The Immortal Beethoven
Going deaf and hovering on the brink of poverty, Ludwig van Beethoven composed some of our most beloved music in his final years. In the superlative piano sequence “33 Variations,” for example, he plumbed the depths of human emotion. But Beethoven is perhaps best known for his Ninth Symphony and its finale, a choral rendering of Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy.” Beethoven’s transcendent music, brimming with passion and pathos, approaches the realm of the immortal.
Ludwig van Beethoven and Friedrich Schiller were men of their time, the Age of Enlightenment. Well under way by 1700, the Enlightenment swept across Europe and North America. Intellectuals and artists rallied against tradition, calling for reform and revolutions like those that reshaped France and the United States. The themes of the day pervade Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy,” which Beethoven adapted as a choral piece in the last movement of his Ninth Symphony.
The first lines of “Ode to Joy” are typical of Enlightenment values: “Joy, beautiful spark of the gods, daughter of Elysium,” a reference to the ancient Greek realm where the righteous and heroic live a blessed and happy afterlife. Passages about harmony and equality appear throughout: “All men become brothers,” “All creatures partake of joy, at nature’s breast; all, just and unjust, follow in her rosy path.” Schiller revised the poem in 1803, two years before his death; he did not live to see Beethoven’s Ninth premiere. Beethoven made several alterations of his own to Schiller’s text, but the Ninth Symphony ensures that Schiller’s words, largely intact and set to Beethoven’s rousing anthem, live on as a popular and universal call for brotherhood.
Beethoven was completely deaf by the time he completed his Ninth Symphony. His friends and colleagues filled hundreds of “conversation books” in which they wrote and the composer responded orally or in writing. These books also contained copious notes for what became Beethoven’s last symphony.
Much of the Ninth, including a choral version of Friedrich Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy,” draws on material that had intrigued Beethoven throughout his career. The composer had first mentioned setting Schiller’s poem to music when he was 22. Thirty-one years later, on May 7, 1824, the Ninth premiered in Vienna. Beethoven conducted, sharing the stage with the choirmaster. The musicians and singers had been instructed to ignore the composer, who, a violinist reported, “stood before the lectern and gesticulated furiously. At times he rose, at other times he shrank to the ground; he moved as if he wanted to play all the instruments himself and sing for the whole chorus.” Beethoven was still conducting after the symphony ended. It’s said that a singer walked over to him and turned him toward the cheering audience, who waved handkerchiefs and raised hats as a visual accompaniment to the thunderous applause he could not hear.
Friedrich Schiller’s plays are hits even when performed more than 200 years after his death. To wit: The Broadway production of Mary Stuart (written in 1800), a dramatic account of the rivalry between Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, received seven Tony nominations in 2009. The play explores nationalism and the tyranny of leadership, seasoned with liberal dashes of suspicion, scheming and name-calling. Schiller crystallizes these themes with an artistry that puts him in league with William Shakespeare, another poet who happened to write plays.
Schiller founded the Weimar Theater with yet another poet and playwright, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, but his most famous collaboration was with Ludwig van Beethoven. While considering using Schiller’s paean to unity, “Ode to Joy,” Beethoven claimed the composer must rise higher than the poet when setting a great poem to music, saying, “Who can do that in the case of Schiller?” The subject of such praise was not as convinced of his own genius. Late in life, perhaps disillusioned by France’s Reign of Terror and other political upheavals across Europe, Schiller criticized his poem as “detached from reality” and of no value “for the world, nor for the art of poetry.”
“It is the power of music to carry one directly into the mental state of the composer,” Beethoven, played by a stormy Gary Oldman, proclaims in Immortal Beloved. “The listener has no choice. It is like hypnotism.” The film is likewise mesmerizing as it pays homage to the genius behind the brooding triplets of the “Moonlight Sonata,” the tender trills of “Für Elise” and the thundering finale of the Ninth Symphony. Passages of Beethoven’s music, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, form the backdrop to the hunt for his “immortal beloved,” the mystery woman to whom Beethoven sent love letters in 1812. The largely fictional quest is interlaced with vivid flashbacks that piece together Beethoven’s disorderly and often lonely life during a particularly heady period of European history (Napoleon occupied Vienna twice during Beethoven’s career) and, most movingly, his struggles with deafness. In a particularly touching moment, the composer lowers his head to a piano so he can sense the sounds reverberating through the wood. At its best, the film is a testament to the passions that gave rise to the music and a reminder that, as one listener says, Beethoven has “revealed his most hidden secrets to us.”
Poet and playwright Friedrich Schiller does not appear in Immortal Beloved, yet his spirit haunts the horrifying scenes of Napoleon’s invasion of Vienna. Like Beethoven and other artists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Schiller originally thought Napoleon embodied the ideals of progress, freedom and humanism. The writer died of tuberculosis in 1805, so he did not witness Napoleon plunge Europe into a decade of bloodshed as French armies attempted to conquer the continent. Many of Napoleon’s former enthusiasts, Beethoven included, eventually decided the emperor was a tyrant, and Schiller, who had been made an honorary citizen of the new French Republic for his pro-revolutionary play The Robbers (1781), most certainly would have thought so as well.
In one scene from Immortal Beloved, a young Beethoven runs through the woods in his nightshirt to escape his tyrannical father, and, marvelously, the action is set to Beethoven’s symphonic adaptation of Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy.” As the boy wades into a moonlit pond and floats beneath a star-bright sky, he seems to become one with the cosmos above him. The moment captures the transcendence of Beethoven’s music and poignantly evokes the theme of universal harmony in Schiller’s poem.
Why Beethoven composed “33 Variations” is one of music’s great mysteries. Beethoven based his adventurous, masterful piano sequence on a mundane waltz by Anton Diabelli, a minor Viennese composer of pleasant light works. Diabelli asked 50 of his contemporaries to compose a variation each. These would be compiled in a book to raise funds for widows and orphans of the Napoleonic Wars. Beethoven refused, calling Diabelli’s work a “cobbler’s patch.” He eventually reconsidered. Either Diabelli offered Beethoven a handsome fee for a full set of variations or the composer decided to show off his talent by wresting a masterpiece from the slim material.
In Moisés Kaufman’s play 33 Variations, Katherine Brandt, a musicologist, attempts to unravel the puzzle. A sense of desperation permeates her methodical scholarship; she is succumbing to the effects of Lou Gehrig’s disease and this will be her last bit of archival sleuthing. Beethoven too was a wreck by the time he wrote “33 Variations”—feeble, almost stone-deaf and desperately in need of money. Making something extraordinary out of the ordinary may have been his antidote for despair, just as an attempt to unlock the secrets of his magnificent sequence eases his dying admirer toward the inevitable.