The training I received at the Academy was difficult and at times harsh, but those who survived the experience emerged as real musicians.

Sir Georg Solti

The lighthouse of music

17 February 2020

Beethoven was born 250 years ago. To mark the approaching anniversary, we asked musicologist Sándor Kovács, head of the Doctoral School of the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music, to give us a truthful and detailed portrait of Beethoven, most often described in anecdotes as morose and deaf.

 

“Bach is God, Mozart is the angel, Beethoven is the man,” according to Ferruccio Busoni. A lot has been written in music history books about Beethoven, the composer and genius. But what kind of person was he? What does Busoni mean when he refers to him as “the man”?

That’s a good question because there was a big difference between the personality of the young Beethoven and that of the old one. When Beethoven moved to Vienna as a young man in 1792, he tried to behave elegantly – after all, he was in aristocratic company. For instance, he took up horse riding, something quite incompatible with the image of an aging, unkempt, deaf man. He was also not morose in his youth. Of course, he displayed certain qualities as a young man that were anything but affable. In a contemporary story, he bore a slight grudge against a fellow musician, and when that man had finished his recital in a salon, the raging Beethoven thundered his way to the piano, picked up the cello part of a composition, put it on the piano upside down, read it just like that and then improvised variations on it, just to put his colleague to shame. The other man, turning back from the door, remarked, “That’s the devil himself”.

The old Beethoven was completely different. Let me tell you a story typical of him: he went for a walk, which was his custom. He walked and walked and kept thinking all the time, deaf and lonely. It had grown dark when he noticed that he had lost his way. He ended up in a village near Vienna and tried to find out where he was. He bent down to peep into the windows of the small houses, but the people inside were frightened of him and called the gendarmerie. The officer took him to the station, where Beethoven pleaded, saying, “But I am Beethoven!” “Anyone can say that,” said the gendarme, but, just to be sure, he called over the village mayor. The mayor dressed, dashed over to the station, looked at Beethoven, and said it really was him…. So he was characterized by a strange duality: on the one hand, everybody knew that that man was a genius: on the other, his appearance was that of a strange, dishevelled and perhaps slightly insane person.

 

Composers have generally been clear about their own qualities, but Beethoven was one of the first to demand the respect befitting a genius. What led him to part with a way of life, pursued by his contemporaries and even more by his predecessors, that primarily depended on holding court positions?

Of the truly great composers, Mozart was the first. He broke with the prince archbishop in 1781, and from then on he lived the life of the capitalist. Then came Beethoven, who lived like that all his life. But there is something I have to add: Beethoven was conscious of his own genius, while Mozart was not. In his day, the notion of genius was not common knowledge. Although he knew he was more talented and simply better than any other contemporary composer, Mozart regarded himself as an incredibly good craftsman. By contrast, Beethoven treated himself right away as a genius, one of the chosen few. He thought he was a lighthouse.

 

A lighthouse of a genius always has a cult built up around them, which tends to influence our opinion of their art. Do you think we may become so very biassed towards an artist proclaimed to be a genius as to be unable to see their defects?

No doubt, we are affected by such a cult. It is bad form to speak poorly of a composer generally regarded as a genius. At the same time, I have often come across statements made by great musicians – Glenn Gould, for instance – where they level sharp criticism against certain pieces by Beethoven. I don’t always agree (Gould did not like even the Appassionata sonata), but what matters is that you can free yourself of such influence.

 

Let’s take the other extreme: which Beethoven pieces do you think reach that superhuman level which is simply beyond human comprehension?

The Ninth is certainly one of them. Even though it is not one of my favourites, it is definitely in another dimension. Also, some movements in his string quartets can be described as outstanding and visionary. Then there is something in the second, final, movement of his piano sonata, Opus 111, that has no antecedent whatsoever. Beethoven’s slow movements contain some fantastic things, but this phenomenal music cannot be matched even by those.

 

To what extent does a composer’s personality affect their image as an artist? Should there be such an effect? We know that Wagner held certain principles that we have reservations about, yet we like and listen to his music. Beethoven wasn’t an easy person either. Does that matter when we are assessing his art?

Wagner is an excellent example because it shows that it hardly does. It would be an exaggeration to say that it doesn’t at all, but certainly it does very little. We have to treat the two things separately. We know that Wagner was an anti-Semite and had rather low morals (he borrowed money that he never repaid), but he was also a genius who overwhelms us.

 

What sources can we return to if we are curious about a composer’s personality?

In the case of Beethoven, there are descriptions and memoirs by contemporaries – sadly, not many letters have survived. But the picture is somewhat misleading: for example, there are these small copybooks that he kept after he went deaf and people wrote questions in them to which Beethoven gave answers. The answers were not recorded, but we can make deductions on the basis of the questions. What is misleading is that these were later falsified to embellish the overall picture. I like to say that humankind only tells the truth if they absolutely must.

 

If you could ever meet Beethoven, the human being, what would you like to do together?

We’d go on a walking tour.

 

Dániel Mona