AAs a teenager in the seventies, records with the Beethoven sonatas and symphonies were the ones on which storm and silence, urge and pause slid into each other or clashed sharply, as I felt inside myself, without being able to express it. Later, as a student and a competition architect, the ninth in Liszt’s piano version with Cyprien Katsaris proved to be the most effective cassette in the Walkman, in order to mobilize all energy reserves again at four in the morning for timely delivery.
Beethoven’s works still move me more than anything else – but I never hear them in cycles, because they are individuals. And since every single work takes me into a different line of thought every time, I rarely engage in them and only when I can fully enjoy them. Fortunately, many of his works are still lying ahead of me unheard – or I only got to know them recently: as recently as 2015, and of all places in a lecture hall in Exeter, New Hampshire, the Andante Favori WoO 57, which featured the Beethoven closing celebrations known to me until then The art of not being able to say goodbye has added a completely different one. And it was not until this year that the piano version op. 134 of the Great Fugue, whose bursts of energy really break all fetters of favor. And this fall, while listening to and watching Samuel Beckett’s TV film “Ghost Trio”, it was striking that the piercing bass rumble of 1809 would prove to be just as disturbing and impossible to locate in 2020 as Beckett’s pale gray film architecture from 1977. And the Singakademie admitted in their New Year’s concert Berlin some (unfortunately too few) of the capricious, sophisticated music epigrams with which Beethoven occasionally signed his letters.
Charm and humor
The small form in general: One overlooks and overhears again and again that Beethoven explored the small form just as scrupulously and accurately as the large form. In 2004 I heard the Bagatelles op. 126 for the first time; Mitsuko Uchida played her in the Berlin Philharmonic. Once again I discovered how much Chaplin there is in Beethoven, how much irrepressible desire for charm and comedy on the edge. For more than seven years, since I found my way back to practicing from strumming, I’ve been dealing with the bagatelles and constantly discovering new subtleties, shrewdness and touches of melancholy. And also seriously different possibilities of interpretation, because simply because of the few rules of the game, even an Alfred Brendel or a Grigori Sokolow will never find the last word about them.
Two years ago, when the family said goodbye to their parents’ house in the Rhineland, I invited the neighborhood to a house concert. In it I combined some bagatelles with miniatures by Debussy, Schönberg, Cage and Stockhausen. The latter was particularly important to me as a Rhinelander – and since a Swabian friend had snapped me a few months earlier with the slogan “Schiller and Hegel are the rule for us, Wieland and Hauff are not noticed at all”, I countered in the program with the Rhenish heroes: “Beethoven and the judge are the brightest lights, but Stockhausen, Beuys and Mies are not bad boys either.” However, neither this little Spökes appealing to regional pride nor my more serious introductions or the program dramaturgy seemed to lead to to warm up to the music of the other Rhenish jong. The opposite happened: In the course of the concert, Stockhausen did not become more familiar to the listeners, but rather a stranger to Beethoven: “Is that Beethoven already?” A guest asked his wife, irritated, during Bagatelle op. 119 number 8.
But without astonishment, no joys of knowledge. The juxtaposition of the Bagatelle op. 126, 4 and John Cage’s “Ophelia” in the program, which was structured according to structural criteria, had given me thieving fun, as Cage had trumpeted “Beethoven was wrong” in the 1950s. I wanted to confront him with a relationship that he didn’t want to acknowledge. In addition to the concise rhythm, it is above all the rabid performances of the strangely empty and impersonal sounding double octaves with which the two pieces mirror each other.
Again and again I look into incredulous eyes when I say that Beethoven seems to me to be the most delicate, clever and subtle of the many brilliant composers. It is not easy to understand that of all things the world’s greatest overwhelming dramaturge, alongside Wagner, jokingly or doubtfully at the same time making the ground unsafe under his own feet. Not just for people from the Rhineland.
Holger Kleine is an architect in Berlin and teaches at the RheinMain University of Applied Sciences.