Lawrence Toppman

Looking for love in all the wrong places

By Lawrence Toppman

Remember the 1994 movie “Immortal Beloved”? Its poster showed an improbably dashing Beethoven sitting in a chair, with the arms of an otherwise unseen female wrapped affectionately around him.

That fanciful biography took its title from a letter Beethoven wrote in July 1812 to a woman who has never been identified. The letter began “My angel, my all, my self” and ended “The gods must send what must and what should be for us – Your faithful Ludwig.”

The two likeliest candidates seem to be Antonie Brentano, an affectionate married woman to whom he was drawn, or Bettina Brentano, her sister-in-law by marriage and a younger muse to many men, including Goethe. (She introduced Beethoven to him at the composer’s request; he’d hoped to coax the old man into writing an opera libretto, but that came to nothing.)

Because Beethoven had a profound respect for wedlock, and because Bettina soon became a wife after he met her, he probably didn’t sleep with either. His lifelong bad fortune consistently drew him to women who were married, too young, too flighty, uninterested in him physically or too highly placed socially to accept him as a suitor.

In fact, lasting love of all kinds eluded him after the death of his mother when he was 16. His father beat, humiliated and exploited him. His brothers, neither of whom had any interest in his work except when hawking it to music publishers, went their own ways. He considered one sister-in-law no better than a prostitute and fought her in the courts for custody of her son, Karl. That four-year struggle ended with him gaining guardianship over the 14-year-old in 1820.

As his father had done with him, Beethoven attempted to squeeze music out of his nephew. Karl, uninspired as both a pianist and a composer, reasonably tried to fight free of his uncle’s grasp. He set his mother and uncle against each other, led an unambitious academic life, unsuccessfully attempted suicide in 1826, entered military service the following year and never saw his uncle again.

As this would-be-paternal relationship fell apart, Beethoven stopped seeking loving connections with family members and the opposite sex. Instead, he poured his feelings into music.

When the Missa Solemnis premiered in 1824, he dedicated it to Archduke Rudolf of Austria, his main patron as well as a former pupil and friend. He inscribed Rudolf’s copy “Von Herzen—Möge es wieder—Zu Herzen gehn!” That is, “From the heart – may it return to the heart!” If no individuals loved him deeply, he could still reach out to the heart of the entire world.

The greatest composer? Perhaps. The unhealthiest? Indisputably.

By Lawrence Toppman

Plenty of noteworthy classical composers died young: Juan Arriaga at 19, Lili Boulanger at 24, Pergolesi at 26, Schubert at 31 (the year after he escorted Beethoven’s coffin to the cemetery), Mozart at 35, Purcell at 36, Mendelssohn at 38, Chopin at 39.

But of all those who lived a reasonably full span for their eras, none suffered like Beethoven. Even if you set aside his hearing loss, an extraordinary handicap for a musician, his life seems like a nearly uninterrupted arc of physical misery.

Stomach pains and diarrhea racked him from his teens, possibly because lead leached out of cooking utensils or cheap wines. (Lead had been added to wine to thicken it since Roman times.) For the next 40 years, until he died at 56, these agonies never left him for long.

Friends who knew Beethoven best tolerated his emotional attacks and outbursts – often followed by apologies and repentance – because they knew his melancholy and depression sprang at least partly from pain. Others merely wrote him off wrongly as a misanthrope.

He ultimately endured colic, pancreatitis, what seems to have been an inflammatory bowel disorder, respiratory problems, joint pain, eye inflammation, chronic headaches, tinnitus and cirrhosis of the liver, aggravated by alcohol abuse. Meanwhile, useless treatments for his deafness included the application of leeches and the tourniquet-like fastening of bark from the Daphne mezereum plant to his forearms, which caused them to blister and burn.

Beethoven remained bedridden for months before his death in March 1827, which has been attributed by various sources to liver and kidney failure, peritonitis (inflammation of the fluid lining the abdomen) and encephalopathy, which would explain his disordered mental state.

Only a year earlier, he had composed the serene String Quartet in F, his 16th and last in that form. In his final months, though, he merely jotted notes for a piano piece that never took shape because he lacked the stamina to finish it.

Miraculously, like Mozart writing “The Magic Flute” in ill health months before his death, Beethoven produced some of his happiest music during his unhappiest times. His liver problems intensified as he finished the Ninth Symphony in 1824, yet the final “Ode to Joy” remains the most thrilling 15 minutes he composed. He separated physical agonies from the uplifting beauty he left to the world.

Audio: The Life and Times of Beethoven

Learn what shaped Beethoven’s music through a series of short audio anecdotes from Lawrence Toppman’s collection of posts marking 250 years since Ludwig van Beethoven’s birth. Topics include how he composed some of his greatest works as his hearing declined, why his greatest opera Fidelio had no memorable tunes, how he bombarded audiences with his genius to prove a point, and more.


What the Deaf Man Heard
Most think Beethoven went deaf relatively early, but new evidence suggests Beethoven might have retained partial hearing up to a year before his death.

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The Grim Beethoven?
After studying 46 images online of Beethoven, every painting, sculpture and drawing has one thing in common: He’s never smiling.

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A Disastrous Outpouring of Genius
“One can easily have too much of a good thing – and still more of a loud.”

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The Greatest Opera with No Tunes
How can the most brilliant of Beethoven’s operas not have more memorable tunes?

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The Journey that Saved Beethoven’s Life
Beethoven poured his thoughts into a document that starts with a plea for understanding and ends in his commitment to art

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Ten underrated pieces you should know

By Lawrence Toppman

I compiled a similar list last year for Mozart and enjoyed that journey of rediscovery so much that I’m revisiting the concept. It’s harder for Beethoven: No symphonies or concertos have been overlooked (he wrote too few), and he composed only one opera and one great church work, the Missa Solemnis. Still, treasures remain hidden to the casual fan. Check these out:

Piano trio No. 3 – How many pieces did Beethoven write before Op. 1? This sounds like a trick question, but the answer is dozens. He decided to call his first set of three piano trios Op. 1, because they represented the achievement of a composer ready to make his mark on the world. All are worth knowing, but this one in C minor has the most weight and drive.

“Ah, Perfido!” – For his first major attempt at dramatic vocal music, Beethoven wrote a concert aria of the type favored by Haydn and Mozart. Of course, he made this plaint of an abandoned yet still faithful lover nearly twice as long as theirs at 14 minutes. You hear glimmers of the nobly powerful emotions he would put into Leonore and Florestan’s outpourings in “Fidelio.”

Cello sonata No. 3 – The first piece by Beethoven I studied seriously 50 years ago sticks in my mind as one of his most beautiful, alternately serene and tumultuous. He never wrote a cello concerto, but this sonata – the middle one of five – shows he understood the instrument’s capacities. It’s also his first “with piano” sonata that gives an equal role to the keyboard.

Choral Fantasy – This odd hybrid has never found an audience, but I like it both as a kind of dry run for the Ninth Symphony and on its own wild merits. The long, virtuosic piano introduction leads into a vivid orchestral section and then an uplifting finale for a chorus, which sings about beauty, peace, divine grace and “life’s harmonies,” themes he revisited in his “Ode to Joy.”

Piano Sonata No. 7 – You’ve probably heard the named sonatas – “Moonlight,” “Pathetique,” “Appassionata,” etc. – so I picked this one, though all 32 reward a hearing. Here Beethoven broke away from earlier models, writing four movements instead of three and experimenting with unusual key changes. The second section (largo) hints at tragic slow movements to come.

String quartet No. 10 (“Harp”) – Like the piano sonatas, all the string quartets command attention. I chose this one because it balances Beethoven’s romantic and classical sides so well: The heroic opening movement leads us to expect something other than the traditionally constructed theme and variations of the finale. You can’t pin Beethoven down by style or era.

“The Ruins of Athens” – Beethoven wrote more incidental music for plays and ballets than people realize, and this set – best heard in the revised version with the “Consecration of the House” overture — contains not only his famous Turkish March but a Chorus of Dervishes that’s astonishingly forward-looking. It would be at home in a Rimsky-Korsakov opera of the 1890s.

Serenade for strong trio, Op. 8 – He also wrote many pieces of occasional music to be played at social gatherings, which earned him lots of money (notably his early Septet) and which he later downplayed. This may be the best: elegant, dancelike (both a minuet and a polonaise), starting and ending with sweet-tempered marches. No masterwork, just polished craftsmanship.

“Rage Over a Lost Penny” – Beethoven’s rough, crude sense of humor in person occasionally popped up in his writing, frequently transformed into something more sophisticated: You can hear musical witticisms throughout the Diabelli Variations. “Rage” catches him at his most puckish, as the pianist merrily vents his frustration at being unable to locate a dropped coin.

Concerto for violin, cello and piano – OK, I picked a concerto, because this seldom gets played. It seems at first like a stunt – look how cleverly I weave three soloists into a pattern! – but it’s lively, charming, fun. No other 19th-century composer attempted one, but about 30 composers have taken a shot over the last 100 years. That’s Beethoven: perennially fresh and inspirational.

Beethoven’s Napoleonic complex

By Lawrence Toppman

Four years ago, conductors surveyed by BBC Music Magazine named Beethoven’s Third Symphony the greatest of all time. Yet the “Eroica” started life with a different title: “Bonaparte,” applied while Beethoven saw Napoleon as a symbol of democracy who would sweep away royal houses and assure the rights of the common man.

He tore up his dedication to Napoleon in 1804, when the puppet French Senate named him emperor. “Now he also will trample all human rights underfoot, and only pander to his own ambition!” Beethoven told composer Ferdinand Ries, his student. “He will place himself above everyone else and become a tyrant!”

Beethoven changed the title to indicate to listeners that his ambitious new work – the longest symphony by a major composer to that point – still represented a hero’s journey. But his fascination with Napoleon lasted much of his life.

That shouldn’t surprise us. Both were short, homely, often dislikable men of relatively modest beginnings who elevated themselves to the tops of their professions through unrelenting hard work, single-mindedness and undeniable genius.

Beethoven’s interest in the Frenchman began unofficially in 1796, when he wrote 12 variations for cello and piano on “See, the conqu’ring hero comes” from Handel’s “Judas Maccabeus.” Napoleon had already begun his campaign to break apart the Habsburg Empire and establish “sister republics” to France, and he’s almost certainly the “conqu’ring hero” lauded here.

Despite his subsequent rage at Napoleon’s self-aggrandizement, Beethoven respected him, and the imperial family returned that respect. Napoleon’s brother, Jerome Bonaparte, became King of Westphalia and offered the composer the job of kapellmeister at his court. (Beethoven said no but used that offer as a bargaining chip to solidify his position in Vienna.)

During the French occupation of Vienna in 1809, diplomat Louis-Philippe-Joseph Girod de Vienney visited the composer and reported that Beethoven not only peppered him with questions about Napoleon but expressed grudging respect for his achievements.

In 1813, Beethoven needled the emperor in “Wellington’s Victory,” hackwork which made its composer plenty of money. He wrote this “battle symphony” to commemorate the Duke of Wellington’s defeat of Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother, that year in Spain.

He created the 15-minute potboiler for a mechanical contraption called the panharmonicon, then revised it for orchestra. “Victory” alternates themes associated with the two countries, mainly “God Save the King” for England and “Marlborough has left for the war” for the French. (We know it as the tune for “The Bear Came Over the Mountain.”) Whatever Beethoven may finally have thought about Napoleon, the French get the better music!

The Unholy Grail

By Lawrence Toppman

Nearly 40 years ago, I started buying CD sets of symphonies to take to a tiny apartment in old age, where I’d have room for one box per composer. (That’s how OCD people think.) I did so satisfactorily for Mozart, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Tchaikovsky. Dvořák, Rachmaninov, Shostakovich, even the 104 symphonies of Haydn.

Only Beethoven defeated me. After 12 complete cycles, I have given up the quest.

Sooner or later, Leonard Bernstein became too impetuous, George Szell too rigid, Michael Tilson Thomas too lightweight, Herbert von Karajan too ponderous, John Eliot Gardiner too shallow, Simon Rattle too bland, David Zinman too mechanical. Andre Cluytens comes closest to my ideal in his stereo cycle with the Berlin Philharmonic, but even there the Fifth could blaze more, and the Seventh could be nimbler.

Why should this be? Because Beethoven, more than anyone else, never repeated himself in a symphony. Unlike Mahler or Mozart, who explored a wide range of ideas and feelings but remained fundamentally themselves, Beethoven changed personalities every time.

The elegant First Symphony pays quasi-traditional homage to his teacher, Haydn, whose last symphony had appeared five years earlier. The Second, where Beethoven replaced the minuet movement with a scherzo, shows his sense of wry and sometimes raucous humor. The Third changed the course of composition with its daring length, key changes and other innovations. The Fourth abandons high drama for mellow warmth.

The Fifth sets him battling with a cruel Fate, the Sixth ambling blissfully through a pastoral scene, the Seventh indulging his love of dance rhythms. In the brief Eighth, he revisits his early days as a composer with a light heart but an old man’s irony. The Ninth rockets us to the stars.

What conductor could express all these personalities with equal insight? Even within one symphony – say, the Eroica – nobody finds everything that’s there. The reduced forces of Tilson Thomas’ English Chamber Orchestra lack power but reveal details I have heard nowhere else. Bernstein has tremendous zest in some spots and languishes in others. Gardiner plays parts of it with the right intensity but tramples others to death like a rogue elephant.

Four decades of study have frustrated my space-saving self but revealed an astonishment of riches found in no other symphonic collection. I once figured I’d encounter the “correct” interpretations of Beethoven to take to my deathbed. How glad I am now that they don’t exist!

Beethoven on speed

By Lawrence Toppman

Between 1996 and 2000, musicologist Jonathan Del Mar oversaw a new edition of Beethoven’s symphonies known as the Bärenreiter Urtext. It aimed to follow Beethoven’s original intentions, mainly via stricter adherence to his printed tempo markings.

Conductors John Eliot Gardiner and David Zinman quickly adopted this approach, and their complete series can be heard on the Deutsche Grammophon and Sony labels respectively. To my ears, these interpretations have all the depth, charm and beauty of a paper plate.

I came to know Beethoven via conductors who valued crisp execution (George Szell), high drama (Leonard Bernstein) and a clear musical arc that revealed the composer’s intentions (Andre Cluytens, whose series with the Berlin Philharmonic would be the complete set I’d grab in a fire). All sought Beethoven’s soul; none obsessed over his metronome markings.

I generally admire attempts at historical accuracy, whether from groups trying to reproduce the sounds Bach heard to orchestras that shrink or expand to replicate original performances from Mozart to Mahler. But exact fidelity to Beethoven’s markings, perversely, seems to deliver something the composer really didn’t want.

Johann Nepomuk Mälzel patented his wind-up metronome in the early 19th century, and Beethoven took it up by 1815. (Mälzel also made ear trumpets for Beethoven, at least two of which he seems to have used, and designed the noisy Panharmonicon Beethoven employed in his trashy battle symphony “Wellington’s Victory.”)

In 1817, Beethoven oversaw publication of his first eight symphonies with metronome markings. (He later approved insanely rapid ones for the Ninth Symphony, draining it of majesty if played that way.) Most speeds were faster than current performance practice, a few slower.

But he couldn’t hear his music by then, let alone judge the resonance in rooms where it was played, so he couldn’t adjust his ideas. Also, the general public found his symphonies long and difficult, so he may have been attempting to satisfy them with extra-brisk performances.

Jan Swafford’s excellent biography “Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph” tells us the composer wasn’t absolute in his demands. He quotes a manuscript note: “100 according to Mälzel, but … sentiment also has its tempo and cannot be completely expressed by this number.” Reports by contemporaries say he sped up or slowed down when conducting, according to his moods.

As a child, I owned a paint-by-number set. I scrupulously chose colors according to instructions and carefully painted inside every line printed on the sheet. The Gardiners and Zinmans of the world seem to me to take the same mechanical approach, producing art that’s just as sterile.

Lenny and Ludwig

By Lawrence Toppman

Next week brings the 30th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s death. As I’ve listened to Beethoven recordings this year, I’ve been struck by the intimate connection between the most charismatic conductor of the 20th century and the most important composer of the 19th.

As a member of Tanglewood’s first class of conducting students in 1940, the 22-year-old Bernstein prepared Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony and won the attention of Tanglewood founder Serge Koussevitzky, music director of the Boston Symphony.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, as music director of the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein became the first American conductor to record a complete set of the symphonies with one orchestra. That version of the Third Symphony, still perhaps my favorite of the “Eroica,” came with a lecture entitled “How a Great Symphony was Written.” As a teenager, I heard this insightful teacher break down a masterpiece for the first time, analyzing the opening movement of history’s most revolutionary orchestral work.

Bernstein later recorded another complete set, rather less convincingly, with the Vienna Philharmonic. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, he performed the Ninth Symphony in the German capital, changing the word “freude” in the climactic “Ode to Joy” to “freiheit,” or “freedom.” He augmented the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra with musicians from nations involved in World War II: Germany, Russia, England, France and the United States.

Like Beethoven, he was a first-rate pianist. He recorded eight concertos but played only two composers who predated his lifetime, Beethoven and Mozart. Artur Rubinstein called Bernstein “the greatest pianist among conductors, the greatest conductor among composers, and the greatest composer among pianists.” Wouldn’t that description have fit Beethoven in his day?

And in 1990, two months before he died, Bernstein led the Boston Symphony again at Tanglewood for his 50th anniversary there. Though frail and exhausted, he chose Beethoven’s dramatic Seventh Symphony as the last piece he would ever conduct.

What gave him such a deep identification with Beethoven’s music? Bernstein liked big gestures as a conductor, and Beethoven’s work lends itself to those. Both men were musical polymaths who lived at a high emotional pitch and, as Bernstein’s recently collected letters reveal, remained proud of their accomplishments yet insecure about their impact on society.

Most importantly, each believed the arts have the power to inspire us, heal us and make us better than we ordinarily are. Beethoven grew up with the ideals of the Enlightenment; he wanted music not only to move people but to connect them to fundamental principles of the universe. Think of his exhortations to seek wisdom and fraternal harmony in the “Ode to Joy.” They pose an impossibly tall order for most human beings, but Bernstein shared those sentiments all his life.