Saturday, April 11, 2009

This Day in Classical Music History (Beethoven’s Last Concert)

February 11, 1814—Following a creative drought caused by increasing deafness and depression, Ludwig von Beethoven performed for the last time in public as a pianist. Characteristically, the piece, one of his own compositions, turned out to be his most demanding one in the piano trio genre.

Trio in Bb Major, Op. 97, Beethoven’s sixth piano trio, has been nicknamed “Archduke,” in tribute to his recent patron and longtime pupil, Archduke Rudolph of Austria. The 26-year-old was not just any ordinary noble; he was not only the youngest brother of Francis II, Emperor of Austria, but also a force in the Roman Catholic Church (six years after this performance, he’d be named Cardinal-Archbishop of Olmutz).

Luckily for Beethoven, Rudolph was as good a friend as he was a diligent pupil (20 years a student of the composer). In 1809, in an attempt to keep the composer in Vienna, he and two other princes cobbled together a yearly annuity of 4,000 florins to surmount his restlessness about court life—flaring up all the more now that Jerome Bonaparte, newly installed as King of Westphalia by his brother, the Emperor Bonaparte, offered him a post as kappelmeister at a higher salary.

There were no conditions on the annuity from Rudolph and friends, except that the composer just stay put. He could create music whenever he wanted, for whatever occasion. I’m not quite sure, as some have claimed, that this made Beethoven the first “independent” composer, but it certainly gave him a leg up on poor Bach, Haydn and Mozart, who were, contractually speaking, part of the domestic staff of aristocrats—and, sometimes to their chagrin, treated as such.

Rudolph’s generosity is all the more impressive considering who he was dealing with. His notebooks exhortations to the contrary (“Never overtly show all men the contempt which they deserve, for one can never know when one may need them”), Beethoven was still given to irascibility. In the past, friends and admirers would have written it off to artistic temperament, a tendency strengthened by the composer’s immediate apologies for his displays.

By 1812, however, his deafness—the first symptoms of which appeared roughly around 1796--had progressed markedly. He could no longer, as he once had, perform in concert as a soloist. People had to raise their voices when speaking to him.

Eventually, the composer would use an ear trumpet and “Conversation Books” in order to communicate with the world. They weren’t helping him when he wrote his piano trio, however.

Many theories have been deduced about what caused Beethoven’s hearing impairment, but what might have mattered most, for his mental health, was what he thought of it. According to Maynard Solomon’s Second Revised Edition of his biography Beethoven, the composer thought, amazingly enough, that he himself was responsible, the result of rage against “a very ill-tempered, troublesome primo tenore” who was giving him problems about one of his operas.

Whatever one thinks of this idea, the mere thought of it must have been enough to fill Beethoven with self-loathing, even as his disability made him more paranoia about the rest of the world. (Think about it for a second: You can’t hear what people are saying, so maybe they’re talking about you.)

After the passage of time, it’s possible to joke about Beethoven’s travails, as Monty Python did with its sketch about “Beethoven’s Mynah Bird.” But the historical fact was much more serious. By mid-1813, Beethoven had grown so morose and slovenly as to alarm friends. The turn of the year finally found him coming slowly out of his torpor, buoyed enough by two new compositions, Wellington’s Victory and the Seventh Symphony, to take up more substantial work.

Some believe that the first performance of his last piano trio might have taken place in Rudolph’s own home. But at some point, the piece was deemed suitable for public performance. If the composer was going to be pressed into service to do so at a point where he had largely sworn it off, he’d have to feel a sufficient comfort level about this.

This was arranged, as two frequent collaborators joined Beethoven in this combo: violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh (leader of the string quartet that introduced many of Beethoven's quartets and later some of Schubert's) and cellist Joseph Linke (for whom Beethoven composed sonatas). Schuppanzigh in particular would make Beethoven come out of his shell: the composer loved the fun he could have teasing his friend on account of his bulk (the violinist used always to complain about climbing the four floors to Beethoven’s apartment) as much as he did about the high quality of his art.

One of Beethoven’s most famous pieces was nicknamed “Eroica,” but, in truth, his ability to return to composing at a time of self-doubt and heartache must itself be called heroic. Beethoven: Letters, Journals and Conversations, translated and edited by Michael Hamburger, includes much inspiration about the creative process and how to live one’s life in the face of disappointment, including the following:

“My present life must not continue! Art demands even this sacrifice. Rest in your recreations, so as to work all the more vigorously in your art!”

And perhaps, even more so, this:
“There is much to be done on earth; do it soon!”

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