Sunday, December 16, 2018

A Brazen Plug on Beethoven's 248th Birthday

Your Curmudgeon is pleased to announce that his new book on Beethoven's Third Symphony is now available (paperback or eBook) on Amazon, and has garnered two (!) five-star reviews to date.

The book is entitled Beethoven Unbound: the Story of the Eroica Symphony, and is based on the honors thesis I submitted for graduation in 1966. Here is a brief description of what it is about:
There is one musical theme that Ludwig van Beethoven used on four different occasions, in four separate works. He first conceived the theme while composing the music in early 1801 for a ballet based on the legend of the Titan Prometheus, who brought clay human figures to life with divine fire stolen from Vulcan’s forge. Jupiter then punished Prometheus severely, by chaining him to a rock so that each day an eagle could swoop down on him and gnaw out his liver, which then would regenerate during the night, to be eaten again the next day. Prometheus endured what he regarded as a most unjust punishment for his gifts to mankind. He defied the gods until Hercules unbound him from his chains.

This book traces how Beethoven, who was agonizing over the onset of deafness, came during his work on the ballet to identify with the Titan’s ordeal. He saw deafness as a most undeserved fate for a composer who spent most of his waking hours sketching and polishing musical works as his own gifts to mankind – but also as a cruelty that would force him to withdraw from Viennese society. By identifying with the determination of Prometheus, Beethoven generated his own inner resolve to surmount his suffering and emerge with skills that enabled him to forge, beginning with his revolutionary Third Symphony (the Eroica), an entirely new path for music in the nineteenth century. As with Prometheus, so Beethoven himself became unbound.

The music Beethoven wrote for the ballet’s finale, in which Prometheus’ originally clumsy humans advanced under the Titan’s tutelage to be fit to dance with the gods, took on a special significance which he may not fully have appreciated at first. But by the summer of 1802, when he realized he could no longer hear the sounds of nature which had for so long inspired him during his periodic escapes from the city, Beethoven returned to his Prometheus-melody as the basis for an unprecedented set of piano variations. As this book shows through his surviving sketches, he noticed that the bass line for the theme could be developed independently, and gradually built up until the treble melody could emerge in all its glory, much as the humans had emerged to glorious heights in dancing to the same tune at the end of the ballet.

Beethoven’s personal crisis came to a head in October 1802, when he admitted in his secret “Heiligenstadt Testament” (not discovered until after his death) to having entertained thoughts of suicide. That bout with despair, however, was overcome by a new burst of energy as Beethoven saw how much more he could still do with his Prometheus-theme. He began to fill page after page of his sketchbooks with new ideas for further variations – much more than he could ever include in the set that he eventually published.

This book draws for its thesis upon a sketchbook that was auctioned among the composer’s papers after his death, found its way to the library of a Russian count in Moscow, and now is in a state museum there. It contains the pages on which Beethoven set down his very first ideas for what in time would become his monumental Eroica symphony. As such, it provides the missing link to tell the full story of that work’s genesis out of the music Beethoven had written for his 1801 ballet. That story not only has not been set out anywhere before, but also establishes that it is the Titan Prometheus, and not any human figure such as Napoleon, whose heroism lies at the heart of the Eroica.

Note that the Kindle edition is $6 cheaper, but contains the same contents as the printed book. Moreover, there are hyperlinks in the Kindle version between the text and the endnotes, which make jumping from one to the other and then back again as easy as can be. Finally, the illustrations in the Kindle, unlike in the paperback, are in full color and at a higher resolution that makes it possible to enlarge them to see greater detail.

If any reader here does purchase the book, I hope he or she will be motivated to leave a review at Amazon, for which I will be most grateful. Meanwhile, Ludwig van is 248 today, and will be 250 on this date in 2020. In celebration, please enjoy this stellar performance of the piano variations (op. 35) on which he was working in Heiligenstadt in the summer and fall of 1802, when he despaired of his future as a composer due to his ever-worsening deafness.

In this set of 15 variations and closing fugue, Beethoven forged well ahead of his contemporaries and laid the ground for his path-breaking  Eroica Symphony. As noted, his sketchbook shows he conceived the Symphony at Heiligenstadt, as the outgrowth of all the effort he poured into elaborating on the theme he first used in his 1801 ballet based on the legend of Prometheus, and around which he constructed these fantastic variations. (Notice how they begin, as described above, with just the bass of the theme itself, stated in octaves. The "Prometheus"-theme does not emerge in full until the fourth variation.)







Napoleon was the furthest person from Beethoven's mind when he was writing this music, which is all about the heroism and triumph of Prometheus, who provided just the inspiration Beethoven needed at a crucial turning-point of his life.


11 comments:

  1. I never realized that you started life as a music major. Talk about multiple strings to your vocational bow. Congratulations.

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  8. Funny how unexpected it is to find that someone you've thought of in one way has an unsuspected side.

    I am no musicologist, but have always loved music. I bought a mandolin with the proceeds of working underage for a carnival show when I was fourteen, and haven't improved in almost fifty years--but still love it.. Took a music appreciation course in college, on a lark, and it changed my life.

    I've always considered Beethoven's third symphony a kind of miracle, and had never really thought of it having precursors.

    You seem to be about ten years older than myself, and, in addition to having graduated HLS ten years after you, I happened in 1975 to have visited the University of Freiberg--not attended (my German was never good enough for that), but as a student making a youth-hostel-and-second-class-railpass summer tour. I was then working on an undergraduate thesis on Martin Heidegger, and was told, when I asked, that he was dead. In those days innocent of Wikipedia that was about as far as it went, but apparently he was still out there alive in the Black Forest for another year.

    Congratulations on the book.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you for commenting, rick allen. I was at Freiburg in 1966-67, and while Heidegger was still alive, he did not teach or otherwise lecture at the University; his eminence grise still overshadowed the philosophy department, and all of his books were for sale in the University bookstore.

      I hope you gain in your appreciation of what the Eroica meant to Beethoven -- toward the end of his life, he told his friends that it was always his favorite symphony.

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  9. To me there was always something offputting about Beethoven. Certain symphonies like the Pastoral (6) would be sublime and gorgeous, but in other works beautiful passages would be interrupted by crass drums, harsh chords and other petulant devices suggestive of temper tantrums. Often the heart of his symphonic pieces would be in the mid-range. Gradually I have begun to reapproach him (I lean more toward Bach and the Romantics), partly because of an introduction to live performances of his String Quartets, which are so surprisingly modern and abstract and thought provoking. Then one day over the radio came crashing the first movement of the Eighth, hurtling forth at full tempo, turning on a dime, linking sublime sections with the most unlikely and ungainly devices, using single notes or repeated single notes as turning points, flying in all directions and building an incredible crescendo. I somehow got hooked (obsessed) again and also turned to the Liszt piano versions to better appreciate the structure. For a modern composer, it seems that every moment has to be filled with chordal texture and Beethoven was free from that impulse. But that meant he had to carefully balance all his ideas into sort of gigantic houses of cards that all depend on the previous members being placed just right by the interpreters to stand forth as towering statements. I am grateful for this essay and wish you the best in the reception of your new book!

    ReplyDelete