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Beethovens Jesus


Footnotes in the form of a short essay

Footnote 1
Footnote to the classicists amongst us.
“Nomine” is the ablative declination of nomen, “word” and will usually be preceded by “in.” Beethoven incorporates that preposition “in” several times before Nomine but does not do so in the beginning where he simply starts with Nomine Domini. I imagine that the composer may have struggled with this grammatical problem, but also realized that the preposition ”in” as upbeat would have seriously weakened the strength of that first “twin pillar”. This conundrum puzzled me as well and possibly Beethoven arrived at the same solution that satisfied me. We speak of Anno Domini where the ablative “Anno subsumes the “in,” “in the year” and Anno Domini “in the year of the Lord.”

I would not be surprised if Beethoven, pondering this grammatical dilemma as I did, waited till the last moment to add these opening chords.

This inscription, (in) Nomine Domini, will be repeated twelve more times before the end of the movement; actually it is repeated 11 times in its entirety, with, in the last measure only Nomine followed by a long half note rest.

Would it be permissible to see these “almost twelve” as the pillars on which Jesus built his church and Beethoven allotting just half a pillar to Judas, the apostle who betrayed his Master?

Footnote 2

I have become painfully aware of the insidious infection with the “Romantic Virus” which literally corrupts every performance – be it of a stumbling beginner or the Concertgebouw – of all repertoire that falls outside the high romantic period (and even there!).

My Website contains the article “Extirpating the Romantic Virus” exploring this in more detail. I mention there a tube of Chinese pain medicine “Anal gesic” (sic) which caused me to wonder if applying it to the sore muscle in my arm would be effective. Many years ago, also in China, I managed to allow the State University to trust me with and on a bicycle. When I told my sons that I had told the official “I am an old pro on a bicycle” they seemingly concurred. “Yes” they said, you are an old pro.”

Humorous as these examples may appear they are really just “a finger pointing” at a text-cum performance corruption of unimaginable magnitude. When letters in language are not properly separated or grouped together or given the wrong emphasis, the result is unintelligibility. In language the problem is easily understood and corrected but in music – and I speak with the conviction of half a century understanding and tracing the virus (as virulent in music as the ebola virus that led to such a tragic loss of life) – the infection is universally ignored. Now to the point. Not a single slur in the last five Beethoven sonatas indicates connected playing!

Without exception —and however miserably we may have been led astray thinking otherwise— these slurs only and exactly tell us what belongs together and what is separated. If my name is Wim Ibes (as it happens to be) and someone calls me Wimi Bes I must tell him “sorry, that is not my name.” As in the few examples quoted above, all the right letters are there, but the “meaning” is simply gone. That is exactly Beethoven’s exasperated cry to Karl Holz when he writes in utter frustration (letter from Baden, August 1825): “The notes are all right – only understand my meaning correctly.” Beethoven continues: “The slurs must stand just as they are! It is not a matter of indifference whether you play three notes grouped together or the same notes in a group of two and a separate third one… Mind you, this comes from an authority, so pay attention. I have spent the entire morning and the whole of yesterday afternoon correcting these two movements, and am quite hoarse with cursing and stamping.”
I am afraid poor Beethoven would completely lose his voice were he to return now, after two centuries, and try to grasp how we could possibly, and so utterly, have deformed his thought and obliterated the meaning of his music.

Footnote 3
In this Assai lento we find Beethoven as a little child on his knees singing, cantante, his evening prayers Jesu meine Freude.
One cannot help wondering what it must have cost him, Czerny’s “oppressed old man”, to make the journey from: “There is only one morality (I ascribe to), the morality of strength” to “I put my unshakable trust in you O Lord, my God.”

Or putting it in terms of his music, how did the Beethoven of the Eroica and Fifth symphony end up writing the late piano sonatas and string quartets?

The composer’s life is best understood through the Sonata-Allegro form, a structure used in Western music only over the last 250 years, but as a psychological phenomenon, possibly as old as mankind.
In the Exposition two themes, two groups of themes, or two individuals are attracted to each other. That attraction becomes at times severely tested in the Development section where, perhaps, the one theme / person becomes aware of the, at first mercifully hidden, “shadow” of the other.

The stronger the original attraction and the more polar the opposite, the more work needs to be done in that Development section and not a few couples call it quit and go their separate ways, as Carl Jung wrote, often at a moment when a breakthrough may be imminent. Those who work their way through the eye of the needle reach “the other shore.”

Jung describes that process as individuation: without losing one’s individual self, the walls built around that self slowly – often ever so painfully – dissolve and the two monads, the two separate circles that began the journey, metamorphose into an ellipse where the “we” rises to the top of awareness and the “I” subordinates itself, attaining what phenomenology calls the Wir-heit der Liebe, the “We-ness of Love.”
In musical terms, the Exposition’s two individual themes (or theme-groups) each in their own “key,” establish a relationship, go through the purifying fire of the Development and in the Recapitulation are joined into one and the same “environment” or key.

To understand Beethoven’s life in terms of the sonata-allegro structure we need but understand his biography. Few men were ever more aware of the greatness of their powers, few men were more disdainful of others whether prince or pauper. “I love a tree more than a human being” the composer wrote early in life.

Is that not the perfect set-up for a Greek tragedy, the kind of hubris that calls forth the wrath of the gods? Still, let us not forget that an overblown ego in itself rarely provokes higher powers; they resignedly allow us, small fry, our illusions of grandiosity. Beethoven was cut out of different cloth. Bismarck once remarked “If I could listen to Beethoven’s Eroica symphony often enough I would become a heroic man.” Beethoven was a heroic man and he must indeed have felt that the wrath of heaven had singled him out when a second theme, not of his choosing (and isn’t it that way often even in our own lives?) appears. 

The first signs of deafness – imagine a deaf composer! – manifested in his mid twenties and fifteen or so years later he was considered totally deaf.

Beethoven’s life’s Development section will last for a good fifteen years. The Heiligenstadt Testament of 1802 speaks of suicide as well as the stronger will to live and be of service to music and mankind. The titanic struggle, which interestingly is more attested to in his diaries and Lieder than in his instrumental music (the Fifth symphony and Appassionata sonata being the most notable exceptions), leads eventually to the deep depression of the second decade of the century. At the end of 1816, in the piano sonata opus 101, dedicated to Dorothea von Ertmann, beyond a doubt —for those who know how to read the music— the “Immortal Beloved,” Beethoven refashions the past as only the greatest of artists can do. He bends it to his will, and, “conquering time” (Eliot) redeems that past, permitting the future with its resurrected light to enter.

How is it possible to become reconciled to a destiny of “deaf composer?” Inexorably, and ostensibly irreconcilable with his “will,” the composer first becomes resigned to his fate, then overcomes, nolens volens the next major obstacle of accepting it, and ends up —that rarest of heroic achievements— embracing it. Impossible you may say and for most of us certainly so. But let us listen to Beethoven himself in this last string quartet.

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