Beethoven – the answer to life


Forgive a slightly longer missive: Beethoven demands it.

You are going to read, and probably hear, a great deal about this complex man during 2020, this being the 250th anniversary of his birth.

I am no expert, no musicologist, just an amateur enthusiast, but Ludwig van Beethoven gets my vote as being one of the most influential people ever to walk the planet. The simple truth is that he threw away the rule book, and nothing in music, perhaps even the wider arts, was the same after him.

I remember the precise moment I first heard his music. I was taken as a young child to one of the early Charlie Brown films. Along with Linus and Snoopy the dog, Schroeder is Charlie Brown’s closest friend. But the other passion in Schroeder’s life is Beethoven. He is, you might say, nuts about him.

During the film, Schroeder plays the slow movement from the Pathétique sonata, and I went home resolved to learn the piece. (Battling the two outer movements came some years later. This became something of a pattern for me – ‘Oh, I could play that!’, only to discover that Beethoven rarely composed simple stand-alone works.)

Readers of these posts will know that Schubert is my favourite composer. And yet if I  had to single out the composer who has had the greatest impact on me in so many ways, it would have to be Beethoven. In the context of classical music, I am minded to replace the word ‘music’ in John Miles’s famous lyric to read ‘Beethoven was my first love and he will be my last.’

Why so?

It may sound hokey, but in Beethoven’s music you have everything of what it means to be human. Schulz’s cartoon above is more than just funny. Beethoven’s irascibility, temper, sartorial obliviousness, hopeless love-life, manifold dwellings, and general defiance of almost everything, are well known; as is his near thirty-year struggle with deafness, surely the cruellest possible affliction for a musician.

All of these traits and frustrations are writ large in his music: never before has the personality of a composer been so glaringly exposed in his output, be it symphony, concerto, sonata, overture, choral or chamber. All his music articulates life itself.

Lest you feel tempted to charge me with spewing out sentimental nonsense, let me try and demonstrate it with a piece of music with which you may not be familiar.

Beethoven wrote sixteen string quartets, a format first used by Haydn, then developed by Mozart. Conveniently, these fall into three periods in his life, early, middle, and late; and it is the slow movement of one of the late ones, no.13, which sums up humanity more than any piece I know.

Oh no, he’s going all heavy on me now, I hear you groan. Hold on.

Nothing demonstrates the difficulty of writing about music better than this. That’s because the Cavatina, as it is called, has no tune per se that will leave you humming it later. It’s not about melody, it’s about feeling. Marked molto espressivo, you may not ‘get’ it at first. I didn’t. But after a few listens, you will want to submit to its profound and ineffable beauty, yearning for it to go on when it comes to a sudden halt. At its centre is a searing violin. The music soon engulfs you in this heart-wrenching blanket of tenderness. About half way through comes a brief ‘choke’, a change of tempo, and it is widely believed that a blotch on the original score is a teardrop from the composer.

Beethoven could only hear these notes in his head – he couldn’t try it out on a keyboard. Composed less than two years before he died, you can feel the aching sorrow of his condition, but also a sense that after all the bang, crash, wallop we tend to associate with Beethoven, this, more than anything else, (and he wrote some truly gorgeous slow movements) is the purest summation of the man, his music, his life – and, by extension, humanity itself.

If that consigns me to Pseuds’ Corner, well – show me the way. But not before you’ve clicked the image.




15 thoughts on “Beethoven – the answer to life”

  1. Thanks Nick. I’m just thumbing through the double bass part of the 9th which we are playing in Burgess Hill in 4 weeks time – first rehearsal in 2 days time! Bricking it!

    Will have a good read of the below.. is that the pic of the Quartetto Italiano by any chance?

    PS the latest discovery about Beethoven is news of his favourite fruit…. Baa- nana-naaa..

    Oh dear

    Paul Bendit Endlewick House Arlington East Sussex BN26 6RU


    1. Excellent, thank you! Hope you enjoy it, I find it intensely moving. Good luck with the 9th – surely one of the loveliest slow movements of all his symphonies – a bit like unraveling a large ball of wool.


  2. 366 days make up 2020. And on every one, in dozens of countries across the globe, the music of Beethoven will be performed by or listened to by millions. Music created by one solitary being, borne 250 years ago. Apart from J.S. Bach and W. A. Mozart, it is hard to know which other (non religious) figure has, or will ever have, that level of accessible impact across the entire human race.


  3. Yep that Cavatina is the oasis in a desert for me.. as I struggle to get my head around the rest of the late quartets. But I am still young….

    You just get the sense that he’d taken music to beyond the age he lived in

    On a slightly more interesting note… I’ve just come back from Austria, where the news is that a group of Vienna based musical archeologists have just exhumed Beethoven’s body. To their surprise, they found him sitting up surrounded by all his manuscripts and a pencil in his right hand, crossing out each note one by one. He was decomposing.

    Paul Bendit Endlewick House Arlington East Sussex BN26 6RU


  4. Thank you so much for your thoughts! I fell in love with the string quartet no. 15 in A minor op. 132 while reading Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus. I can already see I will fall in love with this one as well. 🙂


  5. There is no way that you could be a candidate for pseuds’ corner, Nick, you write so beautifully. Thank you for this article about the complex genius Beethoven. I first met him when, as a child, I learned Sonatina in F. I practised and practised for a competition and every note was firmly in my head. Came the day, I played with confidence until I blanked completely as the penultimate page was turned! A miserable journey home followed.
    I love his music.


    1. Oh dear, oh dear, nightmare! I’m so grateful for your generous comments – you never know what people are thinking when you put yourself out there, but feedback like this makes it all worth it to me, thank you.


  6. What a wonderful heart felt review. I love your postings – just because you don’t get much feedback, don’t think they aren’t appreciated! Love Flora


    1. Really lovely to see you today. This might amuse you. If you go to BBC home page and click on ‘More’ top right, select radio. Then R3 and full schedule for today, Thursday. Choose Essential Classics at 9am and go 2’30” in. Subject of this post / had quite forgotten I’d suggested it, so got a bit of a shock!
      Sorry not to have spoken more, but email is xx


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