The forgotten charm of Beethoven

Pianist Danny Driver on why Beethoven's early works should get a fairer hearing

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The forgotten charm of Beethoven
Chloe Hanslip and Danny Driver at Turner Sims, Southampton.
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Ludwig van Beethoven might be the most well-known composer of all time, as much for his music as for his legendary struggle against adversity, principally deafness.  By 1818 Beethoven had completely lost any sense of hearing. Four hundred ‘conversation books’ (most no longer extant) enabled friends and visitors to communicate with him by writing down what they wanted to say; contralto Caroline Unger famously had to pull his sleeve in order to draw his attention to the thunderous applause that filled Vienna’s Kärntnertor-Theater at the premiere of the Ninth Symphony.  But deafness didn’t stop Beethoven from producing such sublime works as the Missa Solemnis or his final Op 111 Piano Sonata.

Earlier in 1802, in a letter to his brothers now known as the ‘Heiligenstadt Testament’, Beethoven himself wrote:

‘How could I possibly admit such an infirmity in the one sense which should have been more perfect in me than in others, a sense that I once possessed in highest perfection…. What a humiliation when one stood beside me and heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone heard the shepherd singing and again I heard nothing, such incidents brought me to the verge of despair, but little more and I would have put an end to my life…’

What could be more heroic for a musician than having to battle on without the very sense on which our musical experiences are predicated?

Heroic is an apt word, undeniably part of our received image of Beethoven, inextricably linked to his middle-period style and works such as the epic Third (‘Eroica’) and Fifth Symphonies, or the angst and violence of the Appassionata Piano Sonata. 

We hear Beethoven’s struggle in these works, and we celebrate and reflect upon his triumph against the odds, the victory of light over darkness.  The late piano sonatas and string quartets are rather more introspective, philosophical and transcendent – art coming to Beethoven’s rescue and making possible his acceptance of severe circumstances.

How do the Sonatas for Piano & Violin fit into this narrative?  Mostly they don’t, because the well-trodden narrative of Beethoven’s triumph over adversity is not his whole life story. 

Eight of the Sonatas for Piano with Violin (yes, that is how they were titled on publication) were written between 1798 and 1803 – well before the crippling deafness and his brother’s death.  In short, much of Beethoven’s work in this genre predates his more troubled later years. 

 

These were youthful and optimistic years, when Beethoven was taking Vienna by storm, foremost as a virtuoso pianist and improviser.  The three sonatas of Op 12 are invigorating works of a young aspiring composer eager to impress and make his mark, the dedication to Salieri, Vienna’s most influential musician at the time, surely a shrewd attempt to secure support.

The tender lyricism of the Sonata in F major Op 24 (‘Spring’) smiles benevolently throughout the four-movement work, and along with the major key Sonatas of Op 30, demonstrates Beethoven’s well-known love of nature and countryside.  If you think this is facile description, try the infectious country-dance rhythms, drone basses, and horn calls of the G major Op 30 no 3.

But these sonatas are not musically inferior to Beethoven’s later, tortured music. On the contrary, they provide us with the opportunity to hear, share, and think about Beethoven in a different light.  They are more intimate and charm-laden than stormy and angst-ridden.  They remind us of Beethoven as a complete personality, one as capable of laughter, warm-hearted camaraderie, and tenderness as of bursts of anger and frustration. Much of the music thrives on nuance and intimacy (the sixth sonata Op 30 no 1 is a fine example), and even through much of the last two sonatas, the ‘Kreutzer’ (Op 47) and the quasi-pastoral Op 96, we continue to hear Beethoven smiling. 

The smile is surely one that should not be forgotten.

Pianist Danny Driver will perform a complete cycle of Beethoven’s Piano and Violin Sonatas with violinist Chloë Hanslip over three concerts at Southampton’s Turner Sims concert hall on 2 March, 4 May and 17 October. Click here for more information. 

  • Article Type: | Blog |
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