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Thursday, March 15, 2012

Life of Beethoven

007 A naughty boy and a tyrannical perfectionist.

Life of Beethoven 
by Anton Schindler

Beethoven's education was neither particularly neglected nor particularly good. He received elementary instruction and learned something of Latin at a public school — music he learnt at home, and was closely kept to it by his father, whose way of life, however, was not the most regular.

The lively and often stubborn boy had a great dislike to sitting still, so that it was continually necessary to drive him in good earnest to the piano-forte. He had still less inclination for learning the violin, and on this point I cannot help adverting to a tale, so ingeniously invented and so frequently repeated, relative to a spider, which, "whenever little Ludwig was playing in his closet on the violin, would let itself down from the ceiling and alight upon the instrument, and which his mother, on discovering her son's companion, one day destroyed, whereupon little Ludwig dashed his violin to shatters."

This is nothing more than a tale. Great Ludwig, highly as this fiction amused him, never would admit that he had the least recollection of such a circumstance. On the contrary, he declared that it was much more likely that everything, even to the very flies and spiders, should have fled out of the hearing of his horrid scraping.

— —

It will perhaps be remembered that, in speaking of the performance of Fidelio, in the second period, I observed that Beethoven was in the habit of paying little attention to the possibility of the execution of what he wrote for the vocal parts. Innumerable proofs of this assertion may be found again in the second Mass and in the ninth Symphony, which, during the rehearsals of the chorus and solo parts, led to many unpleasant discussions.

With due deference for the master, it was not possible to avoid telling him that this and that passage could not be sung. The two ladies, Mademoiselle Sontag and Mademoiselle Ungher, who undertook the soprano and alto solos, came several times to practise them at Beethoven's house, and made the remark to him beforehand.[87]

[Illustration: *** The passages marked with a *, and inserted in small notes, indicate the high notes alluded to. — ED.]

*** This is the very part I did alter, as shown in the above illustration; for if, as the sequel shows, a Sontag had perseverance and means sufficient to work it out, the same could not be expected from every singer, and least of all from the Chorus, which repeats the same passage after the Solo performers. — ED.]

Mlle. Ungher did not hesitate to call him the tyrant of singers, but he only answered, smiling, that it was because they were both so spoiled by the modern Italian style of singing that they found the two new works difficult.[88] "But this high passage here," said Sontag, pointing to the vocal Quartett in the Symphony,

Küsse gab sie uns und Reben

"would it not be possible to alter that?" — "And this passage, M. van Beethoven," continued Mademoiselle Ungher, "is also too high for most voices. Could we not alter that?" — "No! no! no!" was the answer,[89] — "Well then, for Heaven's sake (in Gottes Namen), let us work away at it again," said the patient Sontag.

As for the poor Soprani, in the chorus parts of the Mass, every day did they complain to Beethoven that it was out of their power to reach and sustain the high notes so long as he prescribed. In some places the tyrant remained inexorable, though it would have been easy for him, by a transposition of some of the intervals, to render those passages easier for the voices, without altering anything essential.

Umlauf, the most strictly classical conductor I have ever known, to whom Beethoven had committed the management of the whole, also made some modest remarks on this difficulty, but equally in vain. The consequence of this obstinacy was, that every chorus-singer, male and female, got over the stumbling-block as well as he or she could, and, when the notes were too high, left them out altogether.[90]

The master, however, standing in the midst of this confluence of music, heard nothing of all this, was not even sensible of the tumultuous applause of the auditory at the close of the Symphony, but was standing with his back to the proscenium, until Mademoiselle Ungher, by turning round and making signs, roused his attention, that he might at least see what was going on in the front of the house.

This acted, however, like an electric shock on the thousands present, who were struck with a sudden consciousness of his misfortune; and, as the flood-gates of pleasure, compassion, and sympathy were opened, there followed a volcanic explosion of applause, which seemed as if it would never end.[91]

Invitation to attend Beethoven's funeral

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