Books, Quotes, and More
Anyone intrigued by the life of this great man should acquaint themselves with two wonderful books. Alexander Wheelock Thayer’s Life of Beethoven and Jan Swafford’s Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph. In these volumes, not only is there great insight into his music, but you also get a feeling through his daily life just who this great man was.
Thayer was born in 1817 and died in 1897. He studied at Harvard and became a researcher and librarian. He was also a music lover, although he didn’t seem to play an instrument. He was frustrated by the lack of a great biography of Beethoven. There were so many inconsistencies between the ones that existed, the accounts by Schindler, Ries, and even Czerny. So, in a remarkable example of scholarship and dedication, he decided that he would write one. On his own dime so to speak, he moved to Germany and began to learn the German language. Serious publications in musical scholarship were always published in German those days. Back-and-forth to America he came due to financial constraints, finally landing a job with the International Herald Tribune, which afforded him enough money to continue his research. Eventually he became an ambassador to Trieste, a steady position with income and location that allowed him to continue his work. The biography is incomplete for he died in 1897. He only took Beethoven to the year 1817, curiously the year that Thayer was born. His work was completed by some of his fellow researchers, Dieters, Riemann, and Krehbiel. In my opinion, Alexander Wheelock Thayer is a true hero dedicated to Beethoven and true scholarship.
Jan Swofford curiously also was a Harvard graduate, balanced by graduate school at Yale. I urge you to read his Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph for it is not only full of information and insight into his music and life, Swofford also being a composer, but it is also so wonderfully easy to read, almost conversational. As an aside, let me say that it is available for download to a Kindle device for very little money. It’s pretty easy to have it in your library and well worth it.
I’m including here some of my favorite quotes from Beethoven himself. The first I find humorous but also very true. It’s often said that Beethoven wrote what he heard even when he was deaf, without regard for how difficult it would be to sing or to play on an instrument. What he composed was the truth.
“Do you think I give a damn about you and your pathetic violin?”
We’ve mentioned before Beethoven’s disdain for aristocracy:
“What you are, you are by accident of birth; what I am, I am by myself. There are and will be a thousand princes; there is only one Beethoven.” (Good for you Beethoven!)
Beethoven on music and his music: “What I have in my heart and soul – must find a way out. That’s the reason for music.”
“The vibrations on the air are the breath of God speaking to man’s soul. Music is the language of God. We musicians are as close to God as man can be. We hear his voice, we read his lips, we give birth to the children of God, who sing his praise. That’s what musicians are.”
“Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy. Music is the electrical soil in which the spirit lives, thinks and invents.”
“I have never thought of writing for reputation and honor. What I have in my heart must come out; that is the reason why I compose.”
“I haven’t a single friend; I must live alone. But well I know that God is nearer to me than to the others of my art; I associate with Him without fear, I have always recognized and understood Him, and I have no fear for my music, -it can meet no evil fate. Those who understand it must become free from all the miseries that the others drag with them.”
“What will be the judgment a century hence concerning the lorded works of our favorite composers today? Inasmuch as nearly everything is subject to the changes of time, and – more’s the pity- the fashions of time, only that which is good and true will endure like a rock and no wanton hand will ever venture to defile it. Then, let every man do that which is right, strive with all his might towards the goal which can never be obtained, develop to the last breath the gifts with which the gracious Creator has endowed him, and never cease to learn. For life is short, art eternal.”
“Don’t only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets, for it and knowledge can raise men to the divine.”
“Music can change the world.”
It is said that these were Beethoven’s last words on his deathbed. Reflect on this how this great man summed up his life with the corners of his lips turned up.
“Plaudite, amici, comedia finita est. (Applaud, my friends, the comedy is over.)
I’m including a link below to a symphony by one of Beethoven’s students Ferdinand Ries. It’s interesting that you’ll hear the motive from Beethoven’s great fifth Symphony here quite a bit. You will also hear that while it’s reasonable listening it doesn’t have the depth, cohesion, and message that you hear in the master’s writing.