Beethoven & Serenity

Sonata Op.111, Arietta L. van Beethoven (1770-1827)

At age 22 Beethoven moved to Vienna – one of the musical capitals of the world. And his career took off: patrons lined up, concert invitations piled up – life was good!

Then multiple misfortunes struck. One was his well known deafness. Beginning when he was 26, his hearing was gone by age 42. And then when Napoleon defeated the Holy Roman Empire in 1806 he made mincemeat of Beethoven’s stable of royal patrons, which decimated his income. (Beethoven was 36.)

And then there was his nephew Karl. When Beethoven’s brother died, he sued for custody of his nephew. A three-year court battle ensued which Beethoven ultimately lost. Meanwhile, Beethoven had been obsessive in trying to run Karl’s life. To escape his uncle, Karl tried to commit suicide by shooting himself in the head – and missed. Then he joined the army – and was kicked out. Finally he just repudiated his overbearing uncle and walked away. All of this broke Beethoven’s heart.

Not surprisingly Beethoven’s health broke – far too much alcohol probably didn’t help. There’s even the story of the police finding Beethoven drunk in a gutter. “You can’t arrest me, I’m Beethoven!'' You can hear the police saying, “Sure, and I’m Napoleon.'' Friends bailed him out of the drunk tank. His composition output dropped to zero, and the scuttlebutt in Vienna was that Beethoven was through.

But he wasn’t. At age 48 he put aside the bottle, his health returned more or less, and he started composing again. Music that was quite different than what he had composed before – his sojourn through personal hell had changed him. (Long trips through wasteland will do that.) The most famous is his Ninth Symphony. And his Missa Solemnis – an enormous, luminous setting of the Mass.

This morning’s “sermon'' is the last movement of his last piano sonata composed in 1820 – Beethoven was 50. It’s a `theme and variations'. First is a simply stated theme – a hymn really. From it blossoms into variations that foreshadow ragtime, and jazz, and even Debussy a century later.

But far more important than that, to me this piece is an enormous monument to Acceptance. When he wrote this piece his suffering was not over: he had always wanted to marry and by this point that was clearly never going to happen. His beloved Karl was gone. And being completely deaf, and with the complete opposite of a ‘win friends and influence people’ personality, he lived almost as a hermit. And his health sometimes came – and mostly went. Yet� he found Acceptance.

He certainly was no Saint – quite the opposite, but with the genius to musically express a Joy and Serenity available to us all.