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How to heal the world with Beethoven

Sanjeev Verma | Updated on January 25, 2021

Magic touch: Beethoven once wrote a letter inviting a colleague who had lost a child while giving birth. He played on the piano only for her for several hours. And she was able to return to her family, emotionally healed

A virus swept aside 2020 plans to mark the 250th year of the birth of Beethoven. We need the German composer’s music to heal after a year of turmoil

* While Hitler was trying to appropriate Beethoven for propaganda, his music was actually becoming a symbol of anti-Nazi resistance

* The Fifth, with its four notes — the so-called ‘fate knocking on the door’ — are still inspiring musicians of all genres — jazz, pop, rock, or film music — almost two centuries after Beethoven’s death

* If you are bruised, physically or emotionally, his music is the equivalent of your mother’s warm embrace when you are hurt

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As the doleful hours and days in 2020 turned into weeks and months, we, all of us, you and I, searched for hope. And healing. Or, as the greatest 20th-century poet, Thomas Stearns Eliot, said, “...the fruit of reconciliation and relief after immense suffering”.

That reconciliation and relief for me came consistently through music, more specifically through the music of Ludwig van Beethoven. Struggle and joy are constant themes in Beethoven’s music, and the German composer’s own life was always a struggle, but from that strife emerged glorious music — music that signifies triumph over adversity.

Speaking in Bundestag, the German parliament, recently, the United Nations secretary general António Guterres used precisely that analogy of triumph over adversity to describe Beethoven’s life, a life which showed that despite difficulties, “we must find the space for hope. Even joy”.

To understand this somewhat ubiquitous, even clichéd, association that Beethoven has with triumph over adversity, I spoke to Roland Schatz, a Beethovenist based in Switzerland (apart from being the founder and CEO of the UNGSII, the UN Global Sustainability Index Institute Foundation).

I asked him if Beethoven’s greatest legacy was to have given us music that is emotionally uplifting and cathartic.

Schatz: If we think of music as the only path bringing human beings as close as possible to perfection, Beethoven managed best performing on this imperative. But he goes far beyond clichés: He once wrote a letter inviting a colleague who had lost a child while giving birth and was deeply depressed and unable to talk, to come to his apartment. He played on the piano only for her for several hours. Not a word was said. And she was able to return to her family, emotionally healed. No matter which piece of Beethoven’s music we hear, it is designed to capture the heart, the soul, and your physical being.

We will return to Schatz, but at this point let me recall my own Beethoven experience. I discovered classical music in the Western music library of All India Radio (AIR) in the early 1980s. Until then I had only heard snatches of waltzes from Swan Lake and The Nutcracker on BBC, but knew little or nothing about Tchaikovsky, much less about Beethoven.

I had gone to AIR to announce pop music programmes featuring The Beatles, the Carpenters, or the Swedish foursome Abba — bands that I loved. Once, when asked to present a classical music programme instead, I spent a few hours choosing my music. And that day, hearing several works on the studio cue monitor, I discovered Beethoven.

It was a 33 RPM record of a performance of his Fifth Piano Concerto in E flat major, the Emperor. It had Vladimir Ashkenazy at the keyboard with Georg Solti conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The music was triumphant and uplifting, but it was the middle movement of the Emperor that entranced me.

It had a sylvan, ethereal calm, and a hushed, dreamlike quality which for me conjured up visions of dancing starlights. It became my nine minutes of heaven; music that I have ever since retreated to whether seeking inspiration or solace.

That this serene masterpiece could have been written at a time of great physical and emotional tumult in the composer’s life seems almost improbable. Beethoven was living in Vienna at that time — the first decade of the 19th century — when Napoleon had invaded Austria, and when the composer was on the verge of turning profoundly deaf. In fact, his capitulation to deafness precluded Beethoven from playing the solo part at the concerto’s première in 1812.

He was so distressed by the bombardment of Vienna that he hid for a while in his brother’s basement. He wrote: “The whole course of events has affected my body and soul. What a disturbing, wild life around me; nothing but drums, cannons, men, misery of all sorts.” From the depths of this despair arose perhaps the greatest concerto in the piano repertoire.

So, I asked Schatz if Beethoven’s life proves that great creativity can spring forth from absolute misery.

Schatz: Beethoven would have said that joy and misery are both inextricable parts of our life. It is silly to complain. Music alleviates misery. We are now working with UK’s National Health Service (NHS) to prescribe music as a way of healing and strengthening the human immune system. That NHS has finally accepted that the arts play a more profound role in our healing, and not just in entertaining us, is for me one of the more positive takeaways from the challenge of this year. Beethoven’s music lifts you up. If you are bruised, physically or emotionally, his music is the equivalent of your mother’s warm embrace when you are hurt. His music teaches us empathy. Think of his Ninth, and final, symphony; it is almost like his wrap-up of life: it’s in empathy and humanity that human beings find joy — in the bleakest of circumstances.

Indeed, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the Ode to Joy, exemplifies how his music has meant different things to different people during different phases of recent human history. No other classical composition has been as much a feature of public events or political propaganda as Beethoven’s Ninth.

Performances were organised by trade unions in Germany after World War I, and then during the Third Reich to mark Hitler’s birthday. Rhodesia’s white-supremacist government adopted it as an anthem, and so more recently did the European Union. Leonard Bernstein conducted an orchestra composed of musicians from both East and West Germany as they performed the Ninth Symphonyto mark the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Friedrich Schiller’s poem An die Freude (Ode to Joy) that is set to music in the finale makes this even clearer, with the declarations that “All men shall be brothers” and “Be embraced, you millions! This kiss is for the whole world!”

In the ’30s and ’40s, while Hitler was trying to appropriate Beethoven’s music for propaganda, his music was actually becoming a symbol of anti-Nazi resistance. By 1941, BBC started airing the theme of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphonyat the start of all its wartime broadcasts.

The Fifth, with its four notes — the so-called ‘fate knocking on the door’ — picked up further associations in the 20th century, be they of Allied victory during World War II or through its appearance in commercials and popular culture. The four notes of the Fifth are still inspiring musicians of all genres — jazz, pop, rock, or film music — almost two centuries after Beethoven’s death.

Deutsche Welle, Germany’s broadcaster, recently produced A World Without Beethoven, a documentary to mark the 250th year of the composer’s birth to show how Beethoven was an innovator. In the documentary, Ian Anderson of the band Jethro Tull says we have Beethoven to thank for many famous riffs. Anderson’s hit song Locomotive Breath, for example, only uses four notes. Beethoven, he says, was unafraid to think outside the box. “If he were alive today, he would be the guy who gets really dirty in the mud with his dirt bike.”

Rudolf Schenker, guitarist of the Scorpions, the German heavy metal band, says in the same documentary, that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony motif is the mother of all rock riffs.

No composition in the orchestral repertoire has been as analysed as the Fifth, which has long been a part of the Beethovenian lore. But Beethoven’s own favourites, apparently, were the Seventh Symphony in A Major, and the Eroica, the Third Symphony in E flat major. The Seventh, which German composer Richard Wagner described as the “apotheosis of dance”, is an unstoppable force. Its second movement — allegretto — was described at the time by one critic as “the crown of modern instrumental music”, adding that it speaks inwardly even to those who have no training in music “by means of its naïveté and a certain secret magic it irresistibly overcomes them”.

As for the Eroica, after its first notes were heard in 1805, music was never the same. Its elemental force and emotional depth has meant that it has influenced classical music repertoire like no other composition, with the exception of Beethoven’s own Ninth. At nearly 50 minutes, it was twice as long as any symphony before and it presaged the arrival of the Romantics — Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, et al.

This heroic symphony was initially dedicated to Napoleon, for his revolutionary instincts, but when Napoleon anointed himself Emperor, Beethoven scratched the dedication and called it: Heroic symphony, in the memory of a great man.

The pièce de résistance of this monumental work is its epic funeral march, music of immense grief and profound sadness, passionate and heart-wrenching, presumably reflecting the composer’s deep despair his deafness had brought on.

I’ve only talked about one of Beethoven’s piano concertos, four of his symphonies, but not at all about his piano sonatas (there are 32 of them); the chamber music, including 16 string quartets; a profusion of miniature piano pieces; choral works, including the Missa Solemnis; songs and the An die ferne Geliebte (To the Distant Beloved) song cycle; and Fidelio, the only opera he composed.

I would like to end this acclamation of Beethoven with a celebration of his music by Eliot. Eliot admired Beethoven and his favourite pieces were the Seventh Symphony and the Coriolan Overture. In the late ’40s he had chosen the allegretto from the Seventh for his funeral. And in 1931, he wrote to Stephen Spender, the poet he helped discover: “I have the A minor Quartet (Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15, Opus 132) on the gramophone... there is a sort of heavenly, or at least more than human gaiety, about some of his later things which one imagines might come to oneself as the fruit of reconciliation and relief after immense suffering; I should like to get something of that into verse before I die.”

The slow movement of the string quartet — a hymn of thanksgiving from a recuperating Beethoven (who almost died from intestinal troubles and other debilitations) — is a serene plateau after immense suffering and Eliot wanted to write verse with the same feelings. The result, of course, was Four Quartets, his unsurpassed contemplation of time, universe, and the divine.

Indeed, Eliot’s poem often celebrates the power of music almost as if it were a superior form to words in its ability to capture the timeless moment: “... music heard so deeply/ That it is not heard at all, but you are the music/ While the music lasts”.

 

Heart and soul: No matter which piece of Beethoven’s music we hear, it is designed to capture the heart, the soul, and your physical being, says Beethovenist Roland Schatz

Sanjeev Verma is a writer and broadcaster based in New Delhi

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Published on January 25, 2021
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