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Gramophone’s Beethoven

After years of collecting a variety of essential reference materials like biographies and letters of composers, I found a hidden inclination, or a blind impulse, towards Beethoven.

There is a reason for obtaining more than 4.000 pages of biographical material and spending nearly two years on Beethoven. Despite other composers had frantic details in their biographies, none were vulgarized like him.

Nearly every essay written on Beethoven, regardless of the medium, had an aptitude for blending fiction and fact which could be easily spotted by any ordinary biography reader. Sadly, Gramophone was not an exception.

The article written by Jeremy Nicholas could have been easily escaped from attention if it was published in an ordinary issue but not 250th anniversary edition.

Here I attempt to summarise my criticism on Jeremy Nicholas’s “Beethoven: A Life of Music” article.


Beethoven was convinced that the ‘van’ in his name indicated noble birth and he allowed the rumour to circulate…

Beethoven did not convinced himself with such illusion. His statement at the examination in court on December 11th:

Court: Were he and his brother of the nobility and did he have documents to prove it?

Reply: “Van” was a Dutch predicate which was not exclusively applied to the nobility; he had neither a diploma nor any other proof of his nobility.


In fact his family was of Dutch descent. His grandfather had been a choir director in Louvain….

His grandfather Ludwig (b. 1712) was appointed to St. Pierre church as deputy choir chief for only 3 months term in October 1731. (Donald W. MacArdle, The Family van Beethoven)


At 14, the Elector Maximilian made him deputy court organist.

Beethoven was not appointed assistant organist in 1785 by Max Franz at the instance of Count Waldstein, but at the age of 13 in the spring of 1784 by Max Friedrich, and upon his own petition supported by the influence of Neefe and of Salm-Reifferscheid.


The most heart-rending demonstration of his affliction is the famous occasion of the premiere of the Ninth Symphony in May 1824, which the composer insisted on conducting himself, though stone deaf. It’s said that as the Symphony ended, Beethoven was several bars adrift from the orchestra and chorus and continued to conduct…

Beethoven neither insisted nor conducted the premiere. In the letter which Beethoven dictated to Schindler for Duport (below), were named Sontag, Unger and Preisinger (bass) as solo singers, Umlauf and Schuppanzigh as leaders, the orchestra and chorus were to be augmented from the amateur forces of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde.

The official announcement of the concert read as follows:

GRAND MUSICAL CONCERT by MR. L. VAN BEETHOVEN

[…]

The solos will be performed by the Demoiselles Sonntag and Unger and the Messrs. Haizinger and Seipelt. Mr. Schuppanzigh has undertaken the direction of the orchestra, Mr. Chapelmaster Umlauf the direction of the whole and the Music Society the augmentation of the chorus and orchestra as a favor.

Mr. Ludwig van Beethoven will himself participate in the general direction.


His last words were reported to have been: ‘I shall hear in Heaven.’

The only witnesses of Beethoven’s death were his sister-in-law and Anselm Hüttenbrenner. From the latter we have a description of the last scene:

Frau van Beethoven and I only were in the death-chamber during the last moments of Beethoven’s life. After Beethoven had lain unconscious, the death-rattle in his throat from 3 o’clock in the afternoon till after 5, there came a flash of lightning accompanied by a violent clap of thunder, which garishly illuminated the death-chamber. (Snow lay before Beethoven’s dwelling.) After this unexpected phenomenon of nature, which startled me greatly, Beethoven opened his eyes, lifted his right hand and looked up for several seconds with his fist clenched and a very serious, threatening expression as if he wanted to say: “Inimical powers, I defy you! Away with you! God is with me!” It also seemed as if, like a brave commander, he wished to call out to his wavering troops: “Courage, soldiers! Forward! Trust in me! Victory is assured!”[182]. When he let the raised hand sink to the bed, his eyes closed half-way. My right hand was under his head, my left rested on his breast. Not another breath, not a heartbeat more!

This statement is hardly eligible since the transcript in Mr. Thayer’s note-book of Hüttenbrenner’s oral recital is more sententious and dramatic: “At this startling, awful, peal of thunder, the dying man suddenly raised his head from Hüttenbrenner’s arm, stretched out his own right arm majestically—‘like a general giving orders to an army’. This was but for an instant; the arm sunk back; he fell back; Beethoven was dead.”

Mr. Thayer visited Hüttenbrenner in Gratz in June, 1860. His transcript of what Hüttenbrenner told him is reprinted in “Music and Manners in the Classical Period,” by Henry Edward Krehbiel (New York, 1898):

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