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Mahler, Brahms, Schoenberg, changing the symphony forever and redefining string quartets. Classic FM explores the composer's influence on succeeding generations.
Had Ludwig van Beethoven never existed, could he have been invented? Any Hollywood film director with an eye for a good story could have sketched out the finer details: young genius composer who studies with Haydn, realises he is a genius as Eureka moments hit him with exhilarating regularity. But then – in a twist of fate worthy of a Jeffrey Archer blockbuster – our hero, enjoying his hard-earned success, goes deaf.
In the end, he descends into a frustrated, depressive struggle – as tortured geniuses tend to – his deafness alienating him from the world and from the pleasure of sound, as, at the same time, his music achieves unheralded plateaus of intricacy and perfection.
In that his life occupied a near-Shakespearean arc of triumph and tragedy, re-imagining Beethoven is easy. Everybody, perhaps, invents his or her own Beethoven; indeed mythology surrounding him has become so engrained within the collective consciousness, there’s a danger the music becomes perceived only as the soundtrack to an imagined life. But nobody else could have created Beethoven’s music, which is why the music will always be more important than Beethoven the myth. Music is real, myths aren’t.
And all life, anyway, exists in Beethoven’s music. From the orgiastic joy that flows through the finale of the Symphony No. 7 to the unsettling intensity of those late string quartets, here was a composer who increasingly found his art lay at the dangerous fringes of what we normally define as art – exploding the language of music in an attempt to mirror the complexities of his mind and imagination.
Throughout the remainder of the 19th century and into the 20th century, the idea of progressive composers asserting their individual voices became the yardstick by which history judged them. As Brahms writes symphonies in the years after Beethoven’s death, we’re interested in the inventiveness of his melodic material, yes, but also the extent to which he imposes himself on symphonic form, re-moulding our existing understanding of symphonies: asking the question, “What is a symphony?”
Mahler, who came to artistic maturity shortly after Brahms’s death, pressed that question even harder. Arnold Schoenberg posed the same question so pointedly that musical syntax as it had been understood for centuries snapped. It was Beethoven who created the idea of composers not just adding to tradition but recasting it in their own image.
Beethoven, unlike Mozart, was spared the indignity of dying in poverty. His last symphony, the Ninth, consolidated an already robust reputation and he was never short of commissions. A lesser composer might have taken advantage and flown on automatic pilot. But Beethoven never lost sight of his muse.
The history of 20th-century music, from Schoenberg to Stravinsky and Stockhausen, is often written like a soap opera of scandals and spats between composers (eager to explore) and performers (keen to show off) – a tradition that can be traced to Beethoven’s door. A performer today struggling with Stockhausen or Boulez may be wise to recall Beethoven’s words to the Schuppanzigh Quartet after it refused to play the last movement of his String Quartet No.13: “What care I about you and your bloody fiddles?”