Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 "Choral", Mvt. IV

It's not often I hit a stumbling block with regard to picking music to write about.  It's not exactly like there's a shortage of music.  Humans have been creating organized sounds in rhythm for essentially the past 8,000+ years.  Written music and the like came later, but the concept has existed almost as long as we have.  In the cosmic sense of things, it's really not even on the scale of the blink of an eye.  It's like half a blink.  But on the human scale, from the standpoint of interpreting it from the scope of a single lifetime.  It's enormous.  However, this week I feel compelled to choose just one, out of potentially billions.
Thankfully, not this one.
The composer we're examining today should not be unfamiliar to you.  I only hesitate in presenting the maestro to you in light of last week's piece exploring the life of Johannes Brahms, who spent at least a portion of his life wishing that he was Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). It seems a little abrasive to Brahms to jump right back to Beethoven, but in any event he would probably want to devote a blog to writing about Beethoven were he alive today, but I digress.

Let's examine what most of us know and understand about Beethoven, having been drilled from day one of public education that he was the greatest composer to ever walk the earth.

1.  He was deaf.
2.  He wrote Ode to Joy.
3.  He wrote "bum-bum-bum-baaaaaaaaa"

Here are some facts you might know about Beethoven.

1. He became deaf later in life, losing his hearing gradually as he aged.
2. He wrote a piece called Symphony No. 9 in which the 4th movement takes its text from a poem, "Ode to Joy"
3.  He wrote a piece called Symphony No. 5 in c minor, the first 4 notes of which are now infamous.

We all know history's Beethoven.  We know that he wrote important music and we also equate all things "Classical" with him on a societal level. The irony in this of course is that Beethoven wasn't really a Classical era composer.  He was a pivotal figure in ushering in a new era of musical composition and is almost universally regarded as the father of Romanticism.  He was born and raised into the Classical form, but took liberties with it as a young man and adult, shaping it and molding it to suit his needs, rebelling against the classic instruction he received from greats such as Haydn.

There is much about the man that is conjecture and mythological in nature.  For example: that his father, himself a musician, made him practice at the piano as a small child until the young Beethoven would break down in tears, or that when on his deathbed his final gesture was to reach toward the ceiling in agony as a tremendous clap of thunder shook the building to its foundation.  While it is plausible that Beethoven's father was overzealous in his pursuit to sire the next Mozart, it is equally plausible that such a tale was invented to bolster the already mighty composers identity.  There are also some reports that the day Beethoven died was sunny, not a cloud in the sky.

So wind.  Much tree.
Who are we to know?

What we do know about Beethoven is more interesting to me in any event.  We know that when he was 32 he was already experiencing significant difficulty in hearing.  It was 1824 when he finally completed the 9th symphony, essentially deaf as a stump.  In 1802, he wrote a letter (known as the Heiligenstadt Testament) addressed to his brothers, Johann and Carl in which he pours out his heart and expresses the gloomy darkness that occupied his soul.  Beethoven never married, though not for a lack of trying. He had little respect for the authority of his time, mostly tied up in Austrian aristocracy and unfortunately most of the women he fell for happened to be of this higher slice of society and couldn't be seen cavorting with a commoner musician, despite Beethoven's admirations being often reciprocated.

I'm sure Beethoven felt very alone.  In his nephew, Karl, it seems he placed a great burden as his only heir. Tragically, Karl's father died in 1815.  Complicating this, Beethoven pretty much hated his sister-in-law, viewing her as an unfit wife to his brother and publicly declared her an unfit mother for his nephew.  He spent a great deal of his resources in battling to procure custody rights of Karl to avoid him being raised with his mother's influence.  This had a not altogether desired effect with Beethoven being the 19th century equivalent of a helicopter parent and forcing Karl to study music (even though he wasn't interested and also pretty much sucked at it).  

Karl attempted to kill himself in 1826, went to live with his mother to recover and last saw the elder Beethoven in 1827, shortly before Karl left to join the army and Beethoven left to join the dead.

In his Heiligenstadt Testament, Beethoven expressed a desire to end his life 25 years before he did eventually die.  Before he even had a chance to compose the bulk of his symphonic works.  One bit he wrote sticks out to me:
...with joy I hasten towards death - if it comes before I shall have had an opportunity to show all my artistic capacities it will still come too early for me despite my hard fate and I shall probably wish it had come later - but even then I am satisfied, will it not free me from my state of endless suffering? Come when thou will I shall meet thee bravely.
For Beethoven, this letter was a last will and testament from a tormented composer who did not fully know if he'd be around much longer.  In this letter he touches on his hearing loss as being a contributing factor to his unhappiness, contrasting it with the fact that as a composer hearing ought to be his best attribute.  This was to be an inevitability however, and something that we remember Beethoven for, maybe even more than his symphonies.

In the end, I'm not sure if it's strength of character, stubbornness, or sheer determination that forced Beethoven to sally forth, back to the wind, into the heart of the gale.  Perhaps a deep love for his nephew and eventual heir to his small fortune? Or maybe he knew that he would be remembered for his contributions to our musical identity as a species?

I don't know.

What I do know is this. Each and every one of you reading this must listen to Beethoven's 9th in its entirety at some point in your life.  And I don't mean now.  And I don't mean on a computer.

I want you to seek out and find an orchestra performing it. Now, if it's the Vienna Phil, then all the better, but keep in mind the premier of this work wasn't its best rendition either. Under-rehearsed and dealing with a totally deaf Beethoven trying to give musical critique gave a certain "flavor" to be sure. But, quality and skill-set aside, you need to find an orchestra performing it live.

And you need to sit through it.  If for no other reason than to say you've done it, because I guarantee that you will not regret it.

Because when you listen to it, if you listen closely, you will hear the Romantic Era being born.

See you next Friday.


Watch 1st.  

Watch 2nd.



One last bit before we go for this week.  When I was 7 or 8 I was riding the bus from school to my house. I was staring out the window as one often does on buses and observing the blur of the scenery roaring by my young face.  I got the idea that it may look interesting if I were to turn my head 90 degrees so that instead of moving left to right, it would appear to be moving top to bottom, like I was flying or rushing up really quickly.  So, get that image in your head of a small child tilting his head at a strange angle staring blankly out the window.  The bus attendant became concerned.

"What are you doing?!"

I panicked.  I had done strange things like this before, but had never been noticed and I didn't know how to respond any way other than being honest.

"I'm looking at the world from a different viewpoint."

I was mortified.  I had been discovered.  I was different and it would be impossible to explain to someone who was probably just concerned that a good solid bump in the road might be enough to pop a vertebrae out of my neck, bent at such an angle.  I mumbled something incoherent and turned forward, head down.

Beethoven looked out his bus window at weird angles too.  And so does this guy, Leif Inge.  He took Beethoven's 9th and stretched it out digitally to a length of 24 hours (it's normally 90 minutes or so) and calls it "9 Beet Stretch".  Purists will probably turn their noses up at it, citing Beethoven's tempo markings while thumping their chests proudly.  And that's fine.  But to listen to it so slowly, so exposed really seems to me like taking a microscope to the master.  It has a certain trance-like, ethereal quality to it.  After listening to it, for any length of time, your ears and brain begin to invent these sort of artifacts inside the lengthened chords that just come in and out of nowhere.

It's quite surreal.

You can find a live stream of it here: http://www.expandedfield.net/  (Since it's so long, presumably the size of the audio file precludes it from being uploaded to YouTube or the like).  You might like it, I don't know.

Lastly, I want to leave you with a link to a hilariously funny webcomic that puts Beethoven into a unique light, particularly with regards to his relationships with Haydn, his brother and his nephew.