The music that Beethoven composed in the last years of his life is distinctly unlike anything else. It is strange, I think; not particularly shocking to modern ears but unsettling nonetheless, even in its most serene beauties. That it is firmly of a piece with the music of its time and place, sharing its language, presentation and basic architecture with other pieces of 19th century classical music, makes it even more so. A lot of music written since then, especially from the twentieth century, has consciously explored and pushed musical boundaries. To my ears (not a scholar’s but an attentive and thoughtful listener’s, I think) much of this music has been unpredictable but in a predictable way, if I can get away with saying that. Beethoven’s late works are unpredictable in an unpredictable way.
Beethoven was a master of development, having the priceless and rare gift for successful composition of long form music. He could take a simple four-note motif and have an entire world of forty-five minutes unfold from that meager beginning with relentless (yet surprising) logic, beauty and power (yes I am thinking of his 5th symphony as the classic example). In some of his later works, however, there was something in this gift of his that he subverted. Much of the effectiveness of good, popular music comes from the trick of creating something that surprises the listener but immediately seems as if it couldn’t have been done any other way. Whether a piece is fast or slow, loud or quiet, giant or small, much of the excitement and anticipation comes from this contrast, this ebb and flow of release and tension. Beethoven did this as well as anybody in the long history of classical music (with the likely exception of Mozart), but as he came into his later years, he pushed and pushed this tension, almost to the breaking point, except he found that there was no breaking point, just an ethereal, invisible and infinite world of notes and form in an unthought-of balance, an otherworldly suspension of beauty and form.
This is most easily seen in his slower works; I think most especially of the third movement of his ninth symphony, which comes as close as I can imagine to the music of the spheres; if I were to be so crass as to imagine a visual setting for this movement it would be the slow, monumental drift of planets and suns between and without each other, with no visible drama in the memory of any human scale of time. The notes drift from one slow, polished, majestic beauty to another without any discernible pace or expected development, free from tension and expectation, until the listener has almost forgotten that he is experiencing a piece of music that is expected to end at all, locked in the eternal orbits and gravities of something else entirely.
I’m exaggerating and simplifying things, of course, in order to make a debatable point. I have no doubt that a musical analysis could show me any number of places in the quoted movement of thematic development, of building tension and following release, of repetition and variation. I hear them too, but I don’t usually receive music in such a scholarly way, and I stand by my previously described impression as a general listener. This just shows that it is nearly impossible to describe in words the essence of why and how a piece of music moves you, why it fascinates, why it surprises, especially with a talent so potent as Beethoven’s. His late works are creations of momentous, ineffable substance.
So why am I wasting words on this at all? I’m not sure, and I suspect I’m really trying to talk more about myself than I am about music or Beethoven, to give people who will read this a glimpse into my own personality. And this brings me to the point I really wanted to make.
One of the more popular dilemmas in classical music history has been how Beethoven could have continued to create such powerful, original and sophisticated music as he descended further into the silence of his latter years. He began to lose his hearing, as far as we can tell, around 1796, when he was 26 years old, and was almost completely deaf by 1811. Many of his most famous works, and all of the works that are considered as being of his ‘late’ period were composed after this time. It must be considered that hearing is among the most essential basic tools for a musician, so how could he have continued on so capably?
To a certain extent, this is easily answered. He was already a very accomplished and brilliant musician at the time he began to lose his hearing, and of course just because you cannot hear things outside your body does not mean that there is silence within the workings of your mind. Beethoven could still imagine and create musical ideas and his musical fluency ensured that he could easily notate them accurately on paper. But as I began to listen to, and became more and more entranced by the mystery and strange character of his later works, I still wondered and marveled at his ability to grow, to explore and develop his musical talents into new worlds of such originality, of such breathtaking scope and variety, of such complete distinction from his earlier works and those of any other musician of that time or time past.
My answer, when it came, seemed obvious yet still was an insight for me of great importance and changed the way I thought about music and art, of creativity and creation and the strange link between a person, his life, his personality and the work he or she makes. Far from being unlikely that Beethoven could have composed this music in his silent years, nobody but Beethoven, in the brilliant, deep isolation that he must have slowly fallen into, battled against, and finally come to some kind of equilibrium with, could have composed it. This is music of the deepest, innermost workings of the human mind and soul, freed from the distractions of the external world and the endless, auditory relationship with reality, free to follow the buried, infinite meanderings of the life within.
Beethoven’s life is the greatest, most moving and strangest artistic journey I know of, and one of the great stories of human spirit, endeavor and perseverance. But that indelible, inexorable link between the shape of his life and the character of his music, also says something equally important about all of us, of the uniqueness of our own lives and the opportunities we have to make something of it that is totally our own. Not many of us have Beethoven’s talent, but nobody can live the life that we do, ourselves, every day of our own respective journeys.