Ludwig van Beethoven

Monday, July 28, 2014

My favorite composer is someone I wouldn’t have wanted to know.

Ludwig van Beethoven was born in December 1770. We don’t know his actual birthdate, but he was baptized on December 17 and the custom was to baptize infants within 24 hours. His birthplace was Bonn, in what is now Germany.

Growing up, Beethoven’s family consisted of his father, Johann, his mother, and his two younger brothers. Beethoven’s father was an alcoholic who taught his eldest son music by beating it out of him, locking him in the cellar, and making him practice when his body craved sleep.

By the time Beethoven was fourteen, his father’s alcoholism had gotten so bad that he couldn’t provide for his family. So Beethoven took a job as assistant court organist at a modest salary to support his mother and younger brothers.

When Beethoven was seventeen, his patron sent him to Vienna to study with Mozart. Unfortunately, Beethoven’s mother fell ill, and he went home. She died several months later but Beethoven stayed in Bonn for several more years.

Beethoven returned to Vienna to stay in 1792, when his patron arranged for him to study with Papa Haydn. (Mozart had died in the meantime.) Unfortunately, Beethoven was not a model student. When Papa Haydn gave him homework, Beethoven either used something he had written earlier or paid someone else to do it. Even worse, he kept “borrowing” money from the softhearted Haydn, claiming that the stipend he received from his patron wasn’t enough to live on. Haydn learned the truth when he wrote the patron (without Beethoven’s knowledge), begging the patron to increase the stipend. That’s when Haydn discovered that Beethoven was also receiving a salary and when the patron discovered he was wasting his money.

But that isn’t the only reason I dislike Beethoven as a person. After his brother Kasper died, Beethoven tried to wrench his nephew Karl away from Karl’s mother, Johanna. Beethoven filed for sole custody of his nephew, and years of litigation followed. Johanna may not have had the strongest morals, but there is no evidence that she was an unfit mother. Still, Beethoven had important connections, and Johanna was only a woman. (That made a difference at the time.) So even though Johanna fought her brother-in-law—and even regained custody for one brief period—she eventually lost all legal rights to her son.

Johanna wasn’t the only loser. Within months after his father died, the nine-year-old Karl was forcibly taken from his mother and sent to a boarding school. He ran away and returned to his mother, only to be forcibly removed again. At one point, Karl attempted suicide, and his relationship with his uncle was tumultuous all the way up to Beethoven’s death.

A brilliant but disturbed man, Beethoven’s life was filled with delusions. Johann wasn’t really his father: Beethoven was the illegitimate son of royalty. He wasn’t born until two years after the date on his baptismal certificate. Eventually he even came to believe that Karl was his son. Most of these delusions had been shattered by the time he died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1827.

When Beethoven was twenty-six, he began losing his hearing. That was a disaster for a pianist and composer, and he hid it as long as he could. Beethoven was clinically deaf by 1818, yet he composed his most masterful works after that date.
Beethoven longed for love but never married, although he did have a love affair (possibly plutonic) with a married woman. He was known for his mood swings and his temper. He may have had bipolar disorder, and no one can claim that he had an idyllic childhood. Even so, I’m glad I didn’t know the man.

But I love his music.


* The 1820 portrait is by Karl Steiler.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Monday, July 21, 2014

Have you ever watched “Toddlers and Tiaras” or any of the other reality shows populated with selfish, controlling stage mothers? Then you know what kind of father Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had.

Mozart was born in Salzburg (located in modern-day Austria) on January 27, 1756. He was baptized Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart, so where did Amadeus come from? Theophilus and Amadeus both mean “beloved of God.” Mozart just used the French version (Amadé).

Mozart’s father, Leopold, was a musician who struggled to make a living. When he discovered that his two children, Wolfgang and older sister Marianne, were musical geniuses, he decided that they would support him.

From 1763 into 1766, the young Mozart (7-10 years old) and his sister made a grand tour of Europe, playing in concert halls to large crowds and being hailed as the protégées they were. They were paid well, but Mozart never saw any of it.

For one reason or another—probably because she was a girl and girls were supposed to marry—Marianne dropped out of the concert scene and Mozart became the primary breadwinner for the family.

In 1777, Mozart made his second trip to Paris. Leopold was unable to go but sent his wife to keep an eye on the 21-year-old Mozart. The trip was a failure on several levels. Mozart was unable to find a job, his father kept interfering even from afar, and his mother died.

After her death, Leopold ordered Mozart back to Salzburg. Mozart refused to go, so what did Leopold do? He used guilt. He wrote to Mozart claiming that Leopold and Marianne were destitute and needed the salary Mozart was guaranteed if he returned to Salzburg. Worse, Leopold told Mozart he was responsible for his mother’s death. Neither was true, but the lies achieved their purpose.

For a while, anyway. Mozart hated his employer and his life in Salzburg, and he finally found a way to get fired so he could move to Vienna. Once there, he married Constanze Weber against his father’s wishes. Leopold refused to pay the dowry that Mozart should have had and eventually disinherited him, as well.

Unlike her brother, Marianne stayed in Leopold’s good graces and was the sole beneficiary of his good-sized estate. Since Leopold himself was a failure as a wage earner, you can imagine where the money came from.

At first, Mozart earned a decent living as a freelance composer in Vienna. By the late 1780s, however, both his popularity and his finances were on the wane. Mozart wasn’t willing to compromise his musical integrity to please his audience or his critics, and the people of his day didn’t appreciate the complexity of his music. According to Emperor Joseph II, there were “too many notes, my dear Mozart.”

Mozart also may have hurt his financial situation by making fun of the aristocracy he relied on to commission him to write music. His great comic opera, “The Marriage of Figaro,” was about the follies of the aristocracy, and many considered it an insult.

Was Mozart murdered? His tragic death at the age of 35 has fueled much speculation, but the rumors started with a man in an insane asylum. The truth is that Mozart probably died from bad doctoring.

At his death, Mozart left a wife and two sons, no money, and a musical legacy that is priceless.

Next week we’ll talk about another composer who had a father from hell.


* The portrait by Johann Nepomuk dela Croce is circa 1780.

Papa Haydn

Monday, July 14, 2014

Unlike Bach, Franz Joseph Haydn achieved fame and adulation in his own lifetime. He was also unlike Bach in two other ways. Where Bach was lucky in love and offspring, Haydn’s marriage was loveless and childless. And unlike Bach’s experience in Leipzig, Haydn enjoyed (yes, literally enjoyed) the vast majority of his career, which he spent working for the Esterházy family.

Before Hayden went to work for the Esterházys, his musical career had ups and downs. He experienced both as a choirboy at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. Hayden had a beautiful soprano voice and was much in demand to sing at parties and other private events. But he needed those gigs because the choirmaster appropriated the money that was supposed to feed the choirboys. Haydn was petted and fed by the hostess and patrons whenever he sang at a social engagement. Otherwise, he went hungry.

But if you’re a boy, that beautiful soprano voice doesn’t last forever. Well, there is one way to extend its life, and the choirmaster was in favor of doing so. Fortunately, Haydn’s father heard about the choirmaster’s plan and forbade the operation. So Haydn kept his manhood but lost his value as a choirboy.

At 17, Haydn was thrown out of St. Stephen and left to fend for himself. For the next eight years, he eked out a living giving music lessons and performing at private events.

Then he got his big break. Many members of the aristocracy had their own orchestras, and Count Morzin hired Haydn as court music director and composer. It was a good position while it lasted, but the Count ran into financial problems and had to disband his orchestra.

Haydn didn’t remain unemployed for long. Prince Paul Anton Esterházy hired him as vice-conductor of music, and Haydn lived a mostly carefree life from there on out. Paul Anton was succeeded by his brother Nicholas, who kept Haydn on. By the time Nicholas died, Haydn was ready for a change and jumped at the chance to tour in London, where he stayed for eighteen months. He made a second trip to London before ending his career in the employ of still another Esterházy, Prince Nicholas II. Haydn was much loved and much esteemed when he died peacefully at the age of 77.

I mentioned that Haydn lived a “mostly” carefree life after the first Prince Esterházy hired him. Haydn was happier away from his wife than with her, and the Esterházy lifestyle helped. The court musicians spent long months away from their families at the Prince’s estate in the Hungarian countryside. Most of them missed their wives and children and looked forward to several months off while the Prince retired to Vienna.

That leads to the story of Haydn’s “Farewell Symphony.” One year Prince Nicholas lingered in the countryside longer than usual and showed no sign of leaving. The court musicians grew unhappy as their visits home were delayed. Finally, Haydn wrote the “Farewell Symphony” and performed it for the Prince.

The symphony begins with a full orchestra, but as it goes on the instruments thin out. Haydn instructed the musicians to blow out their candles and leave the stage one by one until only Haydn and his concertmaster were left. Then they also blew out their candles and exited. Prince Nicholas loved the symphony. He also got the point.

Fortunately, Prince Esterházy had a sense of humor. But so did Haydn. That’s part of the reason his students and orchestra members called him “Papa.” He was good-natured and took care of the musicians who worked under him, as the “Farewell Symphony” demonstrates. Simply put, Papa Haydn was a nice man.

That might be part of the reason why Haydn and Mozart were great friends in spite of their age difference. (Haydn was 24 years older than Mozart.) They also formed a mutual admiration society that lasted their entire lives.

Papa Haydn’s good nature was probably also the reason he eventually forgave Beethoven. Forgave him for what? You’ll have to wait two weeks until my Beethoven blog.

But next week you’ll learn about Haydn’s close friend, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.


* The 1792 portrait is by Thomas Hardy.

Johann Sebastian Bach

Monday, July 7, 2014

I’ve been listening to Great Courses lectures about master composers. Some of them lived fascinating lives, so I’ve decided to feature four on my blog during July.

Johann Sebastian Bach was born in 1685 in the duchy of Saxe-Eisenach, located in present-day Germany. He was both the progeny and the patriarch of a musical family. Bach’s father, uncles, and brother were all professional musicians, and several of his sons became well-known composers in their own right.

Married twice (his first wife died when he was 35), Bach had twenty children. Ten survived into adulthood. Composing was part of his professional responsibilities, but it was his skills as an organist that paid the bills for his large family. Bach had achieved neither fame nor riches when he died in 1750, and his genius as a composer was not recognized until years later.

After several other gigs, Bach was employed by Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen as a court musician. He enjoyed his early years there, but budget cutbacks and the animosity of Prince Leopold’s new wife convinced Bach that his career at Anhalt-Cöthen was over. In desperation, he applied for the position of director of music in Leipzig, where he endured a discordant relationship with the churches and the town council that paid his salary. Even so, he spent the rest of his life working for them.

Bach is best known for his church music. A deeply religious Lutheran, he wrote “SDG” on many of his compositions. Those initials stand for “Soli Deo Gloria” (to God alone be the glory).

But he had a much wider range than many people realize. Bach wrote his Goldberg Variations as lullabies for Prince Leopold, who had trouble sleeping. These days we fall asleep to recorded music, but the prince had his own harpsichordist.

As far as I’m concerned, Bach’s most interesting composition is the one known as the Coffee Cantata. It is essentially a short comic opera about coffee addiction.

First, a little background. In Bach’s day, many areas of Europe banned coffee. Leipzig, on the other hand, had several thriving coffee houses, probably welcomed by the city for the licensing fees they paid. Zimmerman’s coffee house was host to the Collegium Musicum, which was a formal group of student musicians directed by Bach. Apparently he wrote the Coffee Cantata for the Collegium Musicum to perform.

The plot is simple. Schlendrian is Lieschen’s father, and he is not happy with her coffee addiction. He threatens to take away her pleasures, including the right to stand by the window and watch people walk by. As he names those pleasures one by one, she repeatedly responds that she doesn’t care as long as she has her coffee. Finally, Schlendrian says Lieschen will have to resign herself to never having a husband. That gets her attention, and she tells him she will give up coffee for marriage. (The audience is left to wonder if marriage was her goal all along.) As her father goes off to find a husband, the narrator tells the audience that Lieschen has sent out a secret message to potential suitors. The content? They won’t win her hand unless they agree to let her have her coffee.

The Coffee Cantata ends as the three characters (Schlendrian, Lieschen, and the narrator) sing the following chorus (translated from the German):

The cat doesn’t leave the mouse,
Young women remain coffee sisters.
The mother loves the coffee custom,
The grandmother drank it also,
Who will mock the daughter now!

And you thought Bach was stuffy.


* The 1784 portrait is by Haussmann.