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Beethoven and the Quality of Courage by Daniel Barenboim _ the New York Review of Books

Beethoven and the Quality of Courage by Daniel Barenboim _ the New York Review of Books

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Beethoven and the Quality of Courage by Daniel Barenboim _ the New York Review of Books
Beethoven and the Quality of Courage by Daniel Barenboim _ the New York Review of Books

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Published by: Marienburg on Nov 21, 2013
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04/08/2014

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 Ludwig van Beethoven; drawing by David Levine
 April 4, 2013 Issue
Beethoven and the Quality of Courage
Daniel Barenboim
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It is always interesting and sometimes evenimportant to have intimate knowledge of acomposer’s life, but it is not essential in order tounderstand the composer’s works. In Beethoven’scase, one mustn’t forget that in 1802, the year hewas contemplating suicide—as he wrote in anunsent letter to his brothers that came to be knownas the “Heiligenstadt Testament”—he alsocomposed the Second Symphony, one of hisworks that was most positive in spirit, thusshowing us that it is of vital importance toseparate his music from his personal biographyand not to conflate the two.Therefore, I will not aim here to provide an elaborate psychological study of the manBeethoven through an analysis of his works, or vice versa. In fact, although the focus of this essay will indeed be Beethoven’s music, it must be understood that one cannot explainthe nature or the message of music through words. Music means different things todifferent people and sometimes even different things to the same person at differentmoments of his life. It might be poetic, philosophical, sensual, or mathematical, but in anycase it must, in my view, have something to do with the soul of the human being. Hence itis metaphysical; but the means of expression is purely and exclusively physical: sound. I believe it is precisely this permanent coexistence of metaphysical message through physical means that is the strength of music. It is also the reason why when we try todescribe music with words, all we can do is articulate our reactions to it, and not graspmusic itself.Beethoven’s importance in music has been principally defined by the revolutionary natureof his compositions. He freed music from hitherto prevailing conventions of harmony andstructure. Sometimes I feel in his late works a will to break all signs of continuity. Themusic is abrupt and seemingly disconnected, as in the last piano sonata (op. 111). Inmusical expression, he did not feel restrained by the weight of convention. By all accountshe was a freethinking person, and a courageous one, and I find courage an essential quality
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for the understanding, let alone the performance, of his works.This courageous attitude in fact becomes a requirement for the performers of Beethoven’s music. His compositions demand the performer to show courage, for example in the use of dynamics. Beethoven’s habit of increasing the volume with anintense crescendo and then abruptly following it with a sudden soft passage (a “subito piano”) was only rarely used by composers before him. In other words, Beethoven asksthe performer to show courage, not to be afraid of going to the edge of the precipice, andhe thus forces the performer to find the “line of most resistance,” a phrase coined by thegreat pianist Artur Schnabel.eethoven was a deeply political man in the broadest sense of the word. He was notinterested in daily politics, but concerned with questions of moral behavior and thelarger questions of right and wrong affecting the entire society. Especially significant washis view of freedom, which, for him, was associated with the rights and responsibilities of the individual: he advocated freedom of thought and of personal expression.Beethoven would have had no sympathy with the now widely held view of freedom asessentially economic, necessary for the workings of the market economy. A relativelyrecent example of the economic definition of freedom can be found in “The NationalSecurity Strategy of the United States of America,” a document issued by PresidentGeorge W. Bush on September 17, 2002, defining America’s relation to the rest of theworld. It states that the aim of the United States, as the most powerful nation on earth, istoextend the benefits of freedom across the globe…. If you can make something thatothers value, you should be able to sell it to them. If others make something that youvalue, you should be able to buy it. This is real freedom, the freedom for a person— or a nation—to make a living.Beethoven’s music is too often seen as exclusively dramatic, expressive of titanicstruggle. In this respect, the “Eroica” and the Fifth symphonies represent only one side of his work; one must also appreciate, for example, his “Pastoral” Symphony. His music is both introverted and extroverted and it again and again juxtaposes these qualities. The onehuman trait that is not present in his music is superficiality. Nor can it be characterized asshy or cute. On the contrary, even when it is intimate, as in the Fourth Piano Concerto andthe “Pastoral” Symphony, it has an element of grandeur. And when it is grand, it alsoremains intensely personal, the obvious example being the Ninth Symphony.Beethoven, in my view, was able to achieve a perfect balance in his music between vertical pressure—pressure from the composer’s mastery of musical form—and horizontal flow:he always combines vertical factors such as harmony, pitch, accents, or tempo, all o

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