“..what a humiliation for me when someone standing next to me heard a flute in the distance, and I heard nothing, or someone heard a shepherd singing, and again I heard nothing. Such incidents drove me almost to despair; a little more of that and I would have ended my life; it was only my art that held me back.”
These poignant words are from Beethoven’s “Heiligenstadt Testament” of 1802, half suicide note and half artistic credo. They come from a period of severe crisis during the summer of that year while he was trying to desperately to recuperate in this country village outside of Vienna. But that summer provided little comfort as he became acutely aware of the extent of his deafness, an affliction that would plague him for the rest of his life. He was only 31 at the time!
What is absolutely astounding is how, during this general period, he completed his Symphony no. 2, an amazing composition combining elements of serenity–in the words of a fellow composer, “a delineation of innocent happiness hardly unclouded by a few melancholy accents”– and utter exuberance, even mischief. He even anticipates musical ideas that later re-appear more fully formed in his Ninth Symphony.
In fact, the narrative of moving from a sense of conflict to victory, from darkness to light, carries through many of Beethoven’s most famous compositions. Among them are his only opera FIDELIO, the Symphony no. 5, and his final symphonic masterpiece, the Ninth (“Choral”) and its “Ode to Joy.”
Lynne suggests: when you listen to these pieces we hope that giving you a sense of the context in which they were written will increase your appreciation of them and touch your own life in some way.
How was it possible for a brilliant young musician, threatened by loss of the very faculty that he most treasured, to transcend his fear and despair and find the energy to write a piece filled with exuberance and mischief? What does this have to teach us?