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Beethoven, 'Universal Composer'
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Beethoven, 'Universal Composer'

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

The light and shadows of Ludwig van Beethoven's life are familiar to most of us: the child who cried as his father forced him to practice, the brilliant composer afflicted by deafness, the author of passionate, tortured letters to his immortal beloved, the creator of the enormous Ninth Symphony and the conductor oblivious to his audience's standing ovation.

Edmund Morris' new biography brings us into Beethoven's world, to the cities of Bonn and Vienna, where he lived, into his professional friendships and rivalries with Haydn, Mozart, Goethe and Napoleon Bonaparte, into his often difficult relationships with his family, into his struggle against his gathering deafness, into eccentricity and madness and, most of all, into his ability to transcend all of that to create great music.

Later in the program, the music of Comiskey Park--all right, all right, Cellular One Field. Organist Nancy Faust joins us from Chicago and we'll talk with Alan Schwarz about a World Series antic last night.

But first, Ludwig van Beethoven. If you have questions about the man, his music or his times, our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

Edmund Morris joins us here in Studio 3A. His latest book is part of the Eminent Lives series. It's called "Beethoven: The Universal Composer."

And thanks very much for coming in.

Mr. EDMUND MORRIS (Author, "Beethoven: The Universal Composer"): Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: You're a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of American presidents. Why a life of Beethoven?

Mr. MORRIS: Well, I sometimes wonder why I wrote about presidents when I could have started off writing about Beethoven.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MORRIS: When I was about 14 years old, the age of epiphanies, I was transformed by the music of Beethoven, and I haven't been quite the same since. So after three whopping great presidential biographies, I really felt I needed a break from presidential politics and national affairs and things like that, and I took what amounted to a sabbatical, writing this short biography of Beethoven, which at the same time was a labor of love and a literary challenge, too.

CONAN: You're a pianist and a music scholar, as well as a biographer. Why Beethoven as opposed to Mozart, Chopin, who else?

Mr. MORRIS: There are other composers who attract me and I would like to write about, but Beethoven seemed the obvious choice for a short biography because he has been, since the year 1809, the world's most famous and influential composer. His popularity's never waned. His genius seems to be universal in its appeal to intellectuals and to dilettantes, and all different cultures. Plus, his personality, biographically speaking, was endlessly fascinating.

CONAN: Let me ask you a little bit about that, and beginning with that picture that you paint of a young Ludwig hauled onto the piano stool by his father, crying, as people said later as they described him--crying in the window as he did it.

Mr. MORRIS: Yes. His father was a somewhat cruel taskmaster. However, I think his father, who was a professional musician himself in the employ of the elector of Cologne, did instill in little Ludwig a sort of iron self-discipline, which stood him in good stead later on in his life when he had to fight for health and fight for sanity. Beethoven to the end of his life, even when he seemed to outsiders to be quite nuts, was a supremely disciplined individual with enormous mental fortitude, and I think he owes a lot of that to his father.

CONAN: One thing you write about in this is that he was determined never to imitate anyone, including himself.

Mr. MORRIS: Yes. He made a fetish of originality, boasted of the fact that his works--each new work did not resemble a previous one. And I sometimes as a party trick will play the opening bars of four or five of his piano sonatas in a row, and you can hardly believe that these five separate openings were written by the same man, except for a general overriding quality, which was as unmistakable as the same quality in Picasso.

CONAN: Throughout, you write about the technical challenges. Beethoven himself was a brilliant performer, but the technical challenges he poses for his musicians--and I wonder, as a pianist yourself, as you were going through this, did you, as you're writing about one piano concerto or another, haul it out and play it for yourself?

Mr. MORRIS: Oh, I played what I could, but I can assure you, I can't play some of the more demanding Beethoven piano music. The "Hammerklavier" sonata, for example, which he wrote in 1818, is to this day regarded by most professional musicians as the most difficult piano sonata ever written, not only because it's so difficult technically--almost impossibly difficult--but because it's so intellectually challenging.

CONAN: Intellectually challenging--let me ask you about that. You describe Beethoven as a `creature of the age of reason,' yet he's also, in many ways, a figure of transition, of--things were changing. Well, he changed them, for one thing.

Mr. MORRIS: He stands between the age of high classicism, personified by Joseph Haydn and Mozart, and the German romanticism which came in with Karl Maria von Weber and Schubert and Schumann and other composers like that. Beethoven was both and he was neither. He had classical discipline all through his life, a classical need for form and organization, but at the same time a romantic bigness of imagination which constantly bent these forms. So his music is an intellectual and aesthetic struggle and, therefore, did not quite belong to either aesthetic camp. And that's one of the reasons it still speaks to us today.

CONAN: And in political terms, as well as intellectual, he came of age as the Revolution was being fomented in France. He, of course, lived in Bonn, not far away, a place that was really seeing the fruits of the Enlightenment, yet threatened by France's military. Those fruits were quickly taken away.

Mr. MORRIS: That's right. He was not a particularly political person, in the sense that he wasn't particularly interested in politics, but any young man growing up in the Rhineland at the time that the French Revolution was breaking forth across the border would be aware of the change in intellectual currents around the world. And when he set himself up in Vienna in 1792 at the age of 21, he very quickly learned how to manipulate princes and dukes and counts in order to further his own career as the first bourgeois self-employed composer in history.

CONAN: He started out as a court employee back in Bonn and, of course, that was a tradition we all know about Mozart, that sort of thing. But beginning with Beethoven, things began to change.

Mr. MORRIS: Indeed. He began life as Mozart did, wearing a powdered wig and silk stockings and playing at court. But when he arrived in Vienna, as I just said a moment ago, at 21, he soon became independent and, unlike Mozart, he was feted by these princes and princelings. They would put him up in their palaces and instruct their servants to serve him before they served the duke himself.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners involved in the conversation. Our guest is Edmund Morris. His most recent book is "The Universal Composer," "Beethoven," part of the Eminent Lives series. (800) 989-8255 if you'd like to join us, or e-mail us: totn@npr.org. We'll begin with Joe, Joe calling from St. Louis.

JOE (Caller): Yes. Good afternoon and thank you.

CONAN: Sure.

JOE: I am eager to speak with you and hear what you have to say about this, you and your guest. It seems to me, as I've grown older, that what I've found in Beethoven is he deals repetitively with some very simple themes in his music. Take the Fifth Symphony, all the `da-da-da dah' that appears through there; likewise, in the Ninth and the Seventh and some of these, he seemed to go so deeply into the simplest type of theme and just kept working it from one nuance to another. He seemed never to be satisfied, and that seemed to be part of his inspiration. And I don't quite know what to make of this, except to say that he just mined everything that he felt in his music. It wasn't so much rapid movement across, but seemingly penetration also into the vertical aspects of music as well as the horizontal, if I may use that term.

CONAN: Hm. Edmund Morris?

Mr. MORRIS: Well, that's true, to a certain extent. Beethoven could and did write extremely long and complex themes, but it's certainly true that he would break these themes down into motifs, to motives, sometimes as short as only two notes. And he would use these scraps of melody almost as though they were fragments of stone to build up a big cathedral of sound.

JOE: Yes, very well said.

Mr. MORRIS: Which is one of the reasons, I think, that he appealed so much to architects.

JOE: Ah.

Mr. MORRIS: Frank Lloyd Wright identified with him, and so did Louis Kahn, because Beethoven has this spatial sense. He seemed to be able to perceive great structures three-dimensionally.

CONAN: Yet you yourself say that he had very little facility with numbers, with arithmetic, even.

Mr. MORRIS: Yes, it's very strange. He seems almost dyslexic in his mathematical calculations. He couldn't multiply and couldn't divide. And he frequently transposed digits when he was writing the date, but at the same time, his music, particularly that of the third period, is almost mathematical in its cerebral perfection, and he delighted in setting himself almost impossible contrapuntal problems which could be worked out almost like calculus.

CONAN: Hm. Joe, thanks very much for the call.

JOE: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's get a question in from Dave, Dave calling from Clarkston, Michigan.

DAVE (Caller): Yes. I'd read once--I believe it was in a Mozart biography--that Beethoven came to Mozart for lessons at an early age, and Mozart was too preoccupied at the time and had to turn him down. I would like to know the--you know, your guest's comment on that, and I'll take my answer off the air.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Dave.

DAVE: ...(Unintelligible).

Mr. MORRIS: I tell this story in the book. It seems to be an authentic story, but we have to take it from Mozart's 19th-century biographer, Otto Jahn, who reported that Beethoven as a teen-ager was sent to Vienna and did audition for Mozart, and Mozart, according to the story, left the room and said to some people in the next room, `Keep your eye on this young man, because he will make a noise in the world one day.'

CONAN: And that was on his first trip to Vienna, which was cut short by the death of his mother. He returned to Bonn, and by the time he got back to Vienna, Mozart had died.

Mr. MORRIS: That's quite write. He was certainly sent to Vienna to take lessons from Mozart, but I doubt that he met Mozart more than once or twice since, as you say, he had to come back to Bonn two weeks later.

CONAN: Yet the other character we associate closely with Mozart, Salieri, he plays a role. I guess we'll be talking about him after we come back from a break--the conservative there, still in Vienna. We're talking with historian Edward Morris about his new biography of Beethoven; (800) 989-8255 if you'd care to join us; or e-mail us, totn@npr.org.

I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're discussing the life and music of Ludwig van Beethoven. Our guest is Edmund Morris, the author of the new biography "Beethoven: The Universal Composer."

And, Mr. Morris, we could play an awful lot of music during the show and skip the talk altogether. We've chosen one short piece, though, "Bagatelle," Opus 119, which you described in your introduction to the book. And tell us, before we hear it--it's only about a minute and 50 seconds. Tell us what to listen for.

Mr. MORRIS: If this is the B-flat major, Opus 119, "Bagatelle," what we'll hear is, even though it's so short, an endless flow of melody, extreme simplicity, extreme beauty and a rising, soaring ascent to the height of the piano, a feeling of dissolution and then a descent back to an extremely simple ending. It's a wonderful little piece, as perfect in its way as the whole B-flat major slow movement of the Ninth Symphony.

CONAN: Let's take a listen.

(Soundbite of "Bagatelle")

Mr. MORRIS: There's a line in one of the plays of Christopher Marlowe in which he expresses the essence of music like that: `infinite riches in a little room.'

CONAN: `Infinite'--that's lovely. That is a lovely piece of music. I wanted to ask you about a quote which you--of Beethoven's: "In the world of art, as in the whole of our great creation, freedom and progress are the main objectives." What was he writing about?

Mr. MORRIS: By freedom, I think that he meant the ability to bend and transmute old rules, to be free to alter a sonata form into forms of his own devising and to, at the same time, let his soul expand into entirely new forms and new melodies, new combinations, which is what he meant, I think, by the construction that he used.

CONAN: Underlying all of that, though, as you said--underlying all of that has to be this iron discipline, this mastery of technique that so few--nobody may have had.

Mr. MORRIS: He delighted in difficulty. Even though he was capable of that sublime simplicity we've just heard, Beethoven rather liked to make things difficult for himself.

CONAN: A contrarian, you say.

Mr. MORRIS: He liked to manhandle music into its shape. It's one of the reasons I'm really keen to see this manuscript which has just been discovered in Philadelphia. It was big news in The New York Times a couple of weeks ago...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MORRIS: ...the manuscript that the "Grosse Fuge," the "Great Fugue," that Beethoven wrote in his last years. It's been discovered in a two-piano arrangement, and from everything I hear, it's very tactile. It's got holes worn in the paper where he's erased passages, splattered with ink and gouged and dog-eared; one whole section of music literally plastered onto the page with sealing wax. And it stands, I'm sure--we're going to see it next month at Sotheby's, November the 16th. It stands as an artifact, showing how physical the labor of composition was for Beethoven and how he needed to fight music onto the page.

CONAN: Let's get some more listeners involved in the conversation. This is Ed, Ed calling from Cincinnati.

ED (Caller): Hi. I share a love-hate relationship with Beethoven, as your interviewee does. I'm part of an amateur orchestra, which has been complicit in massacring some of the Beethoven symphonies. But at any rate, I'm interested to hear the discussion of Beethoven's being mad. To what degree do you think that he would be considered insane nowadays?

Mr. MORRIS: He had episodes of paranoia; in fact, he was paranoic by tendency. Everybody was always trying to screw Beethoven. His servants were always stealing from him. Plots were being hatched. Publishers were trying to cheat him. He was of that nature. It was part of his extreme truculence. But his paranoia really blossomed out into--toward the edge of madness in the teens of the 19th century, when he was fighting a prolonged lawsuit for custody of his nephew, Karl, and also going through a spiritual crisis, I believe, in the change in his compositional style.

And during those four or five years, he wrote some letters, particularly legal letters to do with the court case, which are like the documents of a genuine paranoic lunatic. He had a sexual hang-up about his sister-in-law, which was really quite flagrant, and if you read these letters, they are disturbing in the extreme.

ED: I see. Thank you very much.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Ed, and good luck with the next symphony.

ED: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Let's talk with Sarah, Sarah calling from Chicago.

SARAH (Caller): Hi, Mr. Morris. I am wondering what you have discovered in your research and such on Beethoven--his spirituality and religion in his life and how that played a role in obviously very spiritual music that he has composed.

Mr. MORRIS: Well, he was born Catholic, in the Catholic Rhineland, and he spent most of his youth playing organ in churches around Bonn, so he had plenty of schooling in the liturgy and in the music of the Catholic Church. As an adult, he was not by any means a churchgoer. He was pantheistic by nature. He had vague notions that God is resident in nature; in fact, more than vague. He genuinely believed that nature was instinct with religious and with inspirational values that contributed to his music. And all his religious rapture tended to come out in pantheistic symphonies and other music of that kind.

CONAN: And the "Pastorale." Yeah.

Mr. MORRIS: The "Pastorale" symphony" being the prime example of that. But later on in life, in his third period, when he began to conceive of this gigantic Mass, the "Missa Solemnis," which he considered to be his greatest work, he threw himself into the study of medieval religious music and produced a work, a musical work, which is fully as devotional as the religious music of J.S. Bach, but at the same time has got this humanistic feel behind it that goes beyond theology.

CONAN: Yet you also point out that when he did have--was living with his nephew, Karl, prayers on their knees morning and night.

Mr. MORRIS: He felt that was part of a necessary boy's education, that he should learn to pray and go through the motions of religious reverence. He was also attracted, I should mention, in his later years, to Indian and Hindu mysticism and read quite a few texts in translation, and even pasted up on his mirror in one of his apartments a series of Coptic texts which seemed to speak to him in some vague spiritual way.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Sarah.

SARAH: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Let's talk with Peter. Peter's with us from Ft. Lauderdale.

PETER (Caller): Hi. How are you? Good afternoon.

CONAN: And I hope you're doing well in the aftermath of the storm there, Peter.

PETER: Ah, fortunately, I have a cellular phone and I'm listening from my car radio. We're getting along. But anyway, Mr. Morris, it's a privilege to speak with you and ask you a question. I was going to ask you about Beethoven's singular Violin Concerto in D, which was a very unique work and people feel that it was forward-looking toward the Romantic era, and find out where you place that piece in significance to his musical and personal life and maybe how he viewed that. But when you mentioned his pantheistic tendencies and you mentioned the "Pastorale" Symphony, that's a very interesting work, too. It's a five-movement symphony, very unique. I guess maybe--how do you look at those two pieces, there's anything you can say about the "Pastorale" further, and anything about the Violin Concerto in D and the significance of that singular work.

Mr. MORRIS: Well, I would only say that those two works you've just mentioned are part of an absolute flood of music that poured out of Beethoven with Niagara-like amplitude from the moment that he admitted his deafness in 1801 to about 1812, when the flood began to diminish. That period, now known as his middle period or his heroic period, is the period that produced all of the great symphonies, with the exception of the Ninth; the Fourth and the "Emperor" Piano Concertos, most of the middle period piano sonatas. The Violin Concerto, as you say, is a single exemplar of his writing for the violin. They're all characterized by an extraordinary nobility of expression, physical size--they're large works; they somehow elevate the soul. They're easy to listen to, but at the same time, they're eternally beautiful; must less demanding, intellectually speaking, than the works of his last years.

CONAN: Thank you, Peter.

PETER: Thank you.

CONAN: And continued good luck.

PETER: Yeah.

CONAN: Let's talk now with Gunther, Gunther calling us from Portland, Oregon.

GUNTHER (Caller): Hello?

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air.

GUNTHER: Yes. Thank you. Well, I'm a Holocaust survivor, and I only called to recall how much Beethoven meant to us during the Second World War. On the one hand, he was--and people ask themselves how a nation with a culture provided by people like Beethoven and Mozart and Goethe could have fallen in place with the Nazis. That was sort of the imponderable. And, of course, the BBC playing from the Fifth Symphony became an icon--`da-da-da dum.' And we all drew hope for our humanity from his Ninth Symphony.

Mr. MORRIS: Well, thank you, sir. As I said in my book somewhere, there are moments when only Beethoven will do.

GUNTHER: Sorry?

Mr. MORRIS: There are moments in life when only Beethoven will really speak to one's feelings...

GUNTHER: Yes.

Mr. MORRIS: ...moments like the death of great leaders like Winston Churchill or the fall of the Berlin Wall...

GUNTHER: Right.

Mr. MORRIS: ...or the need for surcease when one has been in prison.

GUNTHER: Yes.

Mr. MORRIS: At times like that, Beethoven says things that no other composer can say.

GUNTHER: He was a real historic figure as well, and he inspired people and gave them hope.

Mr. MORRIS: Exactly.

GUNTHER: A real humanist in fascist times.

Mr. MORRIS: That's a very good phrase, and I wish I'd thought of it myself.

GUNTHER: Oh, no, I'm glad. I'm glad you did the book and I--we will all continue to listen to Beethoven, I am sure. Thank you very much for listening to my note.

CONAN: And, Gunther, thanks very much for the call.

GUNTHER: Bye-bye.

CONAN: We're talking with Edmund Morris about his new biography, "Beethoven: The Universal Composer." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And I have to ask about his deafness. Clearly this was gathering unto him, as you said, into about 1812 or so, and then there were--this was accompanied by headaches, buzzing sounds, noises. This was a man who had phenomenal hearing earlier in his life. The pain of what he could no longer hear must have been horribly acute.

Mr. MORRIS: Yes. It's unimaginable. I used to think before I knew the details that he composed in the silence of his head, imagining the deafness as silence. But as you pointed out, he seems to have suffered from tinnitius, because he complained early on, even in his late 20s, of buzzings and screamings and whistles and howls in his ears and pointed out that these noises occurred--lasted right through the day and through the night, even when he was trying to sleep.

CONAN: Yeah. You paint that picture of him during the shelling of Vienna during one of the Napoleonic wars with handkerchiefs stuffed in his ears so--he couldn't bear the noise.

Mr. MORRIS: Yes. Buried his head under pillows to protect what was left of his hearing, which had almost all gone by then. So the miracle is that his music was coaxed out of--not out of silence but out of a bedlam of pathological noises in his head. And that makes it even more miraculous that such harmonies should come out of such disorder.

CONAN: And I want to end by asking you to paint the picture for us, that great moment of triumph near the end of his life. His Ninth Symphony is being received rapturously and he has composed the piece himself--conducted the piece himself, rather.

Mr. MORRIS: Right. It was the premiere of the Ninth Symphony in Vienna in 1825 and Beethoven was asked to conduct, largely as a courtesy because he was absolutely stone deaf by then, so really all he did was give the tempo from the conductors rostrum for the symphony to begin. And he continued to beat tempo throughout, but the actual conducting was done by Michael Umlauf, who was standing behind him. Anyway, at the end of the symphony, while the hall erupted in applause, he was unaware of this tumult behind him and stood staring at the score in front of him and had to be grasped by the elbows by the young soprano soloist who turned him around and made him see the ovation that he could not hear.

CONAN: We're going to end with that image and with the final strains of the last part of the Ninth Symphony.

Edmund Morris, thank you very much for being with us today.

Mr. MORRIS: Thank you.

CONAN: Edmund Morris' most recent book is "The Universal Composer, Beethoven," part of the Eminent Lives series. If you'd like to read an excerpt from the book, you can go to our Web site at www.npr.org.

I'm Neal Conan. More after the break. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony)

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