In April 1770 James Cook sailed past a large mountain on the south coast of what would eventually be called New South Wales, and named it Mt Dromedary. Later in the day he named Pigeon House Mountain, because the sight reminded him of a pigeon house. In July he was beached off the coast of what would be called Queensland, because he had discovered what would later be called the Great Barrier Reef, and it caused a hole in his ship’s hull. It took him six weeks to repair the damage. At the end of the year, probably December 16th, and without any reference at all to James Cook, a baby boy was born in Bonn, in what we now call Germany. His name was Ludwig van Beethoven, or sometimes ‘Louis’ Beethoven. In their own fields the two men, Cook and Beethoven, are comparably famous.
In 1787 Beethoven set off for Vienna, the centre of musical life in Europe, as Arthur Phillip, in command of what would be called the First Fleet, was taking his small group of ships to what would be called Botany Bay, also named by Cook. I mention all this stuff because I’ve climbed both mountains, I like the coincidences of dates and what happened on them, and I relish the way in which ‘naming’ gets done. James Cook was a prolific namer, as well as an accomplished cartographer. His names and his charts survive in use today, though there is a contemporary move from the politically correct, if not to demonise him, then at least to make him the bringer of woe to the indigenous peoples.
Beethoven’s birth happened 250 years ago, and when we get to the middle of December there will be an almighty chorus of celebration, because he is probably the archetype of the noble genius in the world of music, letters and their ilk. Classic FM has done more than its bit to assist the cause. Beethoven was the ‘winner’ in last year’s Countdown, being the composer a plurality of voters said was their favourite. The 2019 silver medal went to J. S. Bach and the bronze to Mozart. On that basis he was declared to be Australia’s favourite composer, so this year’s Countdown is about your favourite Beethoven work. And we the listeners are deluged with his music, in case we haven’t heard this or that. What will be our state of mind when December comes I find it hard to imagine.
As I have written in past essays about music, I came to Beethoven at the same time, 1954, as the long-playing record came available in our stores. Up till then I had only ever heard short pieces that would fit on a 78 rpm record, like Fur Elise, probably written as a tribute to one of his unsuccessful attempts to have a long-playing sweetheart. My first purchase was the Grieg Piano Concerto, then Dvorak’s New World Symphony, then Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. That piece of orchestral thunder I played again and again, and, just as with Biggles books, I had to find new works of his. So in time came the other symphonies, and the concertos. I wasn’t much interested in anything else, only the orchestra.
I have told the story of my History lecturer, A. W (Wolfgang, did the A stand for Amadeus?) Stargardt, inviting the honours class to his house for supper and music. I listened politely to a couple of Beethoven string quartets, and they passed me by. He asked why, since I was known as a lover of classical music and had my own portable Philips player. I had no answer. ‘I think you are just too young,’ he said nicely. ‘One day you will discover their magic.’ He was right, too. That happened in Oxford in the mid 1960s. By now I had a tape recorder, and I copied everything I liked on the BBC. I even went to a string quartet concert in the Music Room, the oldest performing music space in England. I was hooked, and there was a time when I would have taken the whole set of Beethoven string quartets to the Desert Island, just them.
That was long ago. I think I have heard over the past nearly seventy years just about everything Beethoven wrote that is of consequence, the important music dozens, even hundreds, of times, and some of that which is of only passing interest. As someone said, even composers have to pay the rent, which can lead to some pretty ordinary stuff. The best of his music is powerful, because it can stir the mind and the emotions at the same time. The ordinary you hear once and move on.
I did vote for the first time last year, for J. S. Bach, but I won’t be doing so this year. Why (not)? Because what I like and admire in Beethoven’s music doesn’t lend itself to rankings. Of the symphonies I probably like best, most of the time, the Eroica, and of the piano concerti, number 3. But then there is number 4, the beginning of which I can play (badly) by ear. And then there are all the string quartets, and while I value op. 131 most highly, there are all the others. You hear one of them, and you sigh and listen intently while you can.
Why is Beethoven thought to be so important? It’s not just the music. It is the contrast between what he was like, the conditions in which he lived, and his musical output. He was an odd fellow, troubled by tinnitus and then increasing deafness. He was, as I said earlier, unable to find a woman to adore, and he longed for one who would adore him back. He was short, five feet three in the imperial scale, or 162 cm. That didn’t help. He was not unattractive if you weren’t worried about height, with a steely alert gaze and hair that would have served him well here in the 1970s. He wasn’t a nobleman, despite the ‘van’, and a court decided against him on that score. The ladies he fell for were nearly all aristocratic. As he grew older he became less attentive to his dress and manners, and was apparently a noisy and unpleasant diner. A portrait done a few years before his death showed that he aged quickly after his late forties. By then he was probably alcoholic, which didn’t help his kidney function. He died at 57. His manners generally were pretty bad, and he lost friends easily. He took his grievances to court, a bad sign in almost all cultures.
Those are the problems. He had admirers and patrons who saw through all that to the real talent, the originality Beethoven had, and kept him out of poverty. His aristocratic supporters deserve our real thanks, and he was aware how much he owed them. If he had lived in Brahms’s times he would have made a fortune from copyright, as Brahms was to do. He was not a tune-smith like Tchaikovsky, Grieg or Dvorak, let alone Schubert. Unlike Mozart, he could not think out a whole piece of music in his head and then write it down. He made thousands of pages of scribbles and thoughts, and was a great scratcher-out later of what he didn’t like. But he had an unrivalled capacity to build great sound-worlds out of virtually nothing. Listen to the 5th: that ‘did, did, did, dah’ pulse is repeated 280 times in the first movement, and that is only the beginning. No one else had ever done such a thing before, and it works. Everyone knows it. He is the greatest of all the symphonists.
The problems and the genius combine to give him an exalted status, the noble and far-sighted hero who has to battle against adversity, critics and the ignorant in the interests of humanity at large. I don’t buy a great deal of this, but it is certainly the current view in the ABC!