No-one is absolutely certain of his date of birth. It was in 1770, and the first record of his existence was his baptism in Bonn. That was on 17th December, and all we know is that he was born before that, possibly the day before. Given general piety and infant mortality, there was none of that 21st century hanging around before getting baptised. It was a practical business, more than a social event.
So this year is Beethoven’s 250th birthday year – cue an explosion of commercial activity, which if it brings new listeners to the great man’s portfolio, all well and good.
It was Robert Schumann, a great composer, who in a review (his other job) of Chopin’s (another great composer) Variation’s on Mozart’s (another great composer) La Ci Darem La Mano, declared ”Hats off, gentlemen, a genius”. Well, probably. In fact all three deserve to be called a genius perhaps. But none of them compare to Beethoven.
Everyone knows at least a bit of Beethoven, starting with the opening of the 5th Symphony of course, but what would constitute the archetypal, unmistakable Beethoven? The thorny, melodic, delicate, brutal, assured, architectural, emotional and thrillingly original master.
Well, again, quite a few pieces. There are no duds. However, I’ll go ultimately with Op 106, the Hammerklavier. I wrote about this seven years ago, and I still think it reads well enough. My reason for tackling the Hammerklavier is in that piece – I was intrigued by the reference to it in Colin Wilson’s The Outsider:
There is a premonition of such a faculty in Van Gogh’s Green Cornfield and Road with Cypresses; there is a premonition in the last movement of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata, as well as certain canvasses of Gaugin, and page after page of Also Sprach Zarathustra. The Outsider believes that he can establish such a way of seeing permanently in himself. But how?
Indeed. What on earth was in that last movement? Beethoven was pretty much deaf by 1814. He would live another thirteen years. The Hammerklavier was published in 1818. He was totally deaf when he wrote it. When you listen it seems unbelievable that this was the case. How did he perceive it? The long slow movement, the best metaphor for which is an icy lake at night, feels like it reflects his isolation and likely despair. That’s always been my impression, but how to summarise the entirety of this initially impenetrable, gigantic and forbidding creation?
Well my efforts are somewhat puny. I pass you over to someone who would have a plausible claim to the title that used to crop up in the Sunday supplements, The Cleverest Man in London, were he not so modest. Polymath Jonathan Gaisman is a QC with a remarkable range of interests, and a regular contributor to the now changed Standpoint magazine. Here is his truly essential piece from 2018 on the Hammerklavier:
My first recording of it was by Emil Gilels, followed swiftly by the Chilean master, Claudio Arrau. Gilels had the measure of it, but I felt rebuffed by his long austere adagio, Arrau was more humane. The sonata arouses such feelings all the time. One thing is for sure – you have to be technically brilliant, there are no hiding places. The final fugue must sound almost impossible, without compromising pace and vitality. Here is the reliable Jed Distler’s review of your options from the most recent Gramophone magazine. It’s a terrific discussion:
Interesting conclusions. I have Bax on my list now. I already have 40 odd recordings on CD and LP. Pollini was my preferred choice for a long time, but it changes.
Beethoven however is not just found in works like this, which is just as well. In this year there will be mountains of articles added to the already enormous literature on the man, and in the non-technical category, I can do no better than to point you to fellow pianist Damian Thompson’s most recent Spectator piece:
Finally, YouTube has a huge library of classical music now. Slightly to my surprise, I was highly impressed by Valentina Lisitsa’s beautifully filmed and recorded version of this piece. Watch as well as listen, and you’ll see what a superhuman feat it was to write – and play.
We live in an era where the word ‘genius’ has been so trashed by applying it to any old hack that we have almost lost the comprehension of its true expression. Well let the great man recalibrate us all in his anniversary year…
”Hats off, gentlemen, a genius”