Christmas According to Beethoven

Sonata Op.110, Moderato Beethoven (1770-1827)

“Lord Speak to Me That I May Speak”

“All Beautiful the March of Days” W. Zeitler

Generally speaking I try to present new music each Sunday. But there are two Sundays for which I have a piece I traditionally play every year. One is Widor’s Toccata from his 5th Organ Symphony — a massive exuberant full-organ piece for Easter Sunday. The other is Beethoven’s next-to-last piano sonata for the Sunday after Christmas.

Beethoven’s spirituality is difficult to divine. He certainly wasn’t a regular church goer. But then, he made Vienna his home, ground zero for the Holy Roman Empire – an unholy marriage of church and state. Imagine the worst intrigues of the Vatican and the U.S. government combined — hardly a Spirit-friendly environment.

As Joseph Campbell showed in his Hero of a Thousand Faces, in the archetypal ‘heroic quest’ the ‘hero’ starts out as a more-or-less ordinary person, then is dragged kicking and screaming into the underworld through calamity in their life and with any luck is ultimately able to find their way out to the light of day. This experience changes them profoundly – they emerge with gifts and insights they could have gained no other way. As I have discussed in previous Music Boxes, Beethoven underwent such a journey to ‘Hades’ himself in his 40s, and emerged to write music that still has the unmistakable imprint of his personality, but with a dramatic shift to the spiritual (e.g. the Ninth Symphony).

One of Beethoven’s life aspirations was marriage — he came close to closing the deal a few times but in the end it never came to pass. Which isn’t terribly surprising: he hardly had the personality for serene domestic bliss. And there is his nephew Karl, into whom Ludwig poured vast amounts of time, money, court battles and love — in the end Karl repudiated him. And so did Ludwig’s younger brother Johann, whom a teen-aged Ludwig had tried so hard to protect from their abusive alcoholic father. And there is his deafness — in a time before there was lip reading or any of the techniques which have been developed in the last couple centuries to include hearing impaired folks into the hearing community.

This piece is one of the few that he dated: 1821 Dec 25, and he dated no others ‘Christmas day’. (He would be 51 — six more years remained for him.) At this point in his life his sense of loneliness and isolation must have been profound: no wife & family of his own after all, rejected by his own brother and beloved nephew, and isolated by his deafness in a day when there were negligible supports for that handicap. And genius is notorious for being socially challenged anyway. So he was all the more Alone.

I have to wonder if this piece isn’t an expression of his complex feelings about Christmas: what could have been (Christmas Past), what never could be (Christmas Future), and the bittersweet realities of his Christmas Present. In short: a wistful and conflicted Acceptance of his fate.