Thursday, December 17, 2020

Live only in your art

Beethoven, possibly the world’s greatest composer, was baptised - his birth date being unknown - 250 years ago today. Although not a diarist of significance, he did leave behind some diary fragments from a Tagebuch or day book he started around 1813. The very first entry refers, enigmatically, to someone called A, possibly his ‘Immortal Beloved’. Otherwise, though, his diary jottings seem mostly religious/metaphysical.

Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany, during the last weeks of 1770. Although the exact date of his birth is not known, records do show that he was baptised on 17 December. His father, a musician at the electoral court, taught him at home, but he also received instruction from, and was employed by, Christian Gottlob Neefe, a composer and conductor. For a while after his mother died, when he was 17, Beethoven supported his brothers since his father by this time was an alcoholic. In 1792, he moved to Vienna where he studied with Joseph Haydn and others, and where he established a reputation, first as a piano player, and then as a composer.

Unlike other musicians who relied on the church or the royal court for an income, Beethoven pursued an independent path, making a living through public performances, sales of his music, and grants from patrons. Nevertheless, he often had financial problems. He was also often beset with emotional difficulties - such as when Antoine Brentano, possibly she who Beethoven referred to as ‘Immortal Beloved’ in letters, broke up with him. During the so-called early period, he composed his first and second symphonies, his first two piano concertos, as well as string quarters and piano sonatas, including the famous Pathétique.

During a middle period, when he began to go deaf, Beethoven composed heroic works, not least six symphonies and his last three piano concertos. Beethoven’s ninth symphony and his last string quartets and piano sonatas were written in the so-called later period, which lasted from 1816 to 1826. He died in 1827. Further biographical information can be found at WikipediaGramaphone, or Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Beethoven was not a committed diarist, and there are only fragments included in Beethoven: Letters, Journals and Conversations first published in English in 1951 by Thames and Hudson (edited and translated by Michael Hamburger). There are very few extracts from these fragments available on the internet (see The Diary Junction for links), but William Kinderman refers to them in his biography, Beethoven, published by Oxford University Press in 1997, and much of this is available to view on Googlebooks. Here are three paragraphs from Kinderman’s book.

‘In 1813 [Beethoven] experienced a creative impasse that was undoubtedly linked to his personal life. He produced virtually nothing of artistic importance during that year. There is evidence, moreover, that his life was in disarray during the aftermath of the ‘Immortal Beloved’ affair. At about this time he began a Tagebuch, or personal diary, that he kept for six years, until 1818. An excerpt from the very first entry reads as follows: You may not be a human being, not for yourself, but only for others, for you there is no more happiness except within yourself, in your art. O God! give me strength to conquer myself, nothing at all must fetter me to life. Thus everything connected with A will to go destruction.

A may refer to Antonie Brentano, from whom Beethoven was presumably attempting to disengage himself. Several other entries in his diary document Beethoven’s intention to embrace art while rejecting ‘life’, reflecting a disposition akin to Arthur Schopenhauer’s ‘negation of the will to life’ . . . Beethoven writes in an 1814 entry in the Tagebuch that ‘Everything that is called life should be sacrificed to the sublime and be a sanctuary of art’. Another, later inscription reads, ‘Live only in your art, for you are so limited by your senses. This is therefore the only existence for you’.

[Some] have suggested that Beethoven visited prostitutes around this time . . . That Beethoven would have felt guilt about such encounters may be surmised from entries in his Tagebuch like the following . . : ‘Sensual gratification without a spiritual union is and remains bestial, afterwards one has no trace of noble feeling but rather remorse.’ ’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 17 December 2010.

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