History does not view Ludwig van Beethoven as a nice man. Arrogant, insecure, truculent and rude, he was in some ways the Dominic Cummings of Imperial Austria.
It’s all there in the artistic representations: The untended, chaotic hair, the beetle-brow, the twitchy eccentricity, the withering glance that tells you he has no time for your nonsense.
Having grown up with an alcoholic father and a sickly mother he was also, perhaps understandably, obsessed with money and status. He was “van” and not the more noble “von” but was content for others to confuse the two, a conceit that occasionally landed him in trouble.
So much for the negative side of the ledger. Beethoven was also fearless, visionary, driven, and on his death at the age of 56 left a body of work that is, and will likely forever remain, unsurpassed in scope, beauty and ambition. For this he should be held alongside, say, Shakespeare, Newton, Einstein and Leonardo da Vinci, as among the greatest and most consequential humans to grace the planet.
This year is the 250th anniversary of his birth, an event that was to be marked by celebratory concerts across the world. In London the Southbank Centre planned a year-long tribute, as did the Wigmore Hall, the Barbican, the RSNO and, it seems, every other orchestra, quartet, soloist and classical music venue worth its salt. Coronavirus has sadly put paid to much of that. The virtuoso pianist Stephen Hough, who has just released a recording of the five piano concertos with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and conductor Hannu Lintu, says: “Beethoven more than any other composer represents for me the ultimate triumph of joy over sorrow, and the indefatigable human spirit.”
This goes some way to capturing Beethoven’s enduring appeal. We’re suckers for the tortured artistic genius, of course, and highly suspicious of brilliance that comes too easily. Boy, did Beethoven suffer: Thwarted in love, often broke and – most tragically and poignantly – steadily and secretly going deaf from the tender age of 28. In 1802, in his early 30s, he wrote to his brothers what has become known as the Heiligenstadt Testament: “O ye men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn or misanthropic, how greatly do ye wrong me . . . a hopeless case, aggravated by senseless physicians, cheated year after year in the hope of improvement, finally compelled to face the prospect of a lasting malady.”
He had lost “the one sense which should have been more perfect in me than in others, a sense which I once possessed in highest perfection, a perfection such as few surely in my profession enjoy or have enjoyed – what a humiliation when (one of the many doctors he saw) 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.”
Heartbreaking, as is the story that at the premiere of his ninth symphony a few years before his death and completely deaf, he had to be turned to witness his standing ovation.
The standing ovation has never ended, and rightly so. When we turn to the music we have no right to do anything other than applaud. Consider his 32 piano sonatas, which from first to last grow ever more ground-breaking. Everyone knows the Moonlight Sonata but just listen to the invention in the opening movement of the Waldstein, the steadily building beauty of the Appassionata’s second movement, the first pounding chords of the Hammerklavier, and the stone-cold perfection of the final three sonatas.
The nine symphonies represent progress so exponential that Beethoven practically reinvented the form. The opening bars of the fifth, yes but also the transporting worldscapes of the third, sixth, seventh and ninth.
Then there are the string quartets, usually divided into early, middle and late period. The final handful of these, among the last works the composer completed, sit with the greatest achievements of our species, so directly attuned to the soul and at times so abstract that it might be argued we don’t yet fully understand them, two centuries on. In these mighty works Beethoven was writing for a future he wouldn’t see and that we seem to be struggling to reach or perhaps simply lack the grace to earn. He was passing judgments, setting riddles, nudging open previously locked doors – I remain unconvinced the adagio in the 15th quartet isn’t proof of God’s existence.
The best music delivers us into the arms of the sublime. Beethoven can make you jig, laugh and cry. But in his highest moments he goes far beyond these earthly concerns and leaves the listener spinning in space; lost, transfixed, reduced to an infant-like state of wonder, finding solace and comfort all the same in some unseen spiritual presence.
Whether that presence is a 250-year-old spectral grump speaking to us across the centuries or something more divine, I leave to you.
Chris Deerin is a leading journalist and commentator who heads independent non-party thinktank Reform Scotland