The Life of Ludwig Van BeethovenThe Lifeof Ludwig Van BeethovenThe rise of Ludwig van Beethoven into theranks of history’s greatest composers was parallelled by and in some waysa consequence of his own personal tragedy and despair.
Beginning in thelate 1790’s, the increasing buzzing and humming in his ears sent Beethoveninto a panic, searching for a cure from doctor to doctor. By October 1802he had written the Heiligenstadt Testament confessing the certainty ofhis growing deafness, his consequent despair, and suicidal considerations. Yet, despite the personal tragedy caused by the “infirmity in the one sensewhich ought to be more perfect in than in others, a sense which once possessed in the highest perfection, a perfection such as few in profession enjoy,” it also served as a motivating force in that it challengedhim to try and conquer the fate that was handed him. He would not surrenderto that “jealous demon, my wretched health” before proving to himself andthe world the extent of his skill.
Thus, faced with such great impendingloss, Beethoven, keeping faith in his art and ability, states in his HeiligenstadtTestament a promise of his greatness yet to be proven in the developmentof his heroic style. By about 1800, Beethoven was masteringthe Viennese High-Classic style. Although the style had been first perfectedby Mozart, Beethoven did extend it to some degree. He had unprecedentlycomposed sonatas for the cello which in combination with the piano openedthe era of the Classic-Romantic cello sonata.
In addition, his sonatasfor violin and piano became the cornerstone of the sonata duo repertory. His experimentation with additions to the standard forms likewise madeit apparent that he had reached the limits of the high-Classic style. Havingdisplayed the extended range of his piano writing he was also beginingto forge a new voice for the violin. In 1800, Beethoven was additionallycombining the sonata form with a full orchestra in his First Symphony,op. 2.
In the arena of piano sonata, he had also gone beyond the three-movementdesign of Haydn and Mozart, applying sometimes the four-movement designreserved for symphonies and quartets through the addition of a minuet orscherzo. Having confidently proven the high-Classic phase of his sonatadevelopment with the “Grande Sonate,” op. 22, Beethoven moved on to thefantasy sonata to allow himself freer expression. By 1802, he had evidentlysucceeded in mastering the high-Classic style within each of its majorinstrumental genres-the piano trio, string trio, string quartet and quintet,Classic piano concerto, duo sonata, piano sonata, and symphony. Havingreached the end of the great Vienese tradition, he was then faced witheither the unchallenging repetition of the tired style or going beyondit to new creations. At about the same time that Beethoven hadexhausted the potentials of the high-Classic style, his increasing deafnesslanded him in a major cycle of depression, from which was to emerge hisheroic period as exemplified in Symphony No.
3, op. 55 (“Eroica”). In Beethoven’sHeiligenstadt Testament of October 1802, he reveals his malaise that wassending him to the edge of despair. He speaks of suicide in the same breathas a reluctance to die, expressing his helplessness against the inevitabilityof death. Having searched vainly for a cure, he seems to have lost allhope-“As the leaves of autumn fall and are withered-so likewise has myhope been blighted-I leave here-almost as I came-even the high courage-whichoften inspired me in the beautiful days of summer-has disappeared. ” Thereis somewhat of a parallel between his personal and professional life.
Heis at a dead end on both cases. There seems to be no more that he can dowith the high-Classic style; his deafness seems poised inevitably to encumberand ultimately halt his musical career. However, despite it all, he revealsin the Testament a determination, though weak and exhausted, to carry on-“Iwould have ended my life-it was only my art that held me back. Ah, it seemedto me impossible to leave the world until I had brought forth all thatI felt was within me. So I endured this wretched existence.
. . ” Realizinghis own potential which he expressed earlier after the completion of theSecond Symphony-“I am only a little satisfied with my previous works”-andin an 1801 letter-“I will seize Fate by the throat; it shall certainlynot bend and crush me completely”- he decides to go on. At a time whenBeethoven had reached the end of the musical challenge of the day, he alsofaced what seemed to him the end of hope in his personal life. In his Testament,death seems imminent-“With joy I hasten to meet death”-but hope and determination,though weak and unsure, are evident. In the Heiligenstadt Testament the composercomes to terms with his deafness and leaves what is beyond his controlto what must be, trying to make a fresh start.
It is quite evident thatthe Testament is filled with a preoccupation with death-he writes as thoughdeath were at his doorstep, waiting for him to finish his letter-“Farewell. . . Howhappy I shall be if I can still be helpful to you in my grave. . .
With joyI hasten to meet death. Come when thou wilt, I shall meet thee bravely. “He has set his old self-the almost-deaf, tired, hopeless Ludwig- to restthrough the Testament so that he may rise and live again. Beethoven hadstated previously that he has not yet revealed all of which he is capable.
Coming to terms with his condition, he moves on to “develop all my artisticcapacities. ” This eventually leads to his heroic period in which SymphonyNo. 3 in E-flat (“Eroica”) composed in 1803 became one of the early principalworks. The work broke from the earlier Viennese high classic style; manyolder composers and music pedagogues, not able to accept his new style,called it “fantastic,” “hare-brained,” “too long, elaborate, incomprehensible,and much too noisy. ” In fact the style drew much from contemporary Frenchmusic-the driving, ethically exalted, “grand style” elements combined withthe highly ordered yet flexible structure of sonata form. It seems undeniablethen that the Heilingenstadt Testament in which Beethoven came to termswith and put to rest the incurable tragedy of his growing deafness, alsoset forth a determination to prove his skills before death should takehim.
This quest coincided with and perhaps led to his graduation from theViennese hi-Classic style to the development of his own unique heroic style,a blend of French and Viennese elements. The “Eroica” can be viewed asa deliverance of both his life and his career from despair and futility. Beethoven recreates himself in a new guise, self-sufficient and heroic. The Testament thus is likened to a funeral work. The composer sets himselfup as the tragic hero-“my heart and soul have been full of the tender feelingof good will, and I was ever inclined to accomplish great things”-withdrawnfrom the company of men, tortured by his growing deafness, tempted withthoughts of suicide, overcoming despair by the pure strength of faith inhis own music, searching for “but one day of pure joy. ” In a musical perspective,the “Eroica” Symphony established a milestone in Beethoven’s developmentand in music history.
His manipulation of sonata form to embrace the powerfulemotions of heroic struggle and tragedy went beyond Mozart or Haydn’s high-Classicstyle. Beethoven’s new path reflected the turbulence of the developingpolitics of the day (especially the Napoleonic Wars), ignited perhaps bythe hopelessness he felt in himself. He took music beyond the Viennesestyle which ignored the unsettling currents of Beethoven’s terror, anxiety,and death. Indeed he placed tragedy at the center of his heroic style,symbolizing death, despair, and loss-paralleling his own sense of loss,pain and strife. But in addition, like his own triumph over suffering,there is hope, triumph and joy as expressed in the finale of the “Eroica.
“The Heiligenstadt Testament is a prophecyof the greatness to come of Ludwig van Beethoven. At a time in his lifewhere he had exhausted the musical possibilities of the Viennese high-Classictradition and where his growing deafness foreshadowed a diminishing career,Beethoven seemed to have come to halt in 1802. His Heiligenstadt Testamentof that year revealed a soul set to despair and futility. At the same timehowever, despite the looming impossibility of recovery, his ambition tofully realize his musical talent set him to establish a new milestone inmusical history-the creation of the heroic style. Symbolizing struggle,the resistance of morality to suffering, and the triumph over despair,we can see how the heroism of Beethoven’s music reflected his own struggleswith fate and his own triumphs.