Ludwig van Beethoven(1770-1827) is the pivotal classical composer – everything leads up to him and everything that follows refers back to him, his influence an inspiration to composers ever since. Haydn was his teacher and Mozart his model but Beethoven was uniquely himself, his tempestuous life and appalled struggle with deafness that left him briefly to contemplate suicide, his temper, financial problems, possessively trying to organise his nephew as nearest to the son he never had, and his failed love affairs, all of them helped to create the energy of his inspiration There is plenty of ‘form’ in his work, but he strained it to the limit. So, for example, in the triumphant ninth symphony, he rehearses the themes of the previous three movements at the beginning of the fourth before discarding them and introducing the choral climax of the hymn to Joy. And by then he was stone deaf. He was the last of the classicits and the first of the moderns, he put his life in his music in a way that had never happened before.
The BBC’s Third Programme devoted a whole week to his music last summer. You couldn’t escape even if you wanted to. Symphonies and songs, sonatas and quartets, his opera Fidelio and the four overtures it gave birth to, the five piano and the violin and triple concertos, everything that could be found from his vast output (some of which the old boy might have preferred to be forgotten or forgiven) was broadcast. No other composer could have been so honoured and the consensus was that it had been an amazing presentation of one man’s genius.
As I get older I find a latent aggression in much of his music which disturbs me – his struggle for love and peace often painfully explicit. But yesterday I was present at a concert given by the Philharmonia Orchestra of London under its Principal Conductor, Christoph von Dohnanyi.
A fine performance of the third Piano Concerto ( Till Fellner the pianist – an exquisite performance perfectly matching the refinement and passion of the orchestra) was followed by the Sixth Symphony, the ‘Pastoral’. Plenty of love and peace there – and a storm! I was reminded again of Beethoven’s astonishing inventiveness.