01 January 2007


Ludwig van Beethoven
(17.2.1770 - 26.3.1827)

This article is work-in-progress and will

hopefully be added to from time to time.

Let me say it right away:
In my opinion Beethoven has done more than

any other composer or any artist or scientist or
philosopher or statesman that I can think of to
justify the presence of humanity on earth!

Let me also make it clear that I am not a

musicologist, this is merely a collection of my
personal thoughts and opinions on the great man.


B leaves you no choice,

in his major works at least:
You either cover your ears and go away,

or you stay and surrender.
Although in one sense brought up with classical

music, as my mother loved Mozart, Haydn, Bach
and Beethoven, in those days I never really took
the time to seek it out myself, it was more a case
of accidentally becoming acquainted with it
through my mother's repeated listenings to
her 78 rpm LPs.

I surrendered to B many years ago, in the 1980s

when I was working in Saudi Arabia.
After work or during week-ends I would often lie

by the swimming pool, listening to music on my
Walkman. Cassettes were incredibly cheap, no
doubt pirated copies from the Far East, so buying
lots was not a problem, that way you could
experiment more easily and the ones you did not
like you either passed on to or exchanged with
your colleagues.
It was a real education for me:

I would listen to the same symphony several
times in one day, first concentrating on following
one particular instrument or theme, then, next
time, concentrating on something else, or
learning how to enjoy the whole at once, until,
maybe in an unguarded moment, it just seems
to enter you and take hold of you, take you over.
My favourite pieces of music have become

like good friends: You know them well, yet
every time you meet you discover something
new about them.


You frequently have the impression that B has

left a bit from the sketch book in the finished
work, as if to let you into a secret or let you look
over his shoulder.
A good example of this can be heard in his 5th

and last piano concerto, the so-called Emperor
(not named by B), opus 73 in B-flat major,

where, in the transition from the slow intimate
middle movement to the boisterous last, the
instruments fade all but out and, without the
normal break, drop a half-tone and hesitate there
as the piano rejoins, first softly and tentatively in
a handful of rising notes, almost like a question
mark, as if it is looking for something, then it
finds something useful but, as if not quite sure
yet, it runs through the little jingle again and
then it knows those were the right notes for it
absolutely hammers them home as the final
movement opens. Magnificent!
That whole concerto is surely one of Bs most
complete works, possibly the closest to technical
perfection he ever came.
I challenge anyone to change a single note
anywhere in it and call it an improvement!

That concerto is also remarkable in that it leaves

the pianist no room to improvise and show off, as
was normal in Bs day. The piano parts and the
orchestral parts are so tightly integrated that
everything has to be written down, and it was.


Most of Bs themes are wonderfully simple, they

are introduced and repeated a couple of times,
then he takes them apart, plays around with

them and puts them back together in a variety
of delightful ways, like a small child would
instinctively and innocently play with a simple
set of construction blocks.
The above comparison is neither insulting nor

ridiculous - there is a childlike profundity and
sincerity in Bs music.

There is a parallel here with Albert Einstein

asking himself "naive and childish" questions
like: "What would the world look like if I rode
on a beam of light?", taking those simple
questions at face value and then spending
years attempting to answer them.


Or he lets a simple theme develop almost

endlessly, wonderful examples of that are to
be heard in his 6th symphony, the Pastoral
(so named by B), opus 68 in F major, which was
largely written during long solitary walks in the
wooded hills around Heiligenstadt outside Wien
(Vienna) where he used to take lodgings for the
Summer in order to get away from the city.

In his own notes he describes the symphony as:
"More feeling than painting". Indeed!
During the symphony several simple themes
develop seamlessly, like natural organic growth,
like a few acorns sprouting and taking root and
before we know they have grown into a huge
forest of mature oak trees right before our

In the first movement there are hints pointing
forward to the coming movements and in the last
there are echoes going all the way back to the
beginning - and the effect is to wrap the whole
work together, make it one organic whole instead
of a collection of related but separate movements,
giving this, and many other of his greatest works,
a holistic quality all their own.
For I know of no other composer who does this.

Once, in Bonn, I stood in the Beethovenhaus for
45 minutes leaning against the doorway to the
attic room where he was born, listening to
the Pastoral start-to-finish on my Walkman,
sometimes gazing at the bust
(which is set at his actual height, 160cm),
sometimes gazing at the laurel wreath on
the floor, or just gazing...

About the 45 minutes: That was a recording
conducted by Rafael Kubelik, my favourite
among the many versions I have of the 6th.

The version with Herbert von Karajan only
takes 38 minutes. Isn't that astounding?
The same piece of music, the same number
of bars, yet played in 15% less time.
To me, the Pastoral so obviously cries out
to be dwelt on, stroked and caressed,
made to last, and not rushed to the finish.


Or, like the Creator himself, where B finds
chaos he generates order, he forces order upon
things in the universe of sounds he creates,
maybe best expressed in that titanic work,

the Choral Symphony, opus 125 in D-minor,
his 9th and sadly the last.

Imagine, if we can:
Here is a man who knows he is a genius both as
a pianist and a composer, also knows that time
is running out, in most respects disappointed and
bitter, suffering from several ailments and in
practical terms so hard of hearing as to be deaf,
excuse me? Yes, DEAF!

Eighteen months in the making, 70 minutes to
perform, and the very least we can do today in
return for B giving us this masterpiece of truly

gigantic proportions is to take the time to listen
to it with open minds and hearts.

But how do you attempt to describe it?
It is in some places almost terrifyingly forceful,
wild yet strictly controlled, in other places so
soothingly tenderly beautiful as to be angelic,
it is full of surprises, there is never a dull

And the intriguing, probably unique, way he
laboriously arrives at the main theme for the last
movement through having the cellos calling up
the main theme from each of the previous
movements in turn and, one by one, rejecting
them, leaving the bemused cellos to continue
searching when, suddenly, everything falls into
place and, after a moment's silence, they break
into that glorious tune that we all know as
Song of Joy, but it has not become that yet for
this is a symphony which still adheres to some
of the rules.

After working over this beautiful simple tune
several times and in many ways, one feels

that any other composer would have been
well satisfied, indeed overawed, with himself,
and put the pen down. But not B.
He returns to the entry point for that theme and
out of the blue introduces the human voice, first
only one, later 4 solo voices and a choir of 200,
and it is only now the tune becomes Song of Joy,
with some of the variations almost impossible
to sing.
Also remember, in those days, you either wrote
a purely instrumental symphony or you wrote an
opera - doing what B did in the 9th was an
outrageous innovation.

One has the impression, probably correct, that B
put absolutely everything into it because he knew
it would be his last completed major work.
Towards the end the choir sings "This kiss for the
whole world, the whole world, the whole world"
and these words are Bs own, they do not come
from Heinrich Schiller's poem Ode an die Freude
(Ode to Joy), parts of which B set to music here.

Sadly, this is B saying goodbye -

but what an incredible way to do it!
How could an old, bitter and twisted, ailing man
write such a positive and affirmative work,
one absolutely bursting with youthful energy
and optimism, and of such monumental heroic
Where did he get the energy, the power,
the motivation to persevere and see this
enormous project through?

That he was practically deaf only increases

the sense of wonder, no, disbelief!
Maybe, as I say in a song I wrote about him
many years ago called Thank You Ludwig
"Freed of the constant distractions forced upon
your ears, I wonder, Could you hear the inner
music clearer than before?"
(And if I ever get my songs converted from
cassette tape to digital format, you will be able
to listen to that song right here).

Surely, it is one of the finest expressions of the
aspirations of the human spirit and one of the
greatest intellectual achievements ever.

Once, in Frankfurt, I went to a series of concerts
in Die Alte Oper (Old Opera House) running over
2 weeks, and culminating in Bs 9th.
I cannot remember which orchestra it was but
the conductor was Sir Georg Szolti, since that
night one of my favourites.
Not a single microphone or amplifier, of course,
and it was just overpowering, both the volume
and the effect.
Of all the live concerts I have been to this is
easily the best. I was already familiar with the
9th before going and went to concerts regularly
in those days but this was different, and to
experience it all happening right there in front
of me was just amazing.
At the end I felt simultaneously completely
drained and fully recharged.
And I was very quiet, so was my German
girlfriend. What can you say after that?
For a while at least, it was as if everything worth
saying had just been said when the great man
wrapped up proceedings with that almost endless
final flourish - "I have s p o k e n !".
Indeed! And some of us did get the message...

The whole work has "awesome genius"

written all over it.

Freude, schoene Goetterfunken

(Joy, beautiful sparks of God)
as one line in Schiller's poem goes -
and who would disagree?

There is a revelatory, prophetic, messianic
dimension to Bs greatest works.
But this is not a megalomanic B playing the

Creator, surely this is the Creator playing
through B.....

B makes me proud to be a human being and,

in a narrower sense, proud to be a European.
B would be proud to know that his Song of Joy

is now the official melody of both the Council of
Europe and of the European Union (which as an
organisation has no connection with the Council).

He would be proud - but not surprised.


If you do not get to know Bs music you only

have yourselves to blame. Go on, do it!
There is more music in any 12 bars of B

than in 50 years of rock'n'roll!

(to be continued, inshallah...)

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