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Beethoven--Iconoclast, Democrat, Genius

[Editor's Note:—Just when the spark of Democracy commenced to flicker in Germany no one knows. Our own republic was well established when Beethoven reached his prime, and it is possible that some of his independence was inspired by the progress of the Democracy in the new world. Unquestionably,Beethoven and Wagner both made a bold stand against the old world aristocracy. Beethoven never relented—Wagner, however, after his years of exile and jeopardy, aligned himself with the aristocracy when he found that his own art purposes could not be accomplished without their patronage.]
Singers, players and composers, as well as teachers and students, can learn almost as much from the life of great masters as from their works. There are exceptions, but Beethoven was not one of them. Brief reference to some of his traits will show that, while there were foibles and eccentricities which others should avoid, his attitude toward music and musicians and the world in general served as a good example to all.
Particularly praiseworthy was his pride in being a musician and a thinker. One day, when his brother Johann sent up his card with the word "land-proprietor" after his name, the composer sent down his own card, on which he had written "brain-proprietor."
On another occasion he made up his mind to sell the ring he had received from the King of Prussia for the dedication of the ninth symphony. Karl Holz tried to prevent this, begging him to remember that it came from a king; but"I, too, am a king," was Beethoven's prompt answer.
He was far ahead of his time in being fully convinced, as we all are now, that being of the aristocracy of genius is a prouder distinction than belonging to the aristocracy of birth, which the great war has dealth such a deadly blow.
Whenever I use the German "Who's Who?" I am struck by its characteristic difference from the "Who's Who?" published here and in England. It is a huge volume, rather stupidly called "Wer Ist's," and is filled almost entirely with the names of absolute nobodies, who happen (or happened, we may say now) to belong to the so-called "nobility" of the empire; whereas, the names in the American and English "Who's Whos?" are those of persons who have distinguished themselves in one way or another.
In Beethoven's day, in Austria, as well as in Germany, the aristocracy of birth held complete sway. "Mankind begins with the baron" was the insolent and asinine maxim that prevailed. What Beethoven thought of it we have already seen by implication. He treated the Viennese aristocrats of the highest rank as his equals in every possible way, and refused to kow-tow to them.
He did not like to give music lessons because they interfered with his creative work; but he did give some, and even if the pupils happened to belong to members of the imperial family that did not induce him to treat them with more deference than others. He refused to submit to the artificialities of court etiquette even when giving lessons in the house of Prince Rudolph, the youngest son of Emperor Leopold II; and when the courtiers molested him with their attempts to make him follow the prescribed rules of conduct he appealed personally to the Prince, who, far from being displeased, smiled and told the masters of ceremony to let Beethoven have his own way.
Ferdinand Ries relates how, on one occasion, Beethoven rebuked some ill-bred aristocrats. It was at a musical gathering in the home of Count Browne. Beethoven was playing some of his four-hand marches with Ries, when the Count P. began to talk loudly with a young lady in the door to the adjoining room. After several attempts to restore silence had been made in vain, Beethoven suddenly got up and exclaimed: "For such pigs I refuse to play." All attempts to make him go back to the piano failed.
Would that all musicians who are similarly insulted had Beethoven's courage. Some, to be sure, could not afford to follow his example. Nor need anyone use his unparliamentary language.
Liszt's way was more polite, but quite as effective. He was playing for the court in the Russian capital when the Czar began to talk loudly. Liszt stopped abruptly, and when asked why he did not proceed he answered: "Etiquette demands that when the Emperor speaks others must be silent."
Reading George Henschel's "Musings and Memories" the other day, I was struck by the evidence presented in it of Brahms' modesty, or, rather, humility. Speaking of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, he said: "What I cannot understand is how people like myself can be vain. As much as we men, who walk upright, are above the creeping things of the earth, so these gods are above us. If it were not so ludicrous it would be loathsome to me to hear colleagues of mine praise me to my face in such an exaggerated manner."
He knew his place in the history of music better than did his adulators. Posterity, he once said, would place him on a level with Cherubini. That, no doubt, was over-modest. Cherubini is now practically forgotten, whereas, of Brahms' things some will live.
Such humility was foreign to Beethoven, nor would it have been in place, for he knew he was a king— more than that, in fact; for how many kings are remembered after death. At the same time, he knew perfectly well he was not infallible. He was not like the foolish Beethovenites of our day, who would have us think everything he wrote was perfect. When Katharina Tibbini complimented him on being the only master who had never composed anything that was insignificant or weak, he exclaimed: "The devil you say! Many of the things I have written I would be glad to destroy if I could."
In his letters he repeatedly confessed that he had to write "potboilers" to earn the money he needed to gain time enough for his masterworks. One of these potboilers, by his own confession, was the pianoforte sonata op. 106; it was written, as he said to Ries, "almost for the sake of the bread—I have got as far as that."
Hereby hangs a tale. I have often been abused because I refused to worship the last sonatas of Beethoven and because I frequently advise the pianists not to play them so often, to the neglect of the much more inspired earlier sonatas. It is not often that a thoroughgoing Beethovenite frankly confesses to shortcomings in the works of his idol, but Wasielewski, in the second volume of his excellent Beethoven Biography (p. 273), apologizes for many things in the last sonatas, op. 109, 110 and 111, as being explicable by the fact that at the time when they were written the master's attention was so absorbed by his great Mass that the sonatas suffered in consequence. "One thing is clear," the biographer adds, "compositions for piano alone no longer interested him as in former days." He decided (in 1823, a year after the creation of op. 111) not to write any more piano pieces except to order. He denounced the piano as "an unsatisfactory (ungenügendes) instrument;" once he referred to it as the "clavicembalo miserabile."
Contemporary critics did not hesitate to point out flaws in his works, real or imaginary. Particularly the "Leipzig oxen," as he called them, had a habit of speaking disrespectfully of him. "But let them talk," he wrote to one of his publishers. "They will certainly not make anyone immortal by their chatter, no more than they can take away immortality from anyone for whom Apollo has decreed it."
Critical attacks on the style and structure of his works only excited his hilarity. Thus Seyfried relates: "When he came across criticisms accusing him of making blunders in musical grammar he laughed loudly and, rubbing his hands gleefully, exclaimed: "Yes, yes! They put their heads together and open wide their mouths because they have not seen anything like it in the text books on harmony."
Concerning the professional pianists of his day he wrote: "Many of them are my deadly enemies."
Why his enemies? Because mediocrity hates genius. Paderewski has had many deadly enemies. Apart from that, one can see no particular reason why pianists should have been hostile to Beethoven. He did not play often in public, and when he did he played only his own compositions. These, surely, the others could not have been expected to play as well as he did.
Their inferiority was, to be sure, revealed painfully when it came to improvisations. In this he was, in the words of Tomaschek, "a giant among pianists."
In Beethoven's day all the pianists were expected to improvise in public on themes chosen not by, but for them. There is record, for instance, of an occasion when Beethoven and one of his rivals, Woelffl, sat side by side at two pianos and in turn improvised on themes proposed by one to the other. It was agreed that it was on such occasions that Beethoven was at his best. Mozart's historic remark: "Keep your eyes on him! He will some day make the world talk about him," was made after he had heard him improvise.
"He appears to most advantage in improvisation," wrote a contemporary critic, "and it is, indeed, marvelous to see how easily and logically he will extemporize on any given theme, not merely by varying the figures (as many virtuosi do with much success and—bluster), but by a real development of the idea."
Probably one reason why improvising went out of fashion was that it so easily lent itself to exploitation by humbugs. There is a story of a boy prodigy, who, in the midst of his "improvisation," cried out in tones of anguish, "Papa, I have forgotten the rest."
There are not many pianists to-day to whose impromptu playing one would care to listen. I have heard one, however, who is practically blind, and is very clever in this way. He will take any theme, or a group of four notes given him, and develop it in the manner of a Bach fugue, a Chopin nocturne, a Mozart sonata, a Strauss waltz and so on. His name is Fred Melius.
An Englishman, J. Russell, who visited Vienna a century ago, wrote regarding Beethoven's improvisations: "He soon forgot his surroundings, and for about half an hour lost himself in an improvisation * * * He reveled rather in bold, stormy moods than in soft and gentle ones. The muscles of his face swelled, his veins were distended, his eyes rolled wildly, his mouth trembled convulsively, and he had the appearance of an enchanter mastered by the spirit he had himself conjured."
One is reminded, on reading this, of an account given in The Etude some years ago by Adele Hippins of a memorable occasion when she and another pupil of Rubinstein were permitted to hear him improvise: "He grew excited, heated, hair fell over his forehead; he and the piano seemed to make but one. Then appeared an exquisite melody, accompanied by chords in the bass and strengthened by the surging of powerful arpeggios over the entire instrument. He increased the difficulties, he stormed like full orchestra, the piano almost gave way under his hands. The impression was overwhelming, my nerves were so wrought up that I felt stifled. I glanced at my neighbor—she had left the room weeping. We all had a feeling of involuntary terror, as if in the presence of some elementary power of nature. Yes, Rubinstein was, in truth, awe- inspiring."
An amusing anecdote is related regarding the last occasion when Beethoven played for friends. The eminent publisher Schlesinger visited Vienna and gave a great dinner. Beethoven was one of the guests and was, of course, invited to improvise. After repeatedly refusing, he finally consented on condition that Castelli, who hadn't the remotest idea of how to play the piano, should give him a theme. Castelli walked up to the instrument, touched with his first finger four keys down the scale and the same up again. "That's enough," exclaimed Beethoven, laughing. Then he sat down and, to the delight of the guests, improvised a whole hour on those four notes, which were interwoven into everything he played.
This was in 1825, two years before his death. He had stepped playing in public in 1814. His whole career as a virtuoso covered only nineteen years. Truth to tell, he was never particularly interested in the life of a virtuoso. According to Ries and Julia Guicciciardi, he did not enjoy playing his own things in public—probably because he did not care to take the time for acquiring an impeccable technic. Czerny, indeed, expressly states that the reason why Beethoven preferred improvising to playing his printed works was that he could thus avoid passages that he had not had time to practice.
The same pupil and friend of the great composer also makes the extremely important statement that Beethoven used the pedals much more frequently than is prescribed in his printed works. I have known Paderewski to be violently assailed for doing what Beethoven himself did, according to this unimpeachable testimony. And there is equally good testimony to the fact that Beethoven, in playing his own works, made free use of the fluctuating pace which is stupidly called tempo rubato.
Possibly this addiction to fluctuating tempo accounts for the extraordinary fact that Beethoven, as attested by Ries, could never learn how to dance in time. However, the Viennese, among whom he lived, do dance in a fluctuating, undulating fashion, especially in the Strauss waltzes, as I know from personal observation. Ries refers to Beethoven's failure as a dancer as simply one detail of his general awkwardwardness (sic) and lack of grace "in everything he did." He seldom took anything in hand without letting it fall or breaking it. Repeatedly he dropped his inkstand into his piano. No piece of furniture was safe in his presence. "How he ever learned to shave himself is hard to understand, even if we take no account of the frequent cuts on his cheeks."
Strange that there are so few traces of this awkwardness in his music! From this point of view it does not mirror the man. It does, however, mirror the passionate outbursts of "temperament" from which all of his friends suffered, followed by the soothing, conciliatory notes peculiar to him.
It is said of Brahms that once, at a reception, he said before leaving: "If there is anyone here whom I have not offended I beg his pardon." Beethoven often offended his best friends, but when the ebullition was over he wrote them abject letters of apology.
Like Brahms, Handel and Chopin, Beethoven never married, but he greatly admired beautiful women, and was always falling in love. His infatuation, however, never lasted long—seven months, in one case, being the limit, according to Ries. Yet there is nothing superficial or ephemeral about his love music, except in his songs, in which he was rarely at his best.
Of his love of nature, the Pastoral Symphony is the eloquent witness, teaching the lesson that, with the exception of love for woman, there is no source of musical inspiration equal to it. Neate related that he had "never met a man who so rejoiced in nature, who so hugely enjoyed flowers and clouds, as Beethoven did. Nature was his food as it were; it was the element he lived in. When taking his walks in a meadow near Vienna he would sit down on some inviting green for a bench, and give himself up to his musings. In his note book he once wrote: "It is as if every tree spoke to me, Holy, holy! In the forest there is enchantment—who could express all this?"

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