VI. THE LAST VICTORIES: 1811–24

Wherever he went he composed. In 1811 he gave final form to Opus 97 in B Flat, a trio for piano, violin and violoncello, and dedicated it to the Archduke Rudolf—whence its name. It is one of his brightest, clearest, cleanest works, least confused by profusion, almost statuesque in its organic form. His last appearance as a performer was at the piano in a presentation of this classic in April, 1814. He was now so deaf that he had lost the proper adjustment of hand and pedal pressure to musical intent; some of the fortissimi drowned out the strings, while some pianissimi were inaudible.

In May, 1812, while Napoleon was massing half a million men for death in Russia, Beethoven issued his Seventh Symphony, which, less often performed, seems now to wear better than the Fifth or the Sixth. Here is a somber dirge for lost greatness and shattered hopes, and here, too, is tenderness for fading but cherished loves, and a quest for understanding and peace. As its funeral march was an unwitting “1812 overture” to Napoleon’s disaster in Moscow, so its premiere, on December 8, 1813, was contemporary with the collapse of Napoleon’s power in Germany and Spain. The enthusiastic reception of this symphony gladdened for a time the aging pessimist, who continued to produce masterpieces that for him had to be like those on Keats’s Grecian urn, “ditties of no tone.”

The Eighth Symphony, written in October, 1812, first performed on February 27, 1814, was not so well received; the master had relaxed, and had decided to be playful; it did not quite accord with the mood of a nation watching its fate daily hanging on the fortunes of war. But now we may delight in the jolly, prancing scherzando, whose persistent punctuation apparently made fun of a recent invention, the metronome.

The most successful of Beethoven’s compositions was “Die Schlacht von Vittoria,” offered in Vienna on December 8, 1813, to celebrate the battle in which Wellington had definitely destroyed French power in Spain. The news brought tardy satisfaction to the Austrian capital, which had been repeatedly humiliated by the apparently invincible Corsican. Now for the first time Beethoven became really famous in his adopted city. The music, we are told, hardly deserved its triumph; die Schlacht war schlecht. Its subject and success made Beethoven popular with the dignitaries who, in 1814, attended the Congress of Vienna. The composer forgivably took the opportunity to organize a benefit concert for himself; the imperial court, resplendent with victory, offered him the use of its spacious Redoutensaal; Beethoven sent personal invitations to the notables of the Congress; six thousand persons attended; and Beethoven was enabled to hide a substantial sum to cushion his future and his nephew’s.

On November 11, 1815, his brother Karl died, after bequeathing a small sum to Ludwig, and appointing him co-guardian, with the widow, of an eight-year-old son, Karl. From 1815 to 1826 Beethoven carried on, in letters and the courts, a searing contest with widow Theresia for control of Karl’s movements, education, and soul. Theresia had brought Karl Senior a dowry and a house, but had lapsed into adultery; she confessed to her husband, who forgave her. Beethoven never forgave her, and considered her unfit to guide Karl’s development. We shall not follow that quarrel in its wearing length and sordid details. In 1826 Karl, torn between mother and uncle, tried to kill himself. Beethoven finally acknowledged the failure of his loving rigor. Karl recovered, joined the Army, and took care of himself reasonably well.

With the year 1817 Beethoven passed into the final period of his creative life. Long a revolutionist in private politics, he now made open war against classic norms, welcomed the Romantic movement into music, and gave to the sonata and the symphony a looser structure that subordinated the old rules to a rampant freedom of emotional and personal expression. Something of the wild spirit that had spoken in France through Rousseau and the Revolution, in Germany through Sturm und Drang, in young Goethe’sWerthers Leiden and young Schiller’s Die Räuber, then in the poems of Tieck and Novalis, in the prose of the Schlegels, in the philosophies of Fichte and Schelling—something of all this came down to Beethoven, and found rich soil in his natural emotionalism and individualistic pride. An old system of law, convention, and restraint collapsed in art as in politics, leaving the resolute individual free to express or embody his feelings and desires in a joyful bursting of old rules, bonds, and forms. Beethoven mocked the masses as asses, the nobles as impostors, their conventions and courtesies as irrelevant to artistic creation; he refused to be imprisoned in molds fashioned by the dead, even by such melodious dead as Bach and Handel, Haydn and Mozart and Gluck. He made his own revolution, even his own Terror, and made his “Ode to Joy” a declaration of independence even in expectation of death.

The three Hammerklavier Sonatas formed a bridge between the second period and the third. Even their name was a revolt. Some angry Teutons, tired of Italian domination in the language and income of music, had proposed using German, instead of Italian, words for musical notations and instruments. So the majestic pianoforte should discard that Italian word for low and strong, and be called Hammerklavier, since the tones were produced by little hammers striking strings. Beethoven readily accepted the idea, and wrote Sigmund Steiner, manufacturer of musical instruments, on January 13, 1817: “Instead of Pianoforte, Hammerklavier—which settles the matter once for all.”42

The most remarkable of the Hammerklavier Sonatas is the second, Opus 106 in B Flat, written in 1818–19 as a “Grosse Sonata für das Hammerklavier.” Beethoven told Czerny that it was to remain his greatest piece for the piano, and this judgment has been confirmed by pianists in every succeeding generation. It seems to express a somber resignation to old age, illness, and a darkening solitude, and yet it is a triumph of art over despair.

It was in further rejection of such despondency that Beethoven wrote the Ninth Symphony. He began work on it in 1818, concurrently with the Missa solemnis which was to be performed at the installation of Archduke Rudolf as archbishop of Olmütz. The Mass was finished first, in 1823, three years too late for the installation.

Anxious to add to the little hoard that he had accumulated as a refuge against old age and as a bequest to nephew Karl, Beethoven conceived the notion of selling subscriptions for pre-publication copies of his Mass. He sent invitations to this effect to the sovereigns of Europe, asking from each of them fifty ducats in gold.43 Acceptances came in slowly, but by 1825 ten had come: from the rulers of Russia, Prussia, France, Saxony, Tuscany, the Princes Golitsyn and Radziwill, and the Caecilia Association of Frankfurt.

The Missa solemnis is generally held to have justified its long gestation and the strange bartering of its finished form. There is no trace in it of the occasional blasphemies that interrupted his inherited Catholic faith. Each moment of the liturgy is interpreted with concordant music, and through it all is audible the dying man’s desperate faith, written by him in the manuscript score at the outset of the Credo: “God above all—God has never deserted me.”44 The music is too powerful to be an expression of Christian humility; but the dedicated concentration on each part and phrase, and the sustained majesty of the whole, make the Missa solemnis the fit and final offering of a great flawed spirit to an incomprehensible God.

In February, 1824, he completed the Ninth Symphony. Here his struggle to express his final philosophy—the joyful acceptance of man’s fate—broke through all the trammels of classic order, and the impetuous monarch let the pride of his power carry him to massive exultations that sacrificed the old god order to the young god liberty. In the profusion of shattered altars the themes that should have stood out as pillars to the edifice disappeared from all but esoteric view; the phrases seemed unduly insistent and repeated; an occasional moment of tenderness or calm was overwhelmed by a sudden fortissimo flung as if in rage at a mad and unresponsive world. Not so, a great scholar replies; there is, in this apparent embarrassment of riches, “an extreme simplicity of form, underlying an elaboration of detail which may at first seem bewildering until we realize that it is purely the working out, to its logical conclusions, of some ideas as simple and natural as the form itself.”45

Perhaps the master deliberately abandoned the classic effort to give lasting form to mortal beauty or veiled significance. He confessed his surrender, and frolicked in the unregulated wealth of his imagination and the lavished resources of his art. In the end he recaptured some flair of youthful defiance, and enshrined in music that ode of Schiller’s which was not really to mere joy, but rather to joyful war against despotism and inhumanity—

Fronting kings in manly spirit,

Though it cost us wealth and blood!

Crowns to naught save noblest merit;

Death to all the Liar’s brood!

With his culminating masterpieces now complete, Beethoven longed for an opportunity to present them to the public. But Rossini had so captivated Austria in 1823, and Viennese audiences were now so enamored of Italian melody, that no local impresario dared risk a fortune on two compositions so difficult as the Missa solemnis and the Choral Symphony. A Berlin producer offered to present them; Beethoven was about to agree, when a combination of music lovers, led by the Lichnowsky family, alarmed at the thought of Vienna’s outstanding composer being forced to go to a rival capital for the premiere of his latest and most prestigious works, agreed to underwrite their production at the Kärntnerthor Theater. After hard bargaining on all sides the concert was given on May 7, 1824, before a crowded house, and with a stoic program: an overture (“The Consecration of the House”), four parts of the Missa solemnis, and the Ninth Symphony with a stentorian German chorus to crown it all. The singers, unable to reach the high notes prescribed, omitted them.46 The Mass was received solemnly, the symphony with enthusiastic acclaim. Beethoven, who had been standing on the platform with his back to the audience, did not hear the applause, and had to be turned around to see it.47

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