Beethoven and the Unfinished Revolution

Rigidity – fluidity © Charles Thibo

Breaking the rules. Non-conformity. Deviating opinions. Orthodox behaviour. If you recognize yourself in these attributes, you must have few friends. You are probably one of those people who are considered demanding, strenuous even. Interacting with you requires a true (physical?) effort, a certain mental flexibility, an iron-grade friendship and unlimited trust. Qualities that are praised in every job description, but when it comes to personal relations, suddenly these qualities are valued much less. Ludwig van Beethoven certainly was a strenous personality. A burden to his friends and patrons. And if that weren’t enough already, he also challenged conventional wisdom about what a string quartet should sound like. Oh, boy!

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Beethoven, Ney and Germany’s Devastation

Big week Gotha attack
Gotha 241318 FEB 1944.

For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the storm, it says in the Book of Hosea. Nazi Germany set the world ablaze after creating a climate of hate against Jews and anyone opposing the Nazis’ imperialist dreams. The German attack on Poland triggered World War II, and by February 1944 the Germans were reaping the storm, the storm of fire and destruction. On this day 75 years ago the Allied Command launched massive aerial attacks by day and by night, targeting the cities of Leipzig, Brunswick, Gotha, Regensburg, Schweinfurt, Augsburg and Stuttgart. More than 10,000 tons of bombs were dropped within a week on Germany to destroy its aircraft factories.

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A Cry of Sadness and Revolt from Vienna

Tears and sorrow. © Charles Thibo

The signature. The first movement alone of this piece is breath-taking. “Inter Lacrimas et Luctum” the composer wrote on the score dedicated to Ignaz Freiherr von Gleichenstein, his long-time patron and friend. In the midst of tears and sorrow – in 1809, when the score was being printed, Vienna was occupied by Napoleon’s troops, and for von Gleichenstein,  member of the Austrian war council, it was a bitter time. Ludwig van Beethoven, who had condemned the imperialist dreams of Napoleon a few years earlier, was no less afflicted. The Cello Sonata in A major (Op. 69) illustrates this mood. At the same time its combative parts are encouraging, a cry of revolt. A very, very impressive composition.

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Melancholia at the Center of a Beethoven Quartet

Golden autumn. © Charles Thibo

There is something like a genealogy of sound: a piece that strikes you by the fact that it reminds you of something that you have heard from another composer. It may belong to an earlier or a later period or both, but you see the lines connecting the dots on the musical chart. Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 6 in B-flat Major (op. 18) is such a piece. I first heard Franz Schubert’s more mature quartets, pieces he wrote under the monumental influence of Beethoven. And I heard Joseph Haydn, Beethoven’s teacher of whom he soon emancipated himself, exploring and transgressing the limits of Haydn’s sound as Schubert explored and went beyond Beethoven’s sound.

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