RRecently, I experienced one of those moments where disparate bits of knowledge suddenly realign and a connection appears, as clearly obvious as it was hidden just now. I was listening Fritz Wunderlich’s glorious rendition of Beethoven’s song cycle, An die ferne Geliebte (To the distant beloved). These six songs are an outpouring of the romantic lyrical longing felt by the protagonist, facing the insurmountable distance between him and his beloved.
Had it not been ennobled by the purity of Beethoven’s music, the poetic imagery of the cycle might have been banal. The verses speak of hillsides and valleys, birds and streams, clouds and sunsets, all invoked as symbols of the singer’s yearning or as possible messengers from him to his beloved. However, in the sixth and final song, a stronger link is found between them: the music itself. The singer asks his beloved to sing the songs that he himself had sung, without ingenuity, from the fullness of his heart. So, he says, whatever has separated them will fade and their hearts will meet. Beethoven expresses this thought first with a beautiful touching, loving and tender melody, and then with an almost delusional exuberance, representing the union of hearts.
I must have heard this song dozens of times, but suddenly this image, music as an intangible link between hearts, connecting people who cannot be close to each other, felt like lightning in a clear sky, bringing Beethoven closer to me. in 2020 than he has done a whole year exploring his music. Instead of stepping into the musical worlds he created, I felt this brought Beethoven to mine: a year lived in the shadow of physical separation from those we love, when streaming music from home was often the only way. where musicians could communicate, asking for music to also act as our messenger, linking heart to heart, from smartphone to smartphone. And after having been without live concerts for several months, and missing them terribly, both as a performer and as a listener, for the first time I had an idea of what it must have meant to Beethoven, whose deafness prevented him from meaningfully experiencing live music. in the last decade of his life.
That Beethoven became the musical companion of our own isolation was pure coincidence. 2020, the year of the pandemic, also turned out to be the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. This is as round a date as one could hope to experience productively in their lifetime, and the international classical music community was preparing an out-of-this-world cornucopia of Beethoven. Symphonic cycles, string quartet cycles, sonata cycles, opera productions, festivals, documentaries, podcasts – 2020 was going to be saturated with the music of Beethoven. But as concerts around the world were canceled and the external trappings of our planned celebration disappeared, it was precisely Beethoven’s music that remained with us. And with an almost total change in our daily lives, it was perhaps inevitable that, along with a reassessment of our own plans and priorities, we would have begun to listen to Beethoven with different ears.
To be clear, Beethoven needed and does not need a reevaluation. His music is immortal and inextricably intertwined with the heritage of humanity. For many of us, it is as obvious as air. It belongs to a small handful of timeless giants who make us rejoice in wonder or silence us in disbelief, so unreachable that they stand in the fiery glow of their genius. And yet, he can make us love and accept ourselves a little more, simply by belonging to the same humanity as him.
A great hidden treasure, Beethoven’s creativity covers every conceivable emotion and mood. Is it a high tension drama we want? the Fifth symphony wave Passionate it will move us from the first notes. A deep tragedy? The funeral march at the Eroica Symphony he can rival Shakespeare in greatness of spirit. A sultry and gloomy gothic soundscape? the Moonlight is there for us. A dose of crazy modern polyphony? the Big gap continues to surprise and disconcert us to this day, 194 years after its composition.
But when day after day this year brought confusion with little hope of respite, we began to appreciate different facets of Beethoven’s music and character, aspects that might have had less immediate appeal on safer and more welcoming days. For me, while working on the cycle of 32 sonatasThe biggest discovery, which quickly became a true source of mental support, was the unshakable and unstoppable vital energy that I began to feel in everything that Beethoven wrote. No matter the mood, no matter the emotional color, there was life and warmth behind every note he played or heard. His music beats with him. I must have felt it before, but I have not paid enough attention to it or most likely took it for granted. In 2020, it was unmistakable and very comforting.
Now I could also relate strongly to what my friends in the Pavel Haas Quartet called the “protagonist sense.” In Beethoven’s music, there is always someone acting; fate does not succumb or is simply described, fought with and overcome. This sense of musical agency was a wonderful (if escapist) antidote to the feeling of helplessness that often threatened to overwhelm me during the lockdown months of spring.
And from a purely hedonistic point of view, I became addicted to the sheer beauty of Beethoven’s slower movements. From the first works that he published, he sought poetic beauty; his search reached a transcendent and visionary peak in his last piano sonatas and last string quartets. Listening to the slow movement of the quartet in A minor, Op 132, written after Beethoven had recovered from a serious illness that he feared would be fatal, was an almost indescribable soul-purifying and transformative experience. For me, this movement alone can answer the question of why Beethoven is still necessary or relevant in 2020, or any year for that matter.
The last time I played with the orchestra before the start of the confinement was the cycle of the five Beethoven concerts in Brussels, in a crowded room, warmly surrounded by the orchestra seated in a now hardly imaginable closeness. My first time playing with an orchestra since then was only two months ago, performing Beethoven’s fourth concerto in Liverpool, before a small audience in the majestic Philharmonic Hall, surrounded by my very dear colleagues from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, scattered sparsely on a socially distant stage. In many ways, this second experience was one of the most moving I have ever had. After this year, a live concert was not a fact, creating music with other musicians was not a fact. And playing the first soft G major chords in the silence of 200 people who came in person to hear us perform Beethoven’s most intimate and personal concerto was by far the least given of all. 2020 transformed everyone into something precious, something that now feels fragile, that needs love and protection.
Having lived 2020 with Beethoven as my constant companion, I draw hope from both his music and the indomitable spirit behind it. A spirit that allowed Beethoven to conceive and bring to this world radiant music even in the face of the greatest personal or external adversities (I can’t help but think of the piano concerto “Emperor”, written during the bombing of Vienna in 1809). Beethoven’s music, as I see it now, is overwhelmingly life-affirming and certain that, despite any darkness, despite any tribulation, a new and brighter day will come.
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