You guys! I’m so excited to finally write about Beethoven, you don’t even know!
Just call me Schroeder, but Ludwig von Beethoven really is my hero. His music is still as beautiful as ever, but over the course of 200-some intervening years, we hear it as familiar or possibly even commonplace. How cliche is the “dum dum dum DUMMMMMM” of his Fifth Symphony? If we really listen hard, though, we can hear how revolutionary his music was. Beethoven–whether intentional or not–revolutionized music again and again, often propelled by psychological factors. So why does Beethoven continue to be my hero? He turned his psychological pain into something meaningful, meaningful for him and eventually the rest of the world too.
We all know the tragic tale of Beethoven’s impending deafness, and how he could barely hear by the time he died in 1827. What many people don’t know (and that’s ok!) is that he realized this early on, sometime around his 25th or 30th birthday, around 1796-1800. This knowledge was deeply troubling, and letters to friends show his ambivalent feelings towards the loss of his most important sense.
In 1802, Beethoven was still sorting out these conflicting emotions as he lived and worked in the village of Heiligenstadt. Outwardly, he probably seemed just as fine as Beethoven ever was, completing his Symphony No. 2 and many other works. Inwardly, he struggled desperately to make some meaning of his situation–and I think he eventually did.
We know of his struggle through a letter written to his brothers in October 1802, now known as the Heiligenstadt Testament. Although the Heiligenstadt Testament wasn’t found until after he died, Beethoven visibly underwent an immensely creative period right after, like he found some new meaning and direction. This letter, which you can read here, is a strange combination of many things: an explanation of his irritable behavior and social withdrawal for the past few years, a description of his despair and depression, a suicide note, and a will. Obviously, though, he didn’t commit suicide, so what happened?
I think this quote from the letter says it all: “Only art is was that withheld me, ah it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt called upon me to produce, and so I endured this wretched existence.” Beethoven decided to stay put on this earth because he had more to give. He found meaning in his music and made a conscious choice to make the best of his life. This reminds me a bit of Viktor Frankl, choosing to stay hopeful in a concentration camp because he knew he had things to share with the world. Beethoven may not have been exactly hopeful, but he knew to hold on for a while longer.
Many musicologists tie the Heiligenstadt Testament with Symphony No. 3, which he worked on immediately after this lowest psychological low. And it’s true, he changed the world with that symphony. His music turned to the concept of heroism, which is pretty clear since No. 3 is subtitled “Eroica” (“Heroic”).
But I’m more interested in Symphony No. 5. Yes, that Symphony No. 5, the cliched one that we all know. It’s one of my favorite pieces of music. I won’t get all musicologist on you and make you get out a score, but go listen to a full recording. Listen for the main theme (yes, that main theme). It carries through each of the movements, changing subtly, as the first movement opens on a dark note and the piece eventually emerges into light in the fourth movement.
In my research for this post, Oxford Music Online’s article for Beethoven called this idea a “psychological journey or growth process,” which is a spot-on description. The symphony mirrors Beethoven’s own psychological journey from despair to transcendent creation. You can almost hear his mind change as the third movement transitions into the transcendent fourth movement. (And then he browbeats you with transcendency for about 10 minutes, but no one’s perfect, and frankly, I might do the same if I was metaphorically overcoming something as huge as Beethoven’s deafness.)
Beethoven chose to continue to create, despite his pain and what he knew lay in the future. He knew he still had something valuable to give to the world. I know his outlook has affected me in multiple ways–I know that I have something valuable to contribute, as long as I continue to choose to do so. I’m not always the most outwardly positive person, but I know to my very core that I have to keep going and make the choice to do so. This has probably partially informed my own theoretical underpinnings, as well.
Because he is truly a great artist, Beethoven’s work continues to be relevant. We continue to find new meanings for it. Personally, Beethoven continues to inspire me as I transition from music student to counselor. He’s like an old friend, always there. I can’t wait to see how many more layers of meaning his music will hold for me and the rest of the world in 10, 20, 50 years from now.
Joseph Kerman, et al. “Beethoven, Ludwig van.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. 2 Jun. 2012 <http://0-www.oxfordmusiconline.com.rosi.unk.edu/subscriber/article/grove/music/40026pg14>.