Creative Director, #ConcertLab
What links Shakespeare, Newton, Henry VIII, Cleopatra and Pythagoras?
I’ll leave you a moment to think it through.
Well (and don’t hate me if you spent a long time on the riddle…), they’re all figures from history whose name can stand alone without any further explanation. I haven’t had to mention which of these was an author, a scientist, King/serial-divorcee (to put it lightly), Egyptian ruler or fan of triangles. It’s just something we know, synonymous with their name.
It’s fascinating to think about the way history unfurls, which names pass through the centuries and which don’t quite make the mega-star cut. Everyone who has lived has done something incredibly meaningful, one way or another, but the filter of time works ferociously.
50 years from now, a handful out of billions of names might be widely known. Of those handful, fewer still will be known in a century. And even fewer again in 200.
At this point, enter Ludwig van Beethoven. His is a name that has persisted, implicitly and universally known as a composer of great symphonies and – all the more remarkably – one who was deaf. Beethoven is the most famous figure from classical music, rivalled only by Mozart. But think again about him – indeed anyone from the list at the beginning of this blog – and try to put some flesh on the skeleton that is their basic CV of accomplishments. This is where things become trickier – what do we really know about these people’s lives? What did they think, or feel, or experience?
There’s a point where the names destined to resonate through the ages enter into mythology, such that Beethoven’s experience might mean as much to us as the legends of Greek Gods. We can become so removed from the humanity of these icons that it’s easy to forget that they too shared the same world as we’re living on right now, and in doing so experienced emotions, trials and aspirations that remain incredibly relevant today – and likely always will do.
You may well now be thinking ‘well, yeah, state the obvious why don’t you.’
It’s just that I thought I knew Beethoven’s story pretty well, having worked with orchestras for several years now and written many a programme note in that time. Yet, in researching our upcoming #ConcertLab, I’ve found out so much more about Beethoven the human, as opposed to Beethoven the legend.
As I mention above, nearly everyone knows Beethoven was a composer who lost his hearing. Lots of people interested in classical music might also have heard stories of his using ear trumpets as an early kind of hearing aid, or of the time he conducted the premiere of his Ninth Symphony and only knew to stop when a colleague tapped him on the shoulder to turn around and accept the wild applause.
But less commonly known is what Beethoven’s changing relationship with sound meant to him in everyday life, how it affected him psychologically and socially, and how he resorted to a variety of coping mechanisms to cling on to his will to live. He was someone teetering on the precipice of either genius or self-destruction, and it could so easily have gone either way.
It was around the time Beethoven was penning the initial ideas for his Third Symphony, later to become known as the ‘Eroica’, that things first came to a head. A terrified Beethoven had been living under a darkening cloud for about six years at this point, his ears buzzing ever more insistently but too scared to admit his problem to anyone but a couple of poorly-trained doctors and his two most trusted friends. Even then, he made them swear not to tell another soul: he hadn’t yet established his career and there was the very real risk of him being written off by a society that didn’t understand deafness, in the process stripping him of any chance of earning a living, let alone fulfilling his ambitions as a composer. He was facing a future full of unknowns, with crucial factors fully out of his control. Try to imagine the stress of that situation; of the fear. I know I can’t even begin to.
In a letter Beethoven wrote aged 32 for his brothers to open after his death, he talks about the huge struggle of accepting what was happening to his hearing, and his first coping mechanism of shutting himself off from society. He speaks of feeling hugely misunderstood as a result, of deafness – even before it had fully taken hold – spurning his participation in everyday life and compounding his sense of isolation, and all this contributing to severe depression that almost led to suicide.
The first page of Beethoven's Heiligenstadt Testament. You can read a full translation here.
That letter is now known as the ‘Heiligenstadt Testament’, and that title has also become part of the Beethoven legend. Most programme notes will probably make a fleeting reference to it, and perhaps – curtailed by word limits – expand to mention it was the moment the composer’s calling to create art overcame darkness.
It’s true. Beethoven said that “art alone deterred me” from suicide, and there’s a strong case that the hero in his ‘Heroic’ Third Symphony is Beethoven himself, facing his trials head on. Likewise in his Fifth Symphony, where fate comes ominously knocking only to be battled and brilliantly defied.
In headline terms, Beethoven’s art has achieved just what he hoped. These narratives have framed him as god-like, his talents ringing out eternally beyond his mortal being.
But I can’t escape from the other 98.5% of that letter (yep, I did the word count maths); from the man describing crisis and vulnerability, fear and confusion. It’s helped me think of Beethoven as a real person again, and in doing so changed the way I experience his music – for the better. It’s no longer something to be reverentially presented on a pedestal, but a complex, personal and compellingly relevant collection of stories that still offer so much to be explored.
Anton Lesser recording the voice of Beethoven ahead of The Sound Within
In our upcoming #ConcertLab, we’re inviting you to walk within Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ symphony and gain new sonic perspectives. Accompanying this, you’ll also hear the fabulous actor Anton Lesser voice Beethoven’s experience of his own evolving relationship with sound, the words collated and curated from a huge number of letters, contemporary accounts and even the haunting conversation books Beethoven resorted to using in his final years. All this will be interpreted in sign language, too.
If you were to swap letters for texts and emails, and update the odd word here and there for its modern equivalent, Beethoven’s story – at its core – resonates as strongly today as ever. Join us and hear a symphony as never before, from within, and just maybe also come to understand an icon of history anew.
Find out more about #ConcertLab: The Sound Within here.
Find out more about Matt here.