Another good section from that Peter Watson book I’ve been reading all summer:
The great difference between Beethoven (1770-1827) and Mozart, who was only fourteen years older, was that Beethoven thought of himself as an artist. There is no mention of that word in Mozart’s letters—he considered himself a skilled craftsman who, as Haydn and Bach had done before him, supplied a commodity. But Beethoven saw himself as part of a special breed, a creator, and that put him on a par with royalty and other elevated souls. ‘What is in my heart,’ he said, ‘must come out’. Goethe was just one who responded to the force of his personality, writing, ‘Never have I met an artist of such spiritual concentration and intensity, such vitality and great-heartedness. I can well understand how hard he must find it to adapt to the world and its ways.’ Even the crossings-out in his autograph music have a violence that Mozart, for example, lacked.
…However, what the Eroica and Ninth symphonies have in common, what made their sounds so new and so different from the music of, say, Mozart, was that Beethoven was concerned above all with inner states of being, with the urge for self-expression, the dramatic intensity of the soul. ‘Beethoven’s music is not polite. What he presented, as no composer before or since, was a feeling of drama, of conflict and resolution…The music (of the Ninth) is not pretty or even attractive. It merely is sublime…this is music turned inward, music of the spirit, music of extreme subjectivity…’ It was the Ninth symphony, its gigantic struggle ‘of protest and release’, that most influenced Berlioz and Wagner, that remained the (largely unattainable) ideal for Brahms, Bruckner and Mahler. Debussy confessed that the great score had become, for composers, ‘a universal nightmare’. What he meant was that few other composers could match Beethoven, and perhaps only one, Wagner, could surpass him.
All praise for the immortal Ludwig; let there be no doubt. I was watching the movie Immortal Beloved again last week, and once again felt my eyes welling up over the gorgeous Ode to Joy scene from the triumphant premiere of the Ninth symphony. And I later played my favorite movement from the Eroica for someone who hadn’t heard it before, feeling the chills run rampant up and down my spine as we listened.
But I still despair a bit over the way Mozart and Beethoven are so incessantly presented as being almost diametrically opposed to each other.†
Let me impose upon you and ask you to listen to two of my favorite pieces, the third movement from the 35th symphony, and the third movement from the 40th. I ask you: does that sound like superficial frippery to you, technical virtuosity with no soul? Does dramatic intensity always have to equate to bombastic self-aggrandizement?
†Including, coincidentally enough, a scene from the movie Leon: The Professional, where Gary Oldman, who starred as Beethoven in Immortal Beloved, has this exchange (Oldman as Stansfield):
Stansfield: I like these calm little moments before the storm. It reminds me of Beethoven. Can you hear it? It’s like when you put your head to the grass and you can hear the growin’ and you can hear the insects. Do you like Beethoven?
Malky: I couldn’t really say.
Stansfield: You don’t like Beethoven. You don’t know what you’re missing. Overtures like that get my… juices flowing. So powerful. But after his openings, to be honest, he does tend to get a little fucking boring. That’s why I stopped!
[laughs and sighs]
You’re a Mozart fan. I love him too. I looooove Mozart! He was Austrian you know? But for this kind of work, [imitates playing the piano] he’s a little bit light. So I tend to go for the heavier guys. Check out Brahms. He’s good too.