Beethoven Op. 110

Moderato con amabilità (‘Moderate [tempo], with loveliness’) Op. 110 L. Beethoven (1770-1827)

“All Beautiful the March of Days”


Beethoven almost never dated his compositions. This morning’s prelude is a rare exception, dated December 25, 1821.

Much has been made of his ability to compose ‘in his head’ without having to ‘pound it out’ on a piano, but that is in fact a commonplace skill amongst composers. I don’t know of a composer of note (including contemporary) who can’t do this – even *I* can! It’s something like learning to write English: when you were in 1st grade you probably had to say the words out loud as you wrote them. But with time and practice you didn’t need to anymore — you could hear the words in your head. Same with composing music.

What is much more interesting to me is that he would WANT to. Sure ‘he could hear it in his head’ but I can assure you that it is not the same. Consider the difference between imagining a loved one and actually being with them — the difference is night and day. I can also say from personal experience that – sure, I ‘hear the piece in my head’ when I write it, but then to hear it for the first time played by a real orchestra is a thrilling shock, even though I know every stinkin’ note. So again – WHY did he keep composing? (The answer, of course, is that nothing — not even deafness — could stop him.)

Beethoven went deaf at a time when there was no sign language, and no lip reading. So in addition to being isolated from society by genius (obviously his brain didn’t work like ours), deafness made that isolation far worse. It was also a life-long dream of his to be married and have a family. He doesn’t seem like someone who would have been good husband material, but that didn’t stop him from wanting that deeply. He proposed numerous times, and they always said ‘no’.

Beethoven also suffered from chronic ill health, and wrote this piece in a particularly bad bout of it. Medical diagnosis was poor at best in those days, but based on the symptoms he appears to have suffered from colitis, rheumatism, poor resistance to infection and hepatitis. All the above finally overcame him six years later. The post-mortem added chronic pancreatitis, degeneration of the kidneys, splenomegaly, and auditory nerves `like goose quills’. At his death a cast was taken of his face, so we can confirm that he also suffered from profound facial scarring (perhaps due to typhus?) — one contemporary described Beethoven as having the `terrifying countenance of a leper.’

So when I play this piece, dated Christmas day, I can’t help but think of that scene in Dicken’s Christmas Carol when Scrooge is out in the snow looking in through a window at the happy and warm family inside. Or Moses who can see the Promised Land but can’t enter in himself. Or Van Gogh who wasn’t able to sell a single painting in his lifetime. So many known and unknown who have given us everything, yet came up profoundly wanting for themselves. And gave us their all anyway.