I now turn to Beethoven with more qualms: I am even more painfully aware of my shortcomings to discourse on him.
When Beethoven came to Vienna in 1792, at the age of twenty-two, his attitude must have been one of caution: his studies with Haydn, Schenk, Albrechtsberger, and Salieri were, we may assume, primarily for finding out if there were things he could learn from them. He clearly absorbed what they had to teach him without distorting his own musical ideas. In any event, once he found that he could overpower everyone in Vienna by the sheer virtuosity of his improvisations on the pianoforte, he became impatient and, sometimes, even defiant. Thus, Haydn’s unfavorable opinion of the third of his three trios, Opus 1, only confirmed Beethoven’s own opinion that it was the best of the three and that Haydn’s contrary view was due to jealousy and malice.
At this time, Beethoven desired great fame; and he seems to have been convinced that his sheer strength was sufficient to protect him against all misfortune. This attitude is clearly expressed in his letter to von Zmeskall:
The devil take you! I do not know anything about your whole system of ethics. Power is the morality of men who stand out from the rest, and it is also mine.
This supreme confidence in himself, derived from this morality of power, was soon destined to be tried most sorely.
The first signs of his deafness appeared, already, when Beethoven was twenty-eight years. His initial reaction was one of rage at what he considered as the senselessness of the affliction. As he wrote to Karl Amenda three years later (1801):
Your Beethoven is most unhappy and at strife with nature and Creator. I have often cursed the latter for exposing his creatures to the merest accident, so that often the most beautiful buds are broken or destroyed thereby. Only think that my noblest faculty, my hearing, has greatly deteriorated.
But his fortitude was unshaken, for he continued:
I am resolved to rise superior to every obstacle… I am sure my fortune will not desert me. With whom need I be afraid of measuring my strength… I will take Fate by the throat.
We obtain a proper appreciation of the state of Beethoven’s mind at this time from his famous Heiligenstadt testament written in 1802 but discovered among his papers only after his death. The Heiligenstadt testament is so transparently sincere that it should really be read in its entirety, but the following extract must suffice:
But how humiliated I have felt if somebody standing beside me heard the sound of a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or if somebody heard a shepherd sing and again I heard nothing – Such experiences almost made me despair, and I was on the point of putting an end to my life – The only thing that held me back was my art. For indeed it seemed impossible to leave this world before I had produced all the works that I felt urged to compose.
Beethoven’s confession that he contemplated suicide and that it was the power of his unfulfilled art that saved him finds an echo in what he wrote twenty years later:
I live only for my art and to fulfill my duties as a man.
It is clear that Beethoven’s growing deafness shattered his earlier ethics of the morality of power. But like a phoenix it rose only to sustain the realization of his creative powers. Thus, by the time (1807) he came to writing his third Rasoumowsky quartet, his resignation to his affliction appears to be complete, for we find him writing in the margin:
Let your deafness no longer be secret even for art…
And the work on the grand scale in which his conflict with fate is taken for granted and ignored is his seventh symphony.
This “middle period” of intense creativeness lasted for some ten years. By his early forties, Beethoven had composed his eight symphonies, his five piano concertos, his one violin concerto, his twenty five piano sonatas, his eleven quartets, his seven overtures, his one opera, and his one mass. At the age of forty-two with this magnificent pile of compositions behind him, Beethoven practically stopped composing for the next seven years. The fruits of his meditation – so they must have been – came after this period of quiescence in a manner that is perhaps without parallel in musical history.
From the first symphony written in 1801 to the eighth symphony written in 1812, it is essentially the same Beethoven: it is, in fact, the Beethoven of the common understanding. But the Beethoven of the ninth symphony, of the mass in D, of the last four piano sonatas, and, most of all, the last five quartets is an altogether different Beethoven. Beethoven’s own pupil, Czerny, did not understand his music of this last period, and he tried to explain it away as due to Beethoven’s deafness:
Beethoven’s third style dates from the time when he became gradually completely deaf… Thence comes the dissimilarity of the style of his last three sonatas… Thence many harmonic roughnesses…
By all accounts, Beethoven’s last quartets are a Mount Everest of an achievement. Here is a sample of what has been said about them:
They are peerless.
They are beyond description or analysis in words.
The last quartets are unique, unique for Beethoven,
unique in all music.
But this much may certainly be said: Nobody can say what the quartets really mean; we can only be sure that they express ideas nowhere else to be found. Wordsworth’s description of Newton’s mind “as voyaging through strange seas of thought alone” applies equally to Beethoven’s mind of this last period.
Beethoven’s last complete work, the quartet No. 16 in F major, provides a noble ending to his great sequence. Of this quartet, J.W.N. Sullivan has written:
It is the work of a man who is fundamentally at peace. It is the peace of a man who has known conflicts, but whose conflicts are now reminiscent. This quality is most apparent in the last movement with its motto, “Muss es sein? Es muss sein!” (Must it be? It must be!)
Reviewing the life and work of Beethoven, Sullivan sums him up as follows:
One of the most significant facts, for the understanding of Beethoven, is that his work shows an organic development up until the very end… The greatest music Beethoven ever wrote is to be found in the last string quartets, and the music of every decade before the final period was greater than its predecessor.
It is striking how close this summing of Beethoven is to T. S. Eliot’s summing of Shakespeare which I quoted earlier. The way Shakespeare and Beethoven overcame the crises of their early years, the continual growth of their minds, the organic unity of their works spanning their entire lives, their great masterpieces towards the end, and even the moods of farewell in The Tempest and in the sixteenth quartet, all these are indeed most striking.