Beethoven 3 Essay, Research Paper
Events of the day matter less in a study of Beethoven (1770-1827) than they do in most other composers. However, certain factors need to be taken into consideration when one is looking at his composition method. He never moved from Vienna and only ever left the city for any lengthy period either to take a summer holiday – which was only a holiday in the sense that he could devote himself to composition more entirely without interruption – or to visit Baden and elsewhere for the sake of his general health or in his attempts to find a cure for his deafness. In Vienna his success as a composer centred around performances in friends houses or in the concert hall. He was not always in poverty but never became rich and died poor. Almost the whole of the remainder of his life story is the series of difficulties he had with money matters, his troubles with sponging relatives, the opposition to his work by professional musicians and the faithful admiration extended to him by amateurs.
Outside the purely personal considerations one must not overlook the drastic changes which passed over the whole of European society in Beethoven’s lifetime. Twice during the most productive part of Beethoven’s life, Vienna was occupied by Napoleon’s armies but his work went steadily forward. Nevertheless, the ideas that brought those armies into existence was sweeping across Europe. The spirit of independent thought and action was stirring and it was this that eventually gave birth to the inventive genius of the 19th century. It animated the poetic thought of Goethe and Schiller and infused itself into the music of Beethoven from the Sonata Appassionata to the ninth symphony.
This spirit might be the strongest reason for Beethoven’s slow working and his comparatively small output. Haydn and Mozart could turn out symphonies and quartets by the dozen because they accepted certain principles of order without question. Beethoven, on the other hand, considered every work a matter of strong personal conviction. When, in later life, he looked back at earlier works he was disgusted by how much he had taken for granted. Now he felt that his ideas as he first put them on paper did not represent his feelings truly and accurately. He adopted the plan of putting them down just as they came, merely catching a glimpse of his though as it passed. Then he sifted them, discovering what part really represented that thought; what was the chance of the moment or due to mere convention of style. And so, rejecting the latter and perfecting what he felt to be genuine, he gradually formed his melodies, extended them, and moulded them into complete shape.
Beethoven adopted the habit of sketching in innumerable notebooks. He always carried one with him, made of rough greyish paper, more like wrapping paper than for writing, crudely sewn, presumably by himself. A great many of these notebooks with their priceless contents have been lost, but a good number remain and are, thanks to the efforts of Gustav Nottebohm (1817-1882) in deciphering them, valuable evidence of Beethoven’s method of working. The sketches are often either nearly illegible or in a personal shorthand, and their elucidation was a work of great patience and, often, insight. Because Beethoven habitually adopted this method of sketching, it has often been assumed that he was a very laborious composer, and it tends to be forgotten that he was naturally as fluent as any of his predecessors, not excluding Mozart. He himself remarked that sketching was a “bad custom”, either because he may have felt it interfered with his natural spontaneity, or because he may sometimes have thought he was wasting time in jotting down everything and anything that occurred to him. But there was no real alternative for him – he was breaking new ground all the time and must therefore go warily.
Slowness is the first quality in Beethoven’s character making him typical of the change of attitude of musicians towards their art at the turn of the century. Had he been content to compose for the calculated satisfaction of his patrons there can be no doubt that, like Haydn, he would have produced a vast quantity of finished work, much of it consisting of masterpieces of the kind he must have felt were already too numerous in the world. Beethoven was not, it is important stress, an iconoclastic revolutionary, and a great deal of the music he did write was successful in fulfilling purposes similar to those of Haydn in many of his finest works. He saw nothing wrong in this, being fundamentally a man of the Enlightenment, and he regarded his music as a solace to the spirit as much as an exploration of it. The older he grew, however, the more instinctively exploratory he became, with the result that the sketching habit was more and more necessary to him. His sketchbooks show that all his major works were the result of long thought and mental struggle during which he gradually shaped them out by a process of writing and rewriting.
It is often said that Beethoven’s ideas were hammered out from crude beginnings, flat commonplaces being transformed into deathless utterances by dint of sweating modification, note by note. On the face of it, it would seem to be so. One has only to look at some of the early sketches for a masterpiece to be amazed at the crudity of them. The sketch, for instance, for the beautiful slow movement of the second symphony compared with the finished phrase. Other examples can be found that are even more crude but it is nevertheless wrong to assume that the true process is indeed from the crude to the polished. In composing Beethoven is like an astronomer looking at a distant object. At first unable to see it clearly in detail, he refines his methods or his instruments and gradually comes to realise what it is. The great nebula in Andromeda was for a long time nothing more than a hazy patch in the sky, but it was eventually revealed in detail by powerful telescopes and by long-exposure photography as a vast galaxy of stars. So with Beethoven the finished idea was always there; his struggle was to find its form. Nothing short of certainty of this fact could have kept him going and to suppose that he threw down commonplaces in the hope of turning them into something is to be very naive indeed. Beethoven was like the sculptor who pointed out that all you had to do was to chip away the stone to find the statue inside. But he must know it is there or he will never find it.
One thing must be borne in mind – a composer’s inspiration is not in the least affected by the process of composition; even a process as apparently laborious as Beethoven’s. Much nonsense has been written about inspiration – that a composer ought to write down everything on the spur of the moment, conceive a symphony in a flash and never rest until the score is completed. True, there have been those who could work like that; Mozart must often have done so and Schubert certainly did. But Beethoven’s inspiration came before he put anything on paper and he caught it fixing it in his mind by the few rough scrawls of melody in a sketchbook. These scribblings would be enough to recall the sense of it to him. Everything he did after that was merely clearing away the rubbish obscuring the thought and whether or not there was much work to be done on it made no difference to the beauty of the original inspiration. Look at, for instance, the growth of the tune which forms the splendid central movement of the Eb piano concerto. In the first rough sketch, Beethoven evidently felt the commonplace fussiness of the first bar to be an interference with his thought because in the next sketch he tried to give it more dignity by expanding it to two bars. However, this deprived him of the beautiful rise of the fourth in the second bar and made him also abandon the corresponding drop of a sixth in order to make the fourth bar balance the rhythm of the first two bars. But both these things were essential parts of his thought which he could not discard – they had to return. So, in the next sketch, he gave up the dotted rhythm and adopted a calmer beginning which secured once more the rising fourth and in this only one note, the first, had to be altered eventually to D# in order to secure the perfect poise he wanted. Evidence that this was Beethoven’s true method can be found in other aspects of his sketching.
A visitor to his house tells how he saw the unfinished manuscript of the seventh symphony on Beethoven’s table and noted with astonishment that page after page was left entirely blank, the music suddenly continuing in mid flight. This, of course, indicates that the proportions of the work were already clear in the composer’s head and that some parts of it were not yet clarified in detail. To save time and to avoid the risk of losing them altogether, he was able to write the clarified passages in exactly the position where they were due, leaving the correct space to be filled. Beethoven had an infallible rhythmic sense on both small and large scales. The rhythmic structure of a large movement was supremely important to him and very often the sketches show that it is this, rather than the actual notes, that is exercising him. The opening of the Eroica was such a case. The sketches show many different forms of notes in the first two bars, but there are always two bars never a beat more nor less. The sketches also give the lie to the suggestion that his music is an accurate reflection of his personal life and moods. He often worked on two contrasting pieces at the same time – for example the fifth and sixth symphonies.
These contrasts were, I feel, a necessary part of his creative process and indeed inevitable because of his working method. This is demonstrated in the sketchbooks where sometimes the changes in mood of the music was vary rapid indeed. For example a sketch for the Piano Sonata Op 28 shows three bars of the slow movement, a sad and delicate one in D minor and then, almost with the same stroke of the pen, he went on to a sketch for the exuberant finale. It is obvious from the layout of the sketches that these were written in a single draft. Following these there is a further idea for each of the movements; some more sketches for the slow movement and two for the finale. I cannot accept that Beethoven’s mood swings were as rapid as the changes of mood in the sketches. However, at the same time, it must not be said that the opposite is equally untrue. Evidence exists to show that extra-musical factors in Beethoven’s life did have some effect on his output but that is another story. Beethoven’s sketchbooks show that he had very unusual and often extremely complicated composing habits. He left more drafts and sketches than any other composer of his day and through them not only does one learn about the art and craft of composition in general but also about the character of Beethoven himself and the music he created.