I've stood by his piano in Vienna, read a few biographies, I know a few of his symphonies inside out, a lot of his piano music, some late string quartets, the violin concerto in D minor, I know them fairly well and I'm familiar with lots of his other stuff, too. I probably know more Beethoven than the average person, but then the average person has less than two legs; anyway, I know nowhere near enough.
It's a funny thing but the older I grow, the sadder I become at how much of my time I've wasted listening to popular music, how very little I know of shithot incandescent greatness. I'd burn fifty years worth of rock and blues and folk and jazz to power up a few bars of Beethoven's Sixth symphony, or his Fifth, or his Ninth, preferably on a booming Deutsche Grammaphon LP by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philarmonic.
I started listening to what we call classical music in my early twenties, at the prompting of a kindly, older friend and although I've learned and loved a great deal of it I have nevertheless favoured twentieth century UK/US popular music. Too late, now, too old to redress the balance. And I only recently discovered early music, Byrd, Pallestrina, Monteverdi, no chance of becoming remotely familiar with any of that.
In the Hitler war my Dad made some money and my elder brother and sister both had piano lessons but the money had gone by the time my turn came. I've been able to auto-didact, teach myself a lot of stuff, but the piano isn't among it. And on top of family poverty denying me music lessons, at King Edwards, in the second form, I could choose between German and Music, and my Dad insisted that I do fucking German, a foul, guttural and complicated language, spoken by copraphiliacs in discreet spectacles and smart shoes; to this day I know maybe a dozen words of German; if I'd learned composition, harmony, musical appreciation, my life would have been wholly different. I don't blame him, my Dad. Most people do what they think is best for their kids. Even if it's shit. As it often is.
There's nothing wrong with popular music but as Ludwig remarks in this strange little film-cum-concert, difficult is good, the greatest compliment you can pay an artist is to say his work is difficult; I Wanna Hold Your Hand is great stuff and so is Sultans of Swing, but neither are difficult, they're both just singalongs for the Me generation.
The Eroica Symphony was completed as this old house of mine was rebuilt, in 1804; none then here, of course, would have heard it; not for another hundred years would people be able to reproduce music at home, in their drawing rooms, their parlours, their kitchens; and now music retrieval and reproduction are barely a breath away from being accessed via surgical implant.
The film purports to show the genesis of the Third Symphony and recreates the first public performance, a rehearsal, in front of his patron, his patron's family and servants and deploys a proper orchestra playing those shitty old 18th. century instruments; the audience is a handful of people, including the then Maestro, Herr Haydn and a widowed noblewoman who will not, cannot, for reasons of court etiquette, marry the composer, despite their mutual passion, Beethoven, a commoner, is verboten; all the audience talk through the performance - some of them disparagingly and contemptuously - and wander in and out of the orchestra, which is, like the composer, nothing more than the servant of the rich, no awe, no reverence, no fucking respect.. Beethoven, at this stage was not widely considered to be great. By this account, and according to the words spoken by Haydn and by both master and servant, this piece, written to celebrate Napoleon's supposed egalitarianisme, transformed forever the nature of the symphony, putting, for the first time, the composer's emotional maelstrom at the centre and throughout the composition. Everything is changed, now, grumbled a wearily moribund Haydn. Don't know if Haydn lived to hear Beethoven's Grosse Fugue, opus 130 but that is properly upsetting stuff, beside which the Third is a walk in the park. But Haydn was correct, Beethoven, by inserting himself so boldly, overturned the idea of artist as jobsworth servant of patron, making him or her, instead and properly, the servant of Art.
The production is really a filmed period concert with some dramatised inserts, but it's beautifully filmed and played especially tyhe First movement, and is - in the nature of the relationship between artist and patron - revealing and heartrending. The film closes with Beethoven's student informing him that the egalitarian Boney has just, in Paris, had himself crowned Emperor, thus depriving himself of Beethoven's dedication of the symphony a Bonaparte, not, of course, that the wee fella would have given un fuck de l'avion.
It's an old film now, this, but if you haven't seen it, as well as being musically magnificent, it will provide a salutory illustration, a reminder, of the now irritating ubiquity of all forms of music and of course of the devaluation attendant upon that questionable consumer blessing; part of the legacy of the late, odd, Jobs man.
Buy my shit. It'll make you feel clever.
But not as clever as me.
But not as clever as me.