On December 16, 1826, Ludwig van Beethoven celebrated his 56th birthday. On December 19 of this year, I will celebrate mine.
For me as a Beethoven scholar, this is a particularly weighty birthday. Beethoven would die three months later and never had another one. By this time in life, he had already composed all his music—the promising early works, the dazzling ones of the middle period that earned him his reputation, and the profound, mystifying (in the good sense) works of his late period, written after he lost his hearing: those works in which he has always seemed to me to be transcending the medium and communicating timeless truths.
I used to look at the late works as the product of an old age marked by profound wisdom. I am now that old myself, and I don't have that wisdom, and it astonishes me to think that I have lived through as many years as Beethoven did. I know it's a cliche, but I don't feel my age—until, that is, I look at the music Beethoven wrote, and had been writing for over a decade by the time he was 56 years old. Then I realize that a creatively miraculous life was indeed compressed into what I now have to regard as a very short human time span. Beethoven's oeuvre—one of the most significant achievements in human history by any standards—was finished when he was 56. I march on toward retirement, which I expect to be at least 14 years in the future, and I have no such sense of closure, and I'm glad I don't, because I don't want the show to stop.
There have been numerous attempts to explain what makes Beethoven's music the cultural landmark that it has become. As a teenager, I read Leonard Bernstein's "imaginary conversation" titled Why Beethoven?, in which a young Bernstein asserts that Beethoven may not have been outstandingly good at any of the individual building blocks of music, but he had the inexplicable gift of always knowing which note had to come next. Beethoven, he seems to want to say, wasn't a particularly good composer, except for the fact that he was a great one.
More recently, a colleague told me of his belief that Beethoven was no better than Haydn, except for the fact that he was more neurotic, and thus appeals to our neurotic age. I have to agree—and I said this on Facebook recently—that in virtually every respect that can be measured or quantified, Haydn was at least as good as Beethoven, and often better. I'm not sure, though, that being neurotic is what has allowed Beethoven to draw so many toward his star instead.
It is telling that Beethoven has come in for his share of revisionism lately. One scholar asserts that his achievement has led later listeners to have unrealistic expectations about what music can do. Another has claimed that Beethoven's music embodies male libidinal impulses, and that a feminine "voice" is necessary to restore the balance. (Apologies to Scott Burnham and Susan McClary for simplifying their arguments.) At the very least, it is now widely understood that his music, which for so many years was considered "universal" and "immortal," is very much a product of the time and the culture in which it was written.
Yet I have always believed that it speaks uniquely to our culture as well, and that it embodies timeless truths that go far beyond the world of music and pertain to human spiritual development in the broadest sense. What did Beethoven, who died at 56, and Haydn, who lived to 77, have in common? A style, an approach, an epoch (broadly defined) within the unfolding drama of music and its history. What separates them? A revolution, a new century, and a dawning transformation of the way we understand human identity.
Haydn's music is wonderful, inventive, sophisticated, ingenious and playful by turns; it is everything that a music lover could possibly hope for or expect. Beethoven's music, meanwhile, speaks to the situation of a lone human individual caught in the middle of vast societal transformations and hobbled in its ability to respond. Unlike Haydn, Beethoven was forced to come to terms with those transformations, and unlike Mozart, who faced the same set of challenges decades earlier, he lived into what Carl Jung called "the second half of life:" the years that play out after about age 35, when the ego has been formed and the individual must find new, novel, personal ways to grow or else begin to stagnate. Beethoven's hand was forced by encroaching deafness, and he went where the daemon led him. He went, as his contemporaries often recognized, into a place that was often terrifying and baffling, but that contained undreamt-of revelations as well. Like a seer, he brought those revelations up into the light and embodied them in music, and the world will never be the same.
When I was 32 years old, my life fell apart. Divorced and unemployed, I was forced down into that same primal cauldron myself. At that time, I was unimaginably grateful to know that Beethoven had been there before me, and had recorded the experience in his music. Now I am 56, and I will always know that Beethoven is more than just a living presence who has trod the same years along parallel paths. He will live on because has shown me, as he has shown so many others, how to survive.
That's why I am always baffled when so many people—even the most musically sophisticated—hear in Beethoven's late music nothing but sublime expressions of suffering and despair. I'm not talking about the 9th symphony, with its titanic but transparent journey toward joy. I'm talking about works like the string quartet in A minor, Op. 132, which from the first time I heard it at age 15 has always been my very favorite piece of music. In it can be heard all the beautiful, hopeful humanity that has ever been breathed, compressed within a hard nut of suffering and left to germinate in the inner resonating fibers of everyone who will listen. In it is found the knowledge that life does not stop, and that biting into that nut is healthy even if your teeth crack and your gums bleed. As I now prepare to enter into the part of life that Beethoven never lived, I remain convinced that the knowledge he planted has only begun to come to fruition—within me, within humanity.