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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.Published in