The Man

     Beethoven turned 240 years old on Thursday. He was a strange and fascinating cat.
     Here’s a description his pupil Carl Czerny wrote of Beethoven’s playing around 1809, long after the Maestro had begun losing his hearing. The translation is by Lewis Lockwood, from his 2003 biography of Beethoven:
     “Finally Beethoven was prevailed upon to play something. As usual, he let himself be persuaded for a long time and then finally, at the entreaties of the ladies, sat down at the piano. Reluctantly he grabbed the open second violin part of the Pleyel quartets from a nearby music stand, threw it on to the piano, and began to improvise. Never had anyone heard more wonderful, more original, or greater improvising than on that evening. But through the whole improvisation there ran in the middle voice, like a thread or cantus firmus, the succession of trivial notes that he found on the accidentally open page of that quartet, while he built upon it the finest melodies and harmonies in the most brilliant concert style. Old Pleyel was so astounded that he kissed his hands.”
     Improvising on a melody or on a bass was standard stuff. But I’ve never heard of anyone who improvised on a theme in a middle voice.
     On another evening, Beethoven was furious because a rival pianist, Daniel Stiebelt, had come through town, listened condescendingly to a new trio of Beethoven’s, then wowed the ladies by improvising with a lot of tremolos, which were a new thing – a trick. A week later Stiebelt showed up at the same salon, having prepared a long “improvisation” on a theme he had stolen from the Beethoven trio he had sneered at the week before.
     “This outraged Beethoven’s admirers as well as Beethoven himself,” Beethoven’s friend and pupil Ferdinand Ries wrote. “It was now his turn to improvise at the piano. He seated himself in his usual, I might say unmannerly, fashion at the instrument, almost as if he had been pushed. He had picked up the cello part of Stiebelt’s quintet on his way to the piano, and placing it upside-down on the music rack he hammered out a theme from the first two bars with one finger. Insulted and irritated as he was, he improvised in such a manner that Stiebelt left the room before Beethoven had finished, never wanted to meet him again, and even made it a condition that Beethoven not be invited when his own company was desired.”
     Beethoven was ill at ease in society. He wrote in a letter that he never sent, but hid, and which was found after his death, that he was ashamed that people might mock his faulty hearing – and use his deafness to mock his music. His social unease sometimes caused him to insult people without meaning to. His pupil Ries described how Beethoven inadvertently insulted the virtuoso pianist Ferdinand Himmel.
     “Himmel and (Beethoven) fell out in the following manner: when they were together one day Himmel asked Beethoven to improvise and Beethoven did. Afterwards Beethoven insisted that Himmel do the same. Himmel was weak enough to agree. After he had played for quite some time, Beethoven said: ‘Well, when are you actually going to begin?’ Himmel flattered himself that he had been achieving something marvelous already; he therefore left the piano, and both of them exchanged rude remarks with one another. Beethoven said to me: ‘I thought Himmel had just been offering a little prelude.'”
     Beethoven had a great heart. Baroness Dorothea von Ertmann told Felix Mendelssohn “that when she lost her last child, Beethoven at first did not want to come into the house; at length he invited her to visit him, and when she came he sat himself down at the pianoforte and said simply: ‘We will now talk to each other in tones,’ and for over an hour played without stopping, and as she remarked: ‘He told me everything, and at last brought me comfort.'”
     Bringing people comfort is hardly what artists choose to do anymore. It’s not what Beethoven chose to do. But he did it nonetheless. He’s been doing it for nearly 200 years after he was dead, and he’ll be doing it so long as there is a human race that remembers how to play Beethoven.
     Arthur Rubinstein explained it in a master class I attended 35 years ago. Most artists who give master classes give instruction: they interrupt; they get right in there. But Mr. Rubinstein, 90 years old, just sat and beamed as a procession of young pianists knocked the stuffing out of the piano for an hour. Then Mr. Rubinstein, beaming like a cherub, stood and walked slowly stiffly to the podium and said these few words to the packed auditorium: “You must keep playing music. When people get old, sometimes they get sad, and music is the only thing that can console them. So you must keep playing music.”
     And we do. Human beings have set up enormous complexes of orchestras, concert halls, booking agencies and music conservatories – so we can keep listening to Beethoven.

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