“He had become a public figure, as no composer had done before. Unlike composers of the preceding generation, he had never been a purveyor of music to the nobility he had lived into the age —indeed helped create it — of the artist as hero and the property of mankind at large.” — The Grove Concise Dictionary of Music
These are the last lines in the dictionary’s entry on Beethoven. Not a lengthy biography, by any means — a couple of pages, no more. Still, it is enough to indicate to me how little I really know about him, despite my childhood association with him. My mother, a pianist (though she would only allow herself, “A piano player”) encouraged that association. Mom probably misinformed me by telling me, as I sat at the wonkily detuned family upright, that Ludwig Van and I shared the same birthday, December 11. The Grove Dictionary only informs us of his baptism on December 17. Mom knew everything; I cannot for the life of me recall her using the phrase, “I don’t know,” ever.
The occasion to test my knowledge of Beethoven was seeing the online listing for the Old Globe Theatre’s production of Hershey Felder’s Beethoven as I Knew Him, which opened May 3. Not a Friday but a Saturday, though the production will be available for audiences on subsequent Fridays through June 8. Just seeing the title brought a Proustian flood of childhood memories via a laptop screen in lieu of a madeleine. On the heels of these memories came the realization that most of them were not memories at all but confabulation, much like my supposed knowledge of Beethoven. I had ascribed his famous scowl to issues identical to those from which my own unhappiness stemmed (Freudian mother sorts of things, unbridled and misunderstood genius and sensitivity, frustrated musical abilities). Staring at the Old Globe notice and the name Beethoven, I became certain I was wrong about at least two out of three assumptions regarding the composer. I also resolved to see the play but to set expectations aside. I had, after all, no desire to reduce any mystery surrounding the famous genius, just ignorance or wrong-headedness.
“As a pianist, it was reported, he had fire, brilliance, and fantasy as well as depth of feeling.” — Grove
Well, that was me, maybe minus the brilliance; and my “depth of feeling” usually amounted to maudlin, saccharine, and pretentious passages barely suitable for a third-rate rock opera. “He pursued his studies, first with Haydn, but there was some clash of temperaments and Beethoven studied too with Schenk, Albrechtsberger, and Salieri.” Something else I didn’t know, that he had studied under the recently much maligned Antonio Salieri. I do not blame F. Murray Abraham for this, but those who took his interpretation and dramatic license as gospel and will forevermore, after the film Amadeus, link the name Salieri with the mediocre; the venal, even, possibly the murderously envious. Grove helps out here too, on another page. “There is little evidence of any intrigues against Mozart, still less of the charge of poisoning.” Salieri is, in fact, not mentioned at all in Grove’s entry on Mozart.
One paragraph fragment about the opera Fidelio struck me as hilarious. “Here the heroic theme is made explicit by the story, in which (in the post–French Revolution ‘rescue opera’ tradition) a wife saves her imprisoned husband from murder at the hands of his oppressive political enemy. The three string quartets of this period (Op. 59) are similarly heroic in scale: the first, lasting some 45 minutes, is conceived with great breadth, and it too embodies a sense of triumph as the intense f Minor Adagio gives way to a jubilant finale in the major embodying (at the request of the dedicatee, Count Razumovsky) a Russian folk melody.”
I could all too well see a Woody Allen opera parody entitled Infidelio, in which the heroic theme is undermined by both tuba and accordion passages. In Infidelio, the wife of the mayor smuggles deodorant to Armenian terrorists, all depicted instrumentally in the Latvian Klezmer mode....
“Fidelio, unsuccessful at its premiere, was twice revised by Beethoven and his librettists and successful in its final version of 1814. Here there is more emphasis on the moral force of the story. It deals not only with freedom and justice, and heroism, but also with married love, and in the character of the heroine Leonore, Beethoven’s lofty, idealized image of womanhood is to be seen. He did not find it in real life; he fell in love several times, usually with aristocratic pupils (some of them married), and each time was either rejected or saw that the woman did not match his ideals. In 1812, however, he wrote a passionate love-letter to an ‘Eternally Beloved’ (probably Antonie Brentano, a Viennese married to a Frankfurt businessman), but probably the letter was never sent.”
I am pretty thoroughly unfamiliar with Fidelio, that is to say, ignorant. But the deal with Beethoven and women is so very familiar. While I may not personally relate (I’ve never had a thing for married aristocrats, and I’ve never had much in the way of “ideals” when it comes to women...happy, pretty much, with what I could get), I certainly have known my share of wildly deranged and presumptuous men who have hypocritically rigorous standards for the behavior of women. That Beethoven may have been much like a long-ago roommate of mine struck me as sobering and sad. I wondered if Ludwig also considered all women whom he found attractive but who did not return his interest to be lesbians.
I am very keen on seeing this play, even assuming it will be ineluctably, to some extent, a musical; it at least will be Beethoven’s music. Another assumption. Beethoven as I Knew Him is bound to be wildly different from the Beethoven as I knew him, since, in the end, I never really did.