A Beethoven Retrospective

(This is a months old reprint of an article on my private blog, which is, shocking as it may sound, much more cynical and polemical than how I write here most of the time. I thought it made a lot of sense here, and I thought of it again after reading Mr. John C. Wright’s article on beauty. As it so happens, I’m still teaching myself the piano. And, alas, still bounce off of classical music hard.)

Currently I’m teaching myself the piano; I’ve owned one for a long time now (paid for by me and transport paid for by my parents as a gift), but never learned it. I’m attempting now to stubbornly turn a new leaf and start improving myself, and learning piano is a good start to that; it’s also a good way to correct problems with procrastination. Dedication is needed. My school year looks to be packed and extremely difficult, so I’ve decided I will cut out all recreational pursuits except for piano, which is really only recreational in the sense that it’s not school related. Either way, this will ensure everything I do during the school year will be productive in some way or another.

In light of this, I’ve decided to try to take another shot at listening to classical music. I’d taken a couple of cracks at it in the past, but much as with classical novels, I’d always bounced off. But, not this time! I’ve decided to start with Beethoven, who of the few I’d tried to listen to I was always fondest of. He combined technical precision with pure emotion beautifully.

“Might as well go big or go home,” I thought, and started right in on Beethoven’s 9th Symphony; I imagine if I’d asked I would have been told not to start with something so ambitious.

I’m still glad I did. “Reviewing” the ninth symphony is sort of like reviewing “The Iliad” or “Paradise Lost”; what can you really say? It surely has to be the pinnacle of western music. I’ve listened also to his Moonlight Sonata, his fifth symphony, and Fur Elise, and the third symphony (Eroica, one of the most influential pieces of music ever, apparently) is on in the background right now. But nothing has quite matched up to the brilliance of the ninth. I don’t connect well with classical music, as I’d said, and this was no exception – but the sheer ambition and brilliance of the work is undeniable. How somebody conceived something like this, and actually had the technical skill to write it down and coordinate it into a cohesive whole, is utterly mind-boggling. I can’t even imagine it. And he wrote it when he was completely deaf! How is that even possible?

Beethoven is a fascinating guy, though of course by now most people probably know that. He really is inspiring, though. I always found it very moving and telling that the final great piece that Beethoven, a man who at one time considered suicide due to his declining hearing*, wrote was the Ode to Joy…and the final piece that Mozart, by all accounts a much happier and buoyant man, wrote was a Requiem.

This is a bit unfair, as Beethoven did write other things after the symphony, and the Requiem Mozart wrote was commissioned by somebody else. Nevertheless, the fact that the ninth symphony was written by a deaf man who once considered suicide is, as far as I’m concerned, nothing short of a miracle.

*I found his Heiligenstadt Testament very moving and inspiring.