by using the technology of his time." (George Thomas Ealy, 19th Century Music, Spring 1994).
Art is a repository of truth and light. Its greatness lies in its universality and its ability to reach into the soul of any man or woman who bothers to look or listen. These are not kind times for the classical forms of art, literature and music; funding is tight. Symphonies, opera companies and theatres are holding out their hats to a blase populace. Music education in the public schools is virtually non-existent. There seem to be fewer and fewer people participating in the public give and take that is an essential part of the artistic process. Falling back on the claptrap legends of Beethoven's deafness and pretending that these stories add to the objective content of creativity just adds to the fog that keeps the light from breaking through. There will always be great myths and archetypal stories that describe such mystical events as the creation of the world and its purpose. But art is as plentiful as water from a spigot, and I would like to see it remain as clear and fresh as the natural world from which it springs.
There is further information concerning Beethoven in the Sierra Chamber Society Program Notes section of this site.
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