Showing posts with label Beethoven250. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Beethoven250. Show all posts

Saturday, May 23, 2020

BEETHOVEN MATTERS


On Tuesday 26 May 6pm, I'm "Dimblebying" for an online discussion about Beethoven, jointly hosted by the Royal Philharmonic Society and Garsington Opera. Originally this was going to happen live and in person, to trail Garsington's Fidelio, which of course is now a distant dream. But the clever people behind both organisations realised that actually we don't have to go anywhere at all: we can broadcast direct from our own homes, together, and reach viewers all over the globe. The mind is boggling and the Beethoven is flowing: this is the music of hope.

My panel will consist of:

Toby Spence - tenor (he was going to sing Florestan at Garsington)
David Owen Norris - pianist and academic extraordinaire
Freya Waley-Cohen - composer, much inspired by Beethoven's Grosse Fuge
Dougie Boyd - conductor and artistic director of Garsington Opera

You can watch the event live, here on Youtube, or here on Facebook, and RPS members will be able to see it thereafter on the RPS website's designated Members' Area (more details on how to find this and sign up for membership here.) We'll be taking questions from whatever the cyber-equivalent of "the floor" is, at the end, so you can post yours in the comments boxes on either viewing site on the night.

Please join us - from the comfort of wherever you happen to be, anywhere in the world!

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

In Portrait: Beethoven, from dignity to madness...

If you are already a subscriber to IMMORTAL, you'll have received this in your in-box. Still, it seems to have gone over quite well, so I am reproducing it for those who haven't got it yet. There's still time to sign up as a patron of the book, here [ahem]. Thanks! x



If you're not yet familiar with the website of the Beethovenhaus Bonn, do please take a look at it. This museum and research centre at the composer's birthplace is the world centre for work on him, and their digital library is a treasure trove, available to view wherever you may be. During the writing of IMMORTAL I have spent innumerable hours online, browsing their collection of letters, images and more. Today I'd like to draw your attention to the section on portraits of Beethoven - and the contrast between those created while he was alive, and others imagined after his death. (Above: a caricature of Beethoven drawn by Anne Marie Steen Petersen, from a BRF record sleeve, viewable in the Beethovenhaus online collection.)
Look at the paintings and etchings of Beethoven as a young man from 1801 to 1806, even as a middle-aged-ish one around 1814. He looks...I don't want to say "normal", because you can detect in these images a certain bearing in his posture, a strength of character in his eyes, a person with what we'd possibly term "attitude". But certainly more "normal" than, say, the drawing above.
Was this man arrogant, aware of his own gifts, more intelligent, focused, hardworking and hot-tempered than most of those who came within his daily orbit? Perhaps: but he was, as an individual, quite believable. Then look what happens later. In the famous portrait in which he holds the manuscript of the Missa Solemnis, the cheekbones are elegant, but the scowl is strengthening; a drawing of him full-length shows him stocky and short-legged, almost a caricature. These pictures were all created before his death in 1827.
Now turn to the next section: depictions after 1827. At first they are honest, scowly, but with that distinguished bearing of confidence and assurance - an inner dignity despite all. Then they begin to change. They become more scowly still, and less controlled. The eyes seem to pop or to lower out from under heavy, gloomy brows; the stance has lost its uprightness. The attitudes begin to be wild. The artists seem to think they are depicting someone eccentric, even ghoulish. Some look downright mad.
They are, perhaps, showing Beethoven as people started to think of him as the years went by and whispers were transforming the composer posthumously from strong yet troubled soul to profound nutcase. Everything becomes exaggerated, Gothic, fit for legend, but little else. It makes headlines and encourages gossip if Beethoven is considered crazy or violent. Posterity had begun to strip him of his dignity and intellectual strength - qualities that simply shine out of those early, actual portraits.
I've seen descriptions of him as "physically ugly" time and again. But those Young Beethoven images - why? Physically ugly? No: he is strong, characterful and full of charisma. Besides, the attraction of a male musical star has never depended upon classic good looks (I've not noticed Hollywood-style matinée idols among the Beatles or the Rolling Stones or any recent pop singers, for instance...). Just because he was short and dark, that is no reason that Josephine or Julie or any other female would have failed to be magnetised by him.
Researching the 19th-century opera singer Pauline Viardot for a words&music project some years ago, I was struck by exactly the same thing: writers kept on describing her as ugly. Even today, some articles still have to harp on the idea that she was ugly. But did that matter to the writer Ivan Turgenev, who was passionately in love with her for most of his adult life? Did it hell. It is commentators, not the people themselves, who appear to believe that only a physical beauty that matches classic preconceptions (ie, tall, slender, smiley and probably blonde) can account for attraction; and some have even been known to argue that an appearance considered less than perfect must discount certain candidates from probability when we look back at their relationships. 
The passage of the years builds up layer upon layer of false "tradition", sensationalised impressions, a distortion of reality. You can sometimes hear it in music too: take the way that the historically informed performance movement has stripped away layers of false tradition in Beethoven, whose symphonies, for instance, had somehow grown heavier and slower and more and more portentous until the mid 20th century. By the 1970s, enough was enough and a whole generation of musical researchers set about returning to original sources, intending to divine the truth of the composer's intentions and the way instruments would have been played in his day. The effects were transformative and have changed, probably forever, the way we listen to his music. 
Yet now, decades on, this approach too is building up its own layers of false tradition and imposing certain mannerisms for reasons that are never adequately explained. For example, one sometimes encounters performances in which phrases that drive forward suddenly fade out towards their end. Why? I've never seen any justification for it, in any score or treatise. Just as playing slowly and portentously used to be, mannerisms of this type are now handed down from generation to generation... Musicologists of the 2050s are going to have some fun unravelling it all.  
Anyway - I shall shut up about that now and get back to work. The book is now in the hands of its editor and I am expecting to see the results from her in about a month's time. This is nerve-wracking. I know it's too long. I also know that whatever you are expecting from it, you will probably find it is something different and I hope you're not too startled.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Happy Valentine's Day, Ludwig...

For Valentine's Day in #Beethoven250 year I've written a chunky piece about the Immortal Beloved for Universal's Udiscovermusic classical section. Here's a sample...

Beethoven at the Piano - painting by Julius Schmidt

After Ludwig van Beethoven’s death on 26 March 1827, his sometime secretary Anton Schindler and two close friends combed through the composer’s last apartment, hunting for some bank bonds he had bequeathed to his nephew. They found more than they had bargained for. In a small drawer, they discovered the Heiligenstadt Testament, in which Beethoven had described his devastating battle with deafness in 1802; and with it, an apparently unsent love letter, addressed only to a woman he terms his ‘Immortal Beloved’...

...So well did Beethoven protect the identity of his Immortal Beloved that musicologists spent around 200 years trying to find out who she was. It is still disputed today.

Something else vital was missing from the letter: a date. Beethoven wrote on it only ‘July 6’. No year. Through matching days of the week with the date, possible years were narrowed down to a shortlist and watermark identification finally settled upon 1812. From that flowed several possibilities...
Antonie Brentano? Julie ("Giulietta") Guicciardi? Bettina Brentano? Therese Brunsvik von Korompa? Or her sister Josephine?

RTR here: https://www.udiscovermusic.com/classical-features/beethoven-immortal-beloved/


Immortal, meanwhile, is with editorial, so I'm biting my nails a bit; not many people have read it and I am too close to it to have much sense of how it will really go over. Happily, I now know it is to have the same editor as Ghost Variations, who was fantastic, and I'm looking forward to polishing it up into final form in the months ahead. (More details about it here...)

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Beethoven meets Shakespeare #1

I've spent some time considering the associations of Beethoven's D minor Piano Sonata Op. 31 No. 2 with "Der Sturm" - as referenced by the not-too-reliable Anton Schindler. In his book on the composer, whose amanuensis he briefly was, Schindler recalled asking Beethoven for the "key" to this enigmatic work and being told "Read Shakespeare's 'The Tempest'" (German: 'Der Sturm').

One has doubts, of course. Nothing with a nickname can ever be totally trusted, unfortunately, and when it's Schindler providing the basis, even less so. I was considering an alternative theory: that in fact Beethoven - assuming he said anything of this kind at all to Schindler, perhaps inaccurately remembered by the latter - had been referring to the poet Christian Christoph Sturm, whose writings he held in high regard and who often considers the wonders of nature, the place of humanity within it and the relation of both to God and the divine order, all of which seem more than pertinent to the atmosphere of this piece.

However, try reading 'Full Fathom Five' from The Tempest and remember it is sung by Ariel, the spirit of the air, and then listen to the slow movement of the D minor sonata. The beginning seems almost to serve as the introduction to a song; then the theme arrives, deep set, full fathom five down, with a high, seagull-like figure decorating the upper register and casting perspective. The harmonies become richer and stranger; and a figure appears in the bass (sometimes, also, the treble) that flickers like a drum roll, or a distant tolling bell.

Both theories actually work. Neither is strictly necessary. But they are wonderful to ponder. Enjoy.


Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
                                             Ding-dong.
Hark! now I hear them,ding-dong, bell.

Here's Ashley Wass with a fine performance. 



If you've enjoyed this post, please consider supporting IMMORTAL, my Beethoven novel due out in the autumn

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

IMMORTAL: my new Beethoven novel, coming soon...





Dear friends and supporters,
If you enjoyed the historical musical mystery of Ghost Variations, you'll love - I hope - my new book currently in the works.
For the past few years I've been reading obsessively about Ludwig van Beethoven's 'Immortal Beloved' - the unnamed addressee of an impassioned love letter that he wrote in July 1812. Supposedly nobody knows exactly who she was, though there have been many theories. Yet when you start looking, you find things... 
Was this woman's identity anything but immortal? Was she deliberately wiped from history by a family terrified of scandal? Was her tragedy - and Beethoven's - perhaps even greater than we thought? I believe so.
While obscure biographies and some terrible translations lurk on dusty shelves, I wanted to present this book as a novel for its roller-coaster emotions, its vivid characters, its you-couldn't-make-it-up plot - and the mulifarious possibilities offered by an unreliable narrator.
The music is ever-present, the piano sonatas most of all: for that is how the majority of Beethoven's admirers would have known him best, through playing his works at the piano, orchestral performances being relatively rare events. The piano sonatas contain, too, some crucial clues - though you'll have to read the book to find out what they are.
I have returned to Unbound for several reasons: first, a publisher in the hand is worth ten in the Writers and Artists Yearbook, especially when there's a topical anniversary to catch, just 23 months away. Secondly, they have done a brilliant job on 'Ghost Variations' and 'Odette' and I trust them completely. And finally - it's fun! I've cooked up a range of rewards at different levels to tempt you in, starting at just £10 for the e-book and a thank-you in the patrons list. But above that you can order an early-bird discount paperback, or two, or five; come with us to hear Vladimir Jurowski conduct the Symphony No.1 at the Royal Festival Hall; attend the launch party (we love launch parties!); sponsor a character and receive a special thank-you on a separate page; or simply make a donation of any amount you like to help turn this project into reality. More rewards are on the way, too, so watch for updates.
On the IMMORTAL page you will find a synopsis, an extract from the book, the complete pledge list, and a video in which I introduce the project and, er, attempt to play Op.111. 
I do hope you will wish to become part of the IMMORTAL family. Your moral support will be crucial as I plough on with the writing. And knowing that you're waiting eagerly for the results is the best spur of them all.
Thank you so much - and here's the link. https://unbound.com/books/immortal/
Love and best wishes,
Jessica