Benjamin yet the music from this period,

Benjamin Reason 1710510
BMus Vocal Studies

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Thursday 11th January

Noel Tredinnick

2500 words


Open with an anecdote/strong catchy statement:

Ludwig van Beethoven, was he really the man we think he was? Stubborn—depressive—meddling—polarising—obsessive. Was there more duality to the wild-looking man we always imagine brooding behind a score of “Missa Solemnis” as he is in J. Stieler’s famous depiction?

What was it, exactly, that contributed such things to the so-called ‘Beethoven legend’? How much did his turbulent, troubled life influence the music he wrote, and in turn influence how we’ve interpreted it?

Talk about his deafness, open as focus of topic:

Part of what has drawn historians and music theorists to this enigmatic man was not just his achievements, but also his ailments and the undoings of his character. Beethoven was of course profoundly deaf during the final years of his life, and yet the music from this period, in particular the late string quartets, was among his most revolutionary, complex musical inventions.

He began to lose his hearing in his mid thirties which is when his style began to change, often attributed as his ‘heroic period’ e.g. 5th Symphony, Emperor’s Piano Concerto…

Brief history of his artistic and social life leading up to the ‘Final Maturity’ — and the astonishing last works.

Pose questions: 

Where did the inspiration for this astonishing music come from? — origins in his ‘character symphonic’ writing… use anecdote of the ‘conversation book’ extract about him comparing himself against Mozart’s style.

In a recorded conversation between him and Karl Holz, a violinist and friend of Beethoven’s at the time he was writing his late quartets, they discuss the differences of “character” in Mozart’s and his own instrumental music:

“Your works have, throughout, a really exclusive character… that is what I miss in Mozart’s instrumental music.” “Especially the instrumental music.” “I would explain the difference between Mozart’s and your instrumental works in this way: for one of your works a poet could only write one poem; while to a Mozart work he could write three or for analogous ones.”

Beethoven acknowledges that his work is driven by 

Why did the complexity of this music scare audiences? What were their reactions?

How, at a time when he was most deaf, could he write such revolutionary music? Does his music in fact reflect this?

Was is it simply a result of a lifetime of artistic and social development?

Or was it something else? Did these musical ideas come from a deeper, more subconscious recess of his brain?

Is it possible these works are the result of hallucinations, albeit in the hands of a master?

Exploration of Ideas

What sorts of hallucinations are there?

Define aural hallucinations and how these are often brought on by loss of auditory input.
Define visual hallucination i.e. seeing musical notation and why do these occur? 

Does this mean Beethoven suffered from psychosis? Do hallucinations occur in the non-psychotic (yes, explain briefly).

Why would it be more/less likely/even possible for Beethoven to have experienced either kind?

Speculate on this…

How do both these types of hallucinations manifest themselves — use examples of Oliver Sacks’ observations from his patients. 

Try and relate these to Beethoven’s experiences and draw parallels in his late musical works. 

If he did in fact Hallucinate, why don’t we know about it? — surely there’d be written evidence of these experiences in his ‘conversation books’.

Explore why there may not be any evidence to suggest so — 

A lack of understanding (both from Beethoven/his doctors who he may have confided in, and also historians who have long speculated about the writing during his late life).

Stigma around mental health at the time could have stopped him from sharing such experiences.

As far back as the 1100s, mental health issues in individuals have been viewed by society with superstitious ignorance, fear, and hostility. Sacks believes Hildegard von Bingen suffered from migraines, and the variety of visual auras — probably hallucinatory in nature — that resulted inspired her liturgical plainsong. These ‘visions’ were no doubt misunderstood at the time and, while seen as a mystic with this connection to the divine, she could have easily have been branded a witch.

Seven hundred years later, while we weren’t burning people at the stake (in most parts of the world) for suspected dealings with the devil, mental health issues still carried huge stigma and were widely misunderstood. In fact the latter part of this statement, sadly, is still relevant to today’s society.

Other notable musicians who were plagued by maladies of the mind include…

Touch on other artists purported to have hallucinated/suffered from mental illnesses e.g.
Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich (assumed to have just been rumours), Hildegard von Bingen, and even non-musical artists like Van Gogh.

While Beethoven wouldn’t necessarily need to have suffered from migraines or psychosis to have had hallucinations, his deafness aside, they could have been symptomatic of another physiological 

Having been quite sick throughout his life with numerous different illnesses, have had a physiological explanation for the possibility of hallucinations. Are they a result of a drug habit or medication for the ailments?

Why was he so sick, did he have lead poisoning? Could this have contributed to potential hallucinations?

How would they have possibly influenced his writing? Is the evidence in fact in his music?

Discuss and Analyse “Grosse Fuge” and Op. 131 (C-sharp Minor Quartet)

Grand Fugue – intricacy and beauty on page but dissonant cacophony when played… (use quote from website article)

How does this relate to the reality of visual hallucinations?

Aural hallucinations are usually non-sensical but could Beethoven have taken inspiration from these, and used his musical genius to infuse them with emotion or structure.

Discuss/Analyse C-Sharp Minor quartet (my favourite and purportedly Beethoven’s – use quote here of him talking about writing it from bits and pieces…)

Give personal opinion on the piece, where do I think it stands amongst his other works – specifically the late quartets.

How did these last two un-commissioned works (the last complete musical thoughts of Beethoven?) compare with the three that came before? Were these passion projects?

The quartet directly follows his working on the grand fugue with a totally different use of the technique in the first movement etc.

*See notes on the quartet…

What was the influence his life had on his writing of the piece e.g. Karl’s suicide attempt…

Case Against Hallucination Argument

To pose the idea that hallucinations were the/a source of these late works invalidates his genius – was he not ordinarily capable of writing such music?

Even if not, was it still his deafness that allowed him to mature as a composer, or was it a natural development of his style?

Rather than hallucinations, was his anguish over his increasing deafness and social isolation cause for more mature musical thoughts, more directness in his communication of these feelings?

It’s entirely possible that Beethoven allowed his world around him to effect this work as is evident in Op. 131.

Talk a little about Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development — the generatively vs stagnation development phase in particular is of relevance to this part in Beethoven’s life:

From an early age, he was thrust into the role of caregiver and bread-winner to his two younger brothers. His mother died when he was just 16, this loss deeply affected Beethoven as is expressed in this letter (use quote about her being his best friend). His father, whom he harboured hatred for all his life, was a neglectful alcoholic. 

This role of a surrogate father would linger throughout his life as he filled it again when his brother Caspar (Carl) died in 18?? and he assumed guardianship over his son Karl. Beethoven’s meddling in family affairs had now grown into obsession, perhaps in some desperate attempt to grab control of the things he loved. This is evident in his court battles with Karl’s mother over custody of his nephew, where he went to such lengths to demean (her) and cast her as an unfit mother… Karl’s years with his uncle were (go on to briefly describe their relationship and how it led to him being sent to the military academy which is when he attempted suicide).

Beethoven also had no true female companionship from the time that his mother died, despite searching for it all his life.

A sense of deprivation from the things he most wanted must have had a huge impact on Beethoven’s development. We start to see these tragedies turn this hopeful, dedicated, and dutiful young man into someone much more cynical and distrustful of the world. This is certainly the man he became, and the one we mostly remember. No wonder; it’s these character traits that eventually broke down his relationships and perhaps would later drive him to compose the dramatic, emotionally direct music of the ‘heroic’ and ‘late’ works.

Another argument you could make was the development of his late style was reactionary (guilt perhaps?) to his prior dip in productivity and quality of writing — the fallow phase?

Beethoven’s feelings of shame and regret at his failed attempt at being a father figure to Karl no doubt influenced his music like that of the C-Sharp Minor quartet. But more than that, his late stage represents a need to create something that would out-live him. Failing at being a father and now unable to perform his music as he once did, he created music for a “theoretical other” – perhaps the future of musicians.

Of course, the vast majority of Beethoven’s genius all throughout his life reflected onto his music, and has lasted the ages all the same. But I think this direct reaction to his personal (and musical – fallow phase, discuss?) failures of the previous years was a definite catalyst for his sudden development of style.


Answer questions posed at beginning… Was he really the man we think he was?

Could he have hallucinated? — it’s anyone’s guess, the fact remains he’s long dead and we may never know the secrets of his creative process and workings of his inner brain.

Stubborn as he was, he may have and completely ignored it when it came to composing.

As much as Beethoven has expressed our anger etc. in his music, he has always been a man of duality also exploring the humour and light in the world.

Ultimate communicator of the human condition? He believed music had not only entertainment value but a moral and humanistic value, unusual for a composer in his day.

Beethoven was writing for himself (both to play as a court musician and later to conduct) in his earlier years while he had still his hearing… but once he went deaf he was writing for the future. Would he have even ascended to such great heights had it not been for such personal losses in his life (e.g. deafness and loss of Karl as adopted son).

Whether or not these possible ‘unearthly visions’ were the inspiration for some of the greatest music ever written (subjective), how could a man with less than complete musical control, and artistic vision over his work, write music that still strikes such a tone at the hearts of listeners and musicians 200 years after his death.

Rewrite this to be more of a positive finish…?