Quote of the Day: ‘A Great Man is Always Willing to be Little’

 

December 16 is sometimes attributed to be the birthday of Ludwig van Beethoven, perhaps the greatest musical composer who ever lived. There’s no official birthday since there is no record. There is a record of him being baptized on the 17, and so they assume he was born the day before. [I like to think he was born two days before actually, the 15, and so it would make him born on my birthday!] It’s not just any birthday; it’s the 250th anniversary of his birth and should be a moment for reflection.

When one thinks of Beethoven, one’s thoughts have to go toward just how great a composer he was. We know of his greatness: the nine symphonies, the five piano concertos, the one violin concerto, the sixteen string quartets, the countless sonatas of various instrumentation, and so on, all of the highest craftsmanship and sublimity.

And his ego went along with all of that greatness. He knew he was great, and he acted on the belief that fate had led him to greatness. Even as a young man when he came to Vienna to study under the almost equally great composer and his senior, Joseph Haydn, and let us say that after some lessons the 20-year-old Beethoven began to scorn his elder.

Their two styles are very different. Haydn seems to always strive for a certain elegance and order, and even humor, while Beethoven can be dark, chaotic, and brooding. I’ve always felt that Beethoven’s innovation of making the third movement of his symphonies into a scherzo was a direct mock at Haydn. Typically, before Beethoven, and perfected by Haydn, the third movement of symphonies was traditionally set as a Minuet and Trio, a highly ordered and stylized dance genre. Scherzo means “joke” in Italian and Beethoven, as Romantic era egoist, by overturning the tradition with a “joke” is ridiculing the order and formulaic style of the classical era.

And this brings me to my quote of the day, “a great man is always willing to be little,” articulated by the Romantic-era essayist, and perhaps also a bit of an egoist, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Now, by “egoist,” I don’t mean to say Beethoven was necessarily selfish. I don’t believe he was. By egoist, I mean that his aesthetic was built on the ego of the individual and the greatness that one perceives the artist to be. He was bold and self-affirming, and thought of himself as a “great man.” The roots of the artist as a self-inspired genius might be traced to Beethoven.

And yet, later in life, we get a sense that he had gained humility. He was not in good health for most of his later years, and he only lived to 56. His output was immense, so one gets a sense of a man having lived a long life. But that is not so. Besides his deafness, he had intestinal problems, kidney problems, probably Paget’s Disease of the bone, and some sort of virus (perhaps measles) that kept recurring. All these ailments produced an irritable man who drove people away. He couldn’t hear them, and they didn’t want to hear him.

But in 1825, two years before his death, he had an intestinal issue that brought him close to death. From that near-death experience came what some call his greatest musical composition, the third movement of his String Quartet in A minor Op. 132 (No. 15), the third movement given the name “Hymn of Thanksgiving.” You can read about his illness and the composition here in this BBC article by Andrea Valentino, “Beethoven 250: The ultimate song of health after illness.

In the piece, the great man becomes small. The full name of the movement that Beethoven himself gave it is “Holy song of thanksgiving of a convalescent to the Deity, in the Lydian mode” (“Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart“). The piece is slow, meditative, a conversation with God, thanking him for his recovery. What I get is pure humility, the early dissonance resolving into harmonious psalm. Valentino from the article tries to describe the piece.

How, then, to explain the Heiliger Dankgesang? Perhaps the fifth and final part of the movement can help. At the end of the second New Strength section, the slow pace returns again – but only for a moment. From there the original eight-note chorale is reduced to five notes, then three, then two, then one. At the same time, the simple accompanying prelude becomes more complex, turning the whole soundscape into a floating world of transcendental emotion, the composer ordering musicians to play with the “utmost, deepest, and sincere feeling”.

On the 250th anniversary of his birth, please listen to a great man turn small before the face of God.

 

Very few of us will ever be acknowledged on the 250th anniversary of our birth. I know I won’t. Only a great man will have such acknowledgments. But remember, even a great man returns to the littleness of dust, and unto dust we shall all return.

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  1. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Happy belated birthday.

    • #1
  2. Manny Member
    Manny
    @Manny

    Ah, finally got the video embedded.

    • #2
  3. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    That is a beautiful work.


    This is the Quote of the Day, an ongoing project to help get more voices on the site. It can be the easiest way to start a conversation on Ricochet. (Some people do put in a lot more effort, of course.) Our sign-up sheet for December is here and waiting for you. We welcome new participants and new members to Ricochet to share their favorite quotations.

    Another ongoing project to encourage new voices is our Group Writing Project. December’s theme is ‘Tis the Season. If you’re looking to share your own thoughts rather than those of others and have some ideas about the holiday(s) season we are entering, why not sign up there?

    • #3
  4. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Manny: . . .probably Paget’s Disease of the bone, and some sort of virus (perhaps measles) that kept recurring.

    I believe there was a French study that determined that Paget’s Disease of the Bone was caused by a virus related to measles.

    • #4
  5. Manny Member
    Manny
    @Manny

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Manny: . . .probably Paget’s Disease of the bone, and some sort of virus (perhaps measles) that kept recurring.

    I believe there was a French study that determined that Paget’s Disease of the Bone was caused by a virus related to measles.

    That would make sense.  Interesting.

    • #5
  6. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Manny (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Manny: . . .probably Paget’s Disease of the bone, and some sort of virus (perhaps measles) that kept recurring.

    I believe there was a French study that determined that Paget’s Disease of the Bone was caused by a virus related to measles.

    That would make sense. Interesting.

    My sister-in-law died from complications from it, so I know a bit.

    • #6
  7. Manny Member
    Manny
    @Manny

    If I may point out something about the composition, the fifth and final part of the piece that Valentino refers to starts at about 10:20 and is about a third of the entire length.  Leading up to 10:20 you have sections that could be described as slow/fast/slow/fast, and I think they are supposed to reflect illness, semi-recovery, relapse, recovery.  The fifth part is an expression of thanks to the Almighty for his ultimate recovery.  The melody in that fifth part is heart wrenching.  When one puts it into the context, the psalm – as I called it – is a beautiful prayer of gratitude.  

    • #7
  8. Suspira Member
    Suspira
    @Suspira

    I wonder if someone here can settle a small tickle of curiosity I have long had about Beethoven. His name. It seems Dutch rather than German to me (though I have no expertise here). Yet I’ve never seen anything that hinted he was anything but 100 percent German. Can anyone shed light on this?

    • #8
  9. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Suspira (View Comment):

    I wonder if someone here can settle a small tickle of curiosity I have long had about Beethoven. His name. It seems Dutch rather than German to me (though I have no expertise here). Yet I’ve never seen anything that hinted he was anything but 100 percent German. Can anyone shed light on this?

    His grandfather had come from the Duchy of Brabant, which is now part of the Flemish (Dutch-speaking) region of Belgium.

    • #9
  10. RushBabe49 Thatcher
    RushBabe49
    @RushBabe49

    When I was just re-starting violin lessons, my teacher and I played the two violin parts of this movement.  It’s great bow-control practice, as well as beautiful.

    • #10
  11. Suspira Member
    Suspira
    @Suspira

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Suspira (View Comment):

    I wonder if someone here can settle a small tickle of curiosity I have long had about Beethoven. His name. It seems Dutch rather than German to me (though I have no expertise here). Yet I’ve never seen anything that hinted he was anything but 100 percent German. Can anyone shed light on this?

    His grandfather had come from the Duchy of Brabant, which is now part of the Flemish (Dutch-speaking) region of Belgium.

    Thank you!

    • #11
  12. James Lileks Contributor
    James Lileks
    @jameslileks

    Lovely. And it’s amusing that it was played by the “Alban Berg Quartet,” given the contributions that composer made to the canon. Pretty sure no one left the premier of “Wozzeck” whistling the tunes. 

    These days performances like this seem like hands cupped around a guttering candle. It’s not that there won’t always be people who recognize the sublimity of these works; it’s that they’ll be hushed and dismissed by those eager to dethrone the old gods, and claim that respect for the titans suggests an desire to maintain the primacy of discredited civilizations.

    This music not only connects us with ourselves, but with the people who were there to hear it for the first time. Oh, sure, there were people who listened intently and absorbed it all, but the concert hall no doubt had men who were thinking about work, peeved by an ingrown toenail, exasperated by their daughters, despairing of their sons – all cards and lurid literature, that one, no steel – and worried about political events. Also, there was a draft in the theater. The house would be cold when they got home. Well, it’s important to the wife that we’re here, so here we are. This was all right, as these things went, I suppose, but he preferred something with a bit more step, you know? 

    • #12
  13. Manny Member
    Manny
    @Manny

    James Lileks (View Comment):

    Lovely. And it’s amusing that it was played by the “Alban Berg Quartet,” given the contributions that composer made to the canon. Pretty sure no one left the premier of “Wozzeck” whistling the tunes.

    These days performances like this seem like hands cupped around a guttering candle. It’s not that there won’t always be people who recognize the sublimity of these works; it’s that they’ll be hushed and dismissed by those eager to dethrone the old gods, and claim that respect for the titans suggests an desire to maintain the primacy of discredited civilizations.

    This music not only connects us with ourselves, but with the people who were there to hear it for the first time. Oh, sure, there were people who listened intently and absorbed it all, but the concert hall no doubt had men who were thinking about work, peeved by an ingrown toenail, exasperated by their daughters, despairing of their sons – all cards and lurid literature, that one, no steel – and worried about political events. Also, there was a draft in the theater. The house would be cold when they got home. Well, it’s important to the wife that we’re here, so here we are. This was all right, as these things went, I suppose, but he preferred something with a bit more step, you know?

    Thank you James.

    • #13
  14. James Gawron Inactive
    James Gawron
    @JamesGawron

    Manny,

    Ludwig .. Ludwig .. LUDWIG!

     

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #14
  15. Manny Member
    Manny
    @Manny

    James Gawron (View Comment):

    Manny,

    Ludwig .. Ludwig .. LUDWIG!

     

    Regards,

    Jim

    I love #9! And that’s a great finale to possibly the greatest symphony ever composed. 

    • #15
  16. James Gawron Inactive
    James Gawron
    @JamesGawron

    Manny (View Comment):

    James Gawron (View Comment):

    Manny,

    Ludwig .. Ludwig .. LUDWIG!

     

    Regards,

    Jim

    I love #9! And that’s a great finale to possibly the greatest symphony ever composed.

    Manny,

    I like the 9th too. However, I am very partial to the 4th movement of the 5th symphony.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #16
  17. Manny Member
    Manny
    @Manny

    James Gawron (View Comment):

    Manny (View Comment):

    James Gawron (View Comment):

    Manny,

    Ludwig .. Ludwig .. LUDWIG!

     

    Regards,

    Jim

    I love #9! And that’s a great finale to possibly the greatest symphony ever composed.

    Manny,

    I like the 9th too. However, I am very partial to the 4th movement of the 5th symphony.

    Regards,

    Jim

    Yes, the Fifth is equally great.  I kind of rank the 9th a shade ahead because of that Ode to Joy was so innovative and elevates it to another level.  Howver if we’re just focused on a single movement, the first movement of the 3rd Symphony, “Eroica” has always been a favorite of mine.  Now the rest of the symphony doesn’t reach the heights of the 5th and 9th, but that first movement is equal to their first movements.  

    • #17
  18. James Gawron Inactive
    James Gawron
    @JamesGawron

    Manny (View Comment):

    James Gawron (View Comment):

    Manny (View Comment):

    James Gawron (View Comment):

    Manny,

    Ludwig .. Ludwig .. LUDWIG!

     

    Regards,

    Jim

    I love #9! And that’s a great finale to possibly the greatest symphony ever composed.

    Manny,

    I like the 9th too. However, I am very partial to the 4th movement of the 5th symphony.

    Regards,

    Jim

    Yes, the Fifth is equally great. I kind of rank the 9th a shade ahead because of that Ode to Joy was so innovative and elevates it to another level. Howver if we’re just focused on a single movement, the first movement of the 3rd Symphony, “Eroica” has always been a favorite of mine. Now the rest of the symphony doesn’t reach the heights of the 5th and 9th, but that first movement is equal to their first movements.

    Manny,

    Excellent!

    Regards,

    Jim

     

    • #18
  19. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    The Sixth is the best.

    • #19
  20. Manny Member
    Manny
    @Manny

    Arahant (View Comment):

    The Sixth is the best.

    I had a feeling someone was going to bring up the sixth. For some reason the sixth has never moved me. I know it’s a great work so it must be me. I would even pick the 7th over it. I haven’t listened to the 6th in a long time. I’m going to find some time this weekend and listen to it a few times. I’ll let you know if I’ve changed my mind. Age can do that. ;)

    • #20
  21. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Manny (View Comment):
    Age can do that.

    It can. But most people prefer the odd-numbered symphonies. For whatever reason, the Sixth has always been my favorite. It has some elements that are similar to Grieg’s “Morning” and one of the songs from William Tell. Very peaceful after the storm.

    • #21
  22. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    • #22
  23. James Gawron Inactive
    James Gawron
    @JamesGawron

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Ari,

    I like the sixth but it isn’t a favorite. I guess I just don’t think of Beethoven as “peaceful”. To me, the 6th is elegant, grand, and beautiful, but I can never really think of Beethoven as peaceful. Of course, Disney went to town with it in Fantasia.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #23
  24. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Manny (View Comment):

    James Gawron (View Comment):

    Manny,

    Ludwig .. Ludwig .. LUDWIG!

     

    Regards,

    Jim

    I love #9! And that’s a great finale to possibly the greatest symphony ever composed.

    If you can overlook Schiller’s Ode to Totalitarianism. 

    • #24
  25. Manny Member
    Manny
    @Manny

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Manny (View Comment):

    James Gawron (View Comment):

    Manny,

    Ludwig .. Ludwig .. LUDWIG!

     

    Regards,

    Jim

    I love #9! And that’s a great finale to possibly the greatest symphony ever composed.

    If you can overlook Schiller’s Ode to Totalitarianism.

    I just read over Schiller’s poem. What’s totalitarian about it?

    • #25
  26. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Manny (View Comment):

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Manny (View Comment):

    James Gawron (View Comment):

    Manny,

    Ludwig .. Ludwig .. LUDWIG!

     

    Regards,

    Jim

    I love #9! And that’s a great finale to possibly the greatest symphony ever composed.

    If you can overlook Schiller’s Ode to Totalitarianism.

    I just read over Schiller’s poem. What’s totalitarian about it?

    My spidey-sense says it is. Isn’t that good enough?

    Also, the great Georgian filmmaker, Tengiz Abuladze, used the Beethoven version to signify totalitarianism in his 1980s film, Repentance. 

    (There are English subtitles for this video.)

    • #26
  27. James Gawron Inactive
    James Gawron
    @JamesGawron

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Manny (View Comment):

    James Gawron (View Comment):

    Manny,

    Ludwig .. Ludwig .. LUDWIG!

    Regards,

    Jim

    I love #9! And that’s a great finale to possibly the greatest symphony ever composed.

    If you can overlook Schiller’s Ode to Totalitarianism.

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Manny (View Comment):

    James Gawron (View Comment):

    Manny,

    Ludwig .. Ludwig .. LUDWIG!

    Regards,

    Jim

    I love #9! And that’s a great finale to possibly the greatest symphony ever composed.

    If you can overlook Schiller’s Ode to Totalitarianism.

    Ret,

    The ninth has always seemed over the top to me. However, the final passages don’t suggest totalitarian imperialism to me but rather a religious feeling of final resurrection and justification. Because the ninth might be misinterpreted the way you say, I personally prefer the 4th movement of the 5th. It too is fabulously uplifting but does so in a more reasonable way. No need for giant orchestras and giant choruses. The music itself carries you ever upward to a beautiful redeeming ending. The opening bars, which seem sullen and deep in the mud, give the 5th a wonderful sense of the full range of human aspirations or the lack of them.

    Your criticism is an honest one but don’t let the last gasp of the now deaf and dying Beethoven make you miss the pleasure of his pure genius. He was no tyrant but more a victim himself.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #27
  28. Manny Member
    Manny
    @Manny

    Manny (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    The Sixth is the best.

    I had a feeling someone was going to bring up the sixth. For some reason the sixth has never moved me. I know it’s a great work so it must be me. I would even pick the 7th over it. I haven’t listened to the 6th in a long time. I’m going to find some time this weekend and listen to it a few times. I’ll let you know if I’ve changed my mind. Age can do that. ;)

    @arahant  Ok, I spent all weekend absorbing the 6th.  I must have played it ten times and read up as much as I could on it…lol.  I will have to admit my admiration for the 6th grew after all that.  It’s got a beautiful first movement and fascinating 3rd, 4th, and 5th movements.  I do find the 2nd movement a bit boring.  Overall a lovely symphony with some very distinct characteristics.  I still would not rate it ahead of the 5th and 9th.  Perhaps it’s equal to the 3rd and 7th symphonies.  I think my resistance to fully embrace it comes from the fact that I don’t particularly care for program pieces.  It always feels a little hokey to me to create a story through sounds.  I prefer the abstract musical phrase developed through tension and ultimately resolved.  But the 6th is lovely.

    • #28
  29. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Manny (View Comment):
    But the 6th is lovely.

    I’ll take what converts and semi-converts I can get. 😁

    • #29
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