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Beethoven’s Dad, Shakespeare, and Death
Arguably the greatest composer, Beethoven has shaped the musical scene today. But what other figures contributed, behind the scenes, to the revolutionary music created by this musical genius?
Beethoven, as the bridge from the Classical to Romantic periods, has shaped Western Classical music in more ways than we can appreciate; but what shaped his music? Johann van Beethoven impacted his son, Ludwig, in many ways, manifesting in the decisions the composer made in both his personal life, and in his music. The other key influence was Beethoven’s deafness, leading to the idea of death becoming a key part of his life, and his ability to relate to Shakespearean tragedies. In this setting, a musical genius created works which are still played 2 centuries later.
Elements of Beethoven’s upbringing can be seen echoing throughout the rest of his life, whether by fault or by design. His father in particular had a great impact on him, which can be seen tangibly as well as manifested in more obscure ways. Johann van Beethoven was an average court singer and alcoholic who obsessed over moulding Ludwig into a musical prodigy to equal Mozart. He taught his son the violin and clavier rigorously from a very young age, instilling harsh punishments for errors, and even locking the young boy in the cellar frequently. At the age of 10, Beethoven left school to study music, and at 19, he was asked to compose a musical tribute to the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II (which was never performed). Whether Beethoven’s talent can be attributed to his strict upbringing, or natural prodigious skill is unclear, but his former classmate did remark that ‘not a sign was to be discovered of that spark of genius which glowed so brilliantly in him afterwards’. As can be expected, Beethoven emerged from his childhood not completely grateful to his father and his lessons - when his brother Nikolaus decided to be known as Johann (his middle name) as a tribute to their father, Beethoven contested this decision, and omitted his Christian name three times in the Heiligenstadt Testament (a potential suicide letter written to his brothers), addressing the letter ‘for my brothers Carl and Beethoven’.
Beethoven’s mother, Maria Magdalena was a kind and moralistic woman, who appears to have passed on her moral sentiment to Beethoven, who fought 5 years of legal battles for complete custody of his nephew Karl, to prevent Karl being raised by his widowed mother, who Beethoven saw as ‘vicious’, ‘bestial’, and an adulteress who had poisoned her husband. He said that he ‘did not wish to be bound up with such a bad woman in a matter of such importance as the education of the child’, expressing ethical concern for his nephew, but also perfectionism regarding upbringing, which he seems to have inherited from his father. In fact, after a suicide attempt, Karl stated that his uncle had ‘tormented him too much … (he) became worse because (his) uncle wanted (him) to be better’. Beethoven also referred to Karl as ‘my son’, expressing either a similar sense of ownership of the child’s future, as his father had done, or regret at having never been married, his ‘immortal beloved’ Antonie Bretano being a married woman.
The other manifestation of Beethoven’s father’s attitude during his childhood seems to be in his reaction to the news that he was going deaf at the age of 25, which was for him a source of despair and embarrassment. In the Heiligenstadt Testament, he laments to his brothers his ‘humiliation’, and complains ‘how could I possibly admit weakness of the one sense which should be more perfect in me than in others’. This leads to him concluding that he ‘must live in exile’, resulting in a deep sense of isolation and loneliness. This focus on the external image, and how he was viewed by others, particularly in the sense that he had to be ‘perfect’ in musical faculties was most likely a consequence of Johann’s insistence that his son’s outward image be that of a perfect musical genius.
On the 6th of October 1802, Beethoven wrote a letter to Carl and Johann, whilst in Heiligenstadt, where his doctor had sent him to find a sense of peace. This was the Heiligenstadt Testament, which expressed his suicidal thoughts, as a result of his deafness. However, death can be seen as a theme throughout much of Beethoven’s music, such as in the Coriolan Overture. There are two endings which were considered by Beethoven for this piece; that in the tragedy written by his friend Collins, where the hero commits suicide by falling on his sword, and that written by Shakespeare, where Coriolanus (the hero) taunts the Volscians to kill him, saying ‘cut me to pieces’, leading to him dying while they chant ‘kill, kill, kill, kill, kill him’. Although Beethoven ultimately chose to end with ‘quiet, almost unarticulated last measures’, which Lockwood (his biographer) links to Collins’ ending, Beethoven clearly considered Shakespeare’s more dramatic ending, shown in early manuscripts of the piece, with the violins creating a sound which could resemble swords penetrating flesh. This decision could be seen to resemble the fact that Beethoven’s suicidal feelings were tied up in a sense of shame and isolation, something to be hidden, as he chose a fitting end for the Greek hero Coriolanus to be a personal, gentle death, rather than a public execution (albeit incited by Coriolanus himself). Although Beethoven did not seem to agree with Shakespeare on this occasion, he considered writing an opera based on Macbeth, showing a particular sense of excitement in writing about ‘the witches, the murder scene, the ghostly meal, the apparition of cauldrons, the night walking scene, Macbeth’s death rage’. Although these are dramatic elements which would be enticing to many composers, Beethoven’s particular attraction may have been a parallel he saw between himself and the character of Macbeth, who is progressively alienated from society, withdrawing into himself. Ultimately, Beethoven never committed suicide, because, as he wrote in the Heiligenstadt Testament, ‘it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that i felt called upon me to produce’. Therefore, upon return to Vienna from Heiligenstadt, in the spirit of his father’s ideas about public images, Beethoven premiered his Symphony no. 2, which was characterised by a general feeling of humour and lightness, concealing his inner torment from the audience.
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