He may be the first composer you ever heard of and he could be the last you hear as you leave this world. Ludwig van Beethoven – Louis to his friends – takes us through life like no other musician. We hear him before we know him – someone playing Für Elise or the Moonlight Sonata on a neighbour’s piano. At school, he gets a brief mention in Napoleon’s story. The ninth symphony gets played at state occasions, the Eroica at funerals, you can’t miss them. Beethoven is in the air when we fall in love, break our hearts, wrestle with major decisions. He walks us through working life, relationships, society, health, and he guides us to the very edge of darkness with late string quartets of such bottomless profundity that we marvel how a human mind could ever conceive of such things.
His is not a friendly face like Haydn’s nor a naughty grin like Mozart’s. He is serious, unsmiling, even a bit forbidding. But we trust him more than others because he always tells the truth.
None of his works is trivial or inessential. The earliest opus 1 trios for piano and strings contain stirrings of mighty concertos. When he attempts ‘light’ variations on themes by Mozart or Handel, he is not so much honouring his predecessors as unlocking their untapped potential. Everything he does has momentum. Beethoven is the ultimate progressive, believing that the world exists for us to improve. While his own circumstances were miserable – loveless, pain-stricken and frustratingly deaf – he retained to the last a shining faith in peace and understanding.
His dedication leaves us awestruck. Mozart spent his evenings playing billiards. Wagner wasted whole days shopping for expensive fabrics. Verdi liked a good cigar. Brahms drank beer. Tchaikovsky went to parties, Elgar to the races. Every great composer had some indulgence or other – except for Beethoven, who went to his desk every day with a determined tread, intending his next work to be an advance on the last. Some find his seriousness uncomfortable, others build academic careers on theories they construct from his building blocks. Politicians have harnessed Beethoven to all sorts of causes from Nazism to Leninism to European unionism, none with much foundation. Myself, I look upon Beethoven’s music as one of the few constants in a turbulent life, a guarantee of stability in a sea of uncertainty. In distress and confusion, it is to Beethoven that I turn first.
So, in the 250th year of his birth, I have decided – in partnership with the streaming service Idagio which has almost all the recordings ever made – to examine one Beethoven work every day for the next four months, an act of self-immersion in waters that run deep, in the hope of finding renewal and hope. One work every day, starting this weekend.
Here’s what we know about the man: from a small town in Germany, Louis headed to Vienna to observe the workings of power at close hand. He fell in and swiftly out of love with Napoleon, met Goethe without much impressions and followed his own instinct to produce one musical milestone after another until, at his death in 1827, he received the biggest funeral the city had ever seen. ‘Who are they burying?’ asked a visitor. ‘The commander-in-chief of the musicians,’ said an onlooker. Beethoven alive was too awkward for people to approach and appreciate. Loneliness infuses his work. Perhaps that is why is feels so personal, and so enduring.
Every Beethoven score has someone’s name on it, maybe yours. Every work adds something to our grasp of the human condition. Each of us has a Beethoven prescription. Mine is the violin concerto, a work that seldom fails to raise me from despair.
His entire output has been recorded many times over the last century, some works more than 100 times. It would be nice to believe that each work has an ideal interpreter, a definitive reading, but life’s not like that. There are so many ways to play Beethoven that I would never dream of making a single recommendation for, say, the Pastoral Symphony, the Hammerklavier piano sonata or the late string quartets. In the course of this odyssey, I shall offer various options rather than one solution.
My earliest concert experiences of Beethoven were with Otto Klemperer and Adrian Boult as conductors, Arthur Rubinstein and Wilhelm Kempff at the piano, Yehudi Menuhin and Nathan Milstein as violinists and Pau Casals and Paul Tortelier on cello. Since my childhood I have heard three generations of musicians, each with a Beethoven of its moment. To measure what I hear today against past legends is to risk anachronistic distortion. What Fritz Kreisler did in the violin concerto was right for his time. What Anne-Sophie Mutter or Patricia Kopatchinskaya does is apt for ours.
My choices are conditioned by who, and where, I am. I suspect that is the same with most of us. In a straw poll I conducted among 20 musicians whose taste I trust, I found variations of choice that were dictated by generation and geography. Americans swear by George Szell in the symphonies, releases that are practically unknown in Europe. Germans vaunt Kempff, Kulenkampff and Schneiderhan in the chamber music. The French revere Cortot and Thibaud. Italians argue over Muti and Chailly as they might over Inter and AC Milan. Very few artists achieve universal approval in Beethoven. Furtwängler, perhaps; Gilels, Argerich, Perlman, maybe; and then the period instrument movement reveals a whole new catalogue of contenders from Harnoncourt to Hogwood. Who to choose? And how? I have asked a number of expert friends to help out with their choices, some quite unexpected, others simply wierd.
I decided against taking the chronological route, starting with opus 1 and ending with 135. It feels too predictable and Beethoven anyway did not always publish works in the order he wrote them, it can also be misleading. Instead, I shall follow my instinct, picking whichever Beethoven work feels right for a particular day. The Idagio streaming service has the whole of recorded Beethoven. Never before has so much Beethoven been available to so many people, and for so little cost.