Tuesday, December 16, 2008
Pleading the Fifth
Today is the anniversary of the birth of one of my heroes; December 16th, 1770 marks the day Ludwig van Beethoven was born.
Growing up I was surrounded by classical music. My father had taken piano lessons as a child and I began when I was 8 or 9. Dad then took up the piano again. If we weren't on the piano, classical music was usually playing on the turntable or 8 track. Dad watched Bugs Bunny with me every Saturday at 5, though in later years I discovered it was because of the music soundtrack.
I didn't care for lessons too much, like most children, but I did enjoy playing. I learned studies by Bach, stupid little kids' type tunes, and sometimes Debussy. Dad took me to the music store so I could buy the sheet music to The Entertainer. I learned the Moonlight Sonata. My favourite Muppet Show episode is the one with Victor Borge, playing the Moonlight Sonata in his dressing room with an animated bust of Beethoven looking on. The two of them try to remain awake as he plays.
I recall trying to teach myself Beethoven's Fifth Symphony when I was 10 (no one told me I was too young to try it or that my hands were too small). I loved the opening of that piece so much (who doesn't, really) I was bound and determined to play it. I loved the power (of the opening) that it brought to my small body. I felt big and strong, able to take on anything.
There are scores (pun intended) of beautiful pieces that I enjoy and some composers who I usually like, though not always. But Beethoven has stuck with me through thick and thin. If I was feeling particularly romantic or sad, there was a piece to match my mood. And when I was feeling weak, I always had the Fifth to pick me up. And we often shared the same hairstyle.
Over the years, I have thought often of the man's life, his trials and tribulations, his illnesses, and of course his deafness. What a challenge to a musician! But even though his hearing worsened he continued to compose music. (In a bizarre way, it reminds me of the bit in the Monty Python movie where the knight has his arms and legs hacked off and he shouts to his attacker "Come back and I'll bite you to death!" That's determination.)
His Middle (Heroic) period began shortly after Beethoven's personal crisis brought on by his recognition of encroaching deafness. It is noted for large-scale works that express heroism and struggle, many of which have become very famous. Middle-period works include six symphonies (Nos. 3–8), the fourth and fifth piano concertos, the triple concerto and violin concerto, five string quartets (Nos. 7–11), the next seven piano sonatas (including the Waldstein and the Appassionata), the Kreutzer Violin Sonata and Beethoven's only opera, Fidelio.
I'm sure Beethoven would have agreed that his music expressed heroism and struggle, though I doubt he would have admitted that it was his own struggle and heroism that inspired other people.