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13 January, 2012
Among the Great Masters of Music: Scenes in the Lives of Famous Musicians|
by Walter Rowlands
|"No one can conceive," Beethoven wrote to the Baroness Droszdick, "the intense happiness I feel in getting into the country, among the woods, my dear trees, shrubs, hills, and dales. I am convinced that no one loves country life as I do. It is as if every tree and every bush could understand my mute inquiries and respond to them." It was this rage for fresh air and fields which made him such a bad stay-at-home bird, whether he was sheltered amid the palatial surroundings of some princely patron, or whether sojourning in the less luxurious and comfortless atmosphere of some one of his frequently changed lodgings. He disliked any control, and truly meant it when, at intervals, growing impatient with the constant requests for his company, he complained outright that he was forced too much into society. His favourite places for ruralising were Mödling, Döbling, Hentzendorf, and Baden; while there is still cherished in the royal garden of Schönbrunn a favourite spot, between two ash-trees, where the master is reputed to have composed some of the music of "Fidelio."
A French artist, Paul Leyendecker, has painted the master thus at work amid nature's peace. Beethoven is sitting on the outskirts of a wood near his native city of Bonn, absorbed in composition. A funeral procession is coming up the road, with the coffin borne upon the shoulders of the mourners, and preceded by the priest, who recognises the composer and bids the choristers cease chanting for a while in order not to disturb his labours. Turning from the master at work in the open air to him at home, we find that Carl Schloesser, a German painter long settled in London, exhibited at the Royal Academy, a few years ago, a striking picture showing Beethoven at the piano absorbed in composition, amid a litter of manuscripts and music-sheets. It was thus he must have looked when Weber called upon him in 1823.
"All lay in the wildest disorder - music, money, clothing, on the floor - linen from the wash upon the dirty bed - broken coffee-cups upon the table. The open pianoforte was covered thickly with dust. Beethoven entered to greet his visitors. Benedict has thus described him: 'Just so must have looked Lear, or one of Ossian's bards. His thick gray hair was flung upwards, and disclosed the sanctuary of his lofty vaulted forehead. His nose was square, like that of a lion; his chin broad, with those remarkable folds which all his portraits show; his jaws formed as if purposely to crack the hardest nuts; his mouth noble and soft. Over the broad face, seamed with scars from the smallpox, was spread a dark redness. From under the thick, closely compressed eyebrows gleamed a pair of small flashing eyes. The square, broad form of a Cyclops was wrapped in a shabby dressing-gown, much torn about the sleeves.' Beethoven recognised Weber without a word, embraced him energetically, shouting out, 'There you are, my boy; you are a devil of a fellow! God bless you!' handed him at once his famous tablets, then pushed a heap of music from the old sofa, threw himself upon it, and, during a flow of conversation, commenced dressing himself to go out. Beethoven began with a string of complaints about his own position; about the theatres, the public, the Italians, the talk of the day, and, more especially, about his own ungrateful nephew. Weber, who was nervous and agitated, counselled him to tear himself from Vienna, and to take a journey through Germany to convince himself of the world's judgment of him, and more especially to go to England, where his works were more reverenced than in any other country. 'Too late! too late!' cried Beethoven, making the pantomime of playing on the piano, and shaking his head sadly. Then he seized on Weber's arm, and dragged him away to the Sauerhof, where he was wont to dine. 'Here,' wrote Weber afterward, 'we dined together in the happiest mood. The rough repulsive man paid me as much attention as if I were a lady to whom he was making court, and served me at table with the most delicate care. How proud I felt to receive all this kindness and affectionate regard from the great master spirit! The day will remain for ever impressed on my mind, as well as on that of all who were present.'"
Three years later the Swedish poet, Atterbom, being in Vienna, went to visit Beethoven. Atterbom was accompanied by his friend, Doctor Jeitteles, who has left this account of their odd experience. He says: "We went one hot afternoon to the Alservorstadt, and mounted to the second story of the so-called Schwarzspanier house. We rang, no one answered; we lifted the latch, the door was open, the anteroom empty. We knocked at the door of Beethoven's room, and, receiving no reply, repeated our knock more loudly. But we got no answer, although we could hear there was some one inside. We entered, and what a scene presented itself! The wall facing us was hung with huge sheets of paper covered with charcoal marks; Beethoven was standing before it, with his back turned toward us, but in what a condition! Oppressed by the excessive heat, he had divested himself of everything but his shirt, and was busily employed writing notes on the wall with a lead-pencil, beating time, and striking a few chords on his stringless pianoforte. He did not once turn toward the door. We looked at each other in amused perplexity. It was no use trying to attract the deaf master's attention by making a noise; and he would have felt embarrassed had we gone up to him. I said to Atterbom, 'Would you, as a poet, like to take away with you to the north the consciousness of having, perhaps, arrested the loftiest flight of genius? You can at least say, "I have seen Beethoven create." Let us leave, unseen and unheard!' We departed."
Another German artist, Graefle, has produced an interesting work depicting Beethoven playing to his friends.
"At the pianoforte Beethoven seemed a god - at times in the humour to play, at others not. If he happened not to be in the humour, it required pressing and reiterated entreaties to get him to the instrument. Before he began in earnest, he used sportively to strike the keys with the palm of his hand, draw his fingers along the keyboard from one end to the other, and play all manner of gambols, at which he laughed heartily. Once at the pianoforte, and in a genial mood with his surroundings, he would extemporise for one and two hours at a stretch, amid the solemn silence of his listeners. He demanded absolute silence from conversation whenever he put his fingers upon the pianoforte keys to play. If this was not forthcoming, he rose up, publicly upbraided the offenders, and left the room. This mode of resenting a nuisance - one not yet extinct - was once illustrated at Count Browne's, where Beethoven and Ries were engaged in playing a duet, yet during which one of the guests started an animated conversation with a lady. Exasperated at such an affront to his artistic honour, Beethoven rose up, glared at the pair, and shouted out, 'I play no more for such hogs,' - nor would he touch another note or allow Ries to do so, although earnestly entreated by the company. 'His improvisation,' Czerny tells us, 'was most brilliant and striking; in whatever company he might chance to be, he knew how to produce such an effect upon every hearer that frequently not an eye remained dry, while many would break out into loud sobs, for there was something wonderful in his expression in addition to the beauty and originality of his ideas and his spirited style of rendering them.' Ries says: 'No artist that I ever heard came at all near the height Beethoven attained in this branch of playing. The wealth of ideas which forced themselves on him, the caprices to which he surrendered himself, the variety of treatment, the difficulties, were inexhaustible. Even the Abbé Vogler's admirers were compelled to admit as much.'"
Tomaschek was greatly impressed by Beethoven. He writes: "It was in 1798, when I was studying law, that Beethoven, that giant among players, came to Prague.... His grand style of playing, and especially his bold improvisation, had an extraordinary effect upon me. I felt so shaken that for several days I could not bring myself to touch the piano."
"His manner was to sit in a quiet way at the instrument, commanding his feelings; but occasionally, and especially when extemporising, it was hard to maintain the pose. At extreme moments he warmed into great passions, so that it was impossible for him to hide from his listeners the sacred fires that were raging within him. Czerny declares that his playing of slow movements was full of the greatest expression, - an experience to be remembered. He used the pedal largely, and was most particular in the placing of the hands and the drift of the fingers upon the keys. As a pianist, he was surnamed 'Giant among players,' and men like Vogler, Hummel, and Wölffl were of a truth great players; but as Sir George Grove aptly says, in speaking of Beethoven's tours de force in performance, his transposing and playing at sight, etc., 'It was no quality of this kind that got him the name, but the loftiness and elevation of his style, and his great power of expression in slow movements, which, when exercised on his noble music, fixed his hearers, and made them insensible to any fault of polish or mere mechanism.'"
Beethoven has often served as a subject for painters, but, among the numerous pictures dedicated to him, we recall none more impressive than Aimé de Lemud's "Beethoven's Dream." De Lemud, a Frenchman who died at the age of seventy years, in 1887, first won success as a painter, and then studied engraving. At the Salon of 1863 he received a medal for his engraving of this picture, which was then entitled, simply, "Beethoven."
Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, in her story of "The Silent Partner," tells how "a line engraving after De Lemud could make a 'forgetting' in the life of a factory girl.
"An engraving that lay against a rich easel in a corner of the room attracted the girl's attention presently. She went down on her knees to examine it. It chanced to be Lemud's dreaming Beethoven. Sip was very still about it.
"'What is that fellow doing?' she asked, after a while. 'Him with the stick in his hand.'
"She pointed to the leader of the shadowy orchestra, touching the baton through the glass, with her brown fingers.
"'I have always supposed,' said Perley, 'that he was only floating with the rest; you see the orchestra behind him.'
"'Floating after those women with their arms up? No, he isn't.'
"'What is he doing?'
"It's riding over him - the orchestra. He can't master it. Don't you see? It sweeps him along. He can't help himself. They come and come. How fast they come! How he fights and falls! Oh, I know how they come! That's the way things come to me; things I could do, things I could say, things I could get rid of if I had the chance; they come in the mills mostly; they tumble over me just so; I never have the chance. How he fights! I didn't know there was any such picture in the world. I'd like to look at that picture day and night. See! Oh, I know how they come!'
"'Miss Kelso - ' after another silence, and still upon her knees before the driving dream and the restless dreamer. 'You see, that's it. That's like your pretty things. I'd keep your pretty things if I was you. It ain't that there shouldn't be music anywhere. It's only that the music shouldn't ride over the master. Seems to me it is like that.'"