The Friday Symposium: Beethoven’s Legacy

How does one even begin to assess the legacy of Ludwig van Beethoven? The King of Harmony well-deserved his title, even if his revolutionary use of rhythmic motifs would arguably prove to be his most lasting contribution to the language of music. His symphonies are unquestionably his lasting legacy, even if I personally find his chamber works, whether for solo piano or string quartet, to be his most important and best music. That said, and in sum, Beethoven’s relentless invention ultimately tore down the artificial edifice of Western music theory and opened so many doors for future composers. So great and terrible was Beethoven’s revolution that many of the most important doors led to areas largely unexplored until the 20th century.

That much I have tried my best to chronicle over the last few months. But, ultimately, I think that Beethoven’s true legacy lies elsewhere. In my view, Beethoven’s lasting legacy was to view himself as a true artist, rather than as a mere craftsman. Mozart may have set the model for a freelance composer, but he was still strictly a paid for hire worker–composing what people paid him for and injecting little of his own emotion into his works. Beethoven was different. Having secured financial support, erratic though it was, his patrons attached little to no strings to their grants. Free to compose what he wanted, when he wanted, Beethoven was also free to indulge in his own ideas, and to make his mind and would the subject of his art.

This was, admittedly, not a new idea in the art world. For example, two centuries earlier, Caravaggio had painted what is unquestionably the greatest plea for personal forgiveness in the history of art. Having committed murder and on the run, Caravaggio painted this in Naples and sent it to the papal court as an apology of sorts:

Here, Caravaggio paints the Biblical hero David as Justice, sword in one hand but, instead of the usual scales, the head of Goliath in the other. Caravaggio’s Goliath is, of course, a self-portrait. It is a harrowing image and one worth contemplating among the many masterpieces in the Galleria Borghese in Rome.

Caravaggio aside, Beethoven was more likely inspired by a contemporary artistic phenomenon that far outstripped his own fame, namely that of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It is simply not possible to convey here the scope of Goethe’s impact on German (and world) culture. He is the German Shakespeare, both in terms of drama and poetry but with greater output, as well as Germany’s greatest novelist. He was a scientist of the first rank, publishing treatisies on color, botany and anatomy. He was also a political scientist, a philospher and, quite simply, the greatest Renaissance man since Leonardo.

Most relevantly, Goethe was a leading figure in the Sturm und Drang movement that so inspired Beethoven. In short, sturm und drang writers relied on their own emotions and subjectivity rather than the rationalism of the Enlightenment and aesthetic movements. This is why, in 1812–a pivotal year for Beethoven–the composer sought out a meeting with Goethe during his visit to the spa town of Teplitz in Bohemia. Not only did these two giants of German art meet, they became fast friends, frequently taking walks together through the town. In one famous and likely apocryphal story, one of their walks was interrupted by the arrival of a royal party. Goethe, deferentially stepped aside, bowed and removed his hat, while Beethoven strode defiantly through the royals, forcing them to give way, and even acknowledging the composer with a friendly word of greeting (which was not returned). This was, after all, a man who a decade earlier had remarked to a royal patron: “Prince, what you are, you are through chance and birth; what I am, I am through my own labor. There are many princes and there will continue to be thousands more, but there is only one Beethoven.”

And that Beethoven was, first and foremost, an artist. Beethoven’s letters and journals are replete with references to his “art” and the needs of “artists”. Search as you might through the written legacy of other composers–even Mozart–and you will not find a parallel. The great composers of the future would model themselves on Beethoven’s example, forever marching to the beat of their own drummer. Artists to the very last. In keeping with that, let’s allow Beethoven the last word:

What will be the judgment a century hence concerning the lorded works of our favorite composers today? Inasmuch as nearly everything is subject to the changes of time, and – more’s the pity- the fashions of time, only that which is good and true will endure like a rock and no wanton hand will ever venture to defile it. Then, let every man do that which is right, strive with all his might towards the goal which can never be obtained, develop to the last breath the gifts with which the gracious Creator has endowed him, and never cease to learn. For life is short, art eternal.

Ludwig van Beethoven

In more recent times, the Bruichladdich Distillery located on the Isle of Islay, Scotland, holds a special place in the history of whisky. Since its founding in 1881, the distillery has had a decidedly checkered history and when it closed its doors in 1994, that appeared to be that. Seven years later, however, Bruichladdich reopened under the steady expert hand of Jim McEwan, a true artist if there ever was one. Escaping the modernization movement that has compromised the output of so many of its competitors, Bruichladdich retains much of the original Victorian machinery and is made completely by hand by a team that continues the tradition of passing down its secrets orally instead of in computer code.

It wasn’t long before the big boys tried to cut off McEwan’s ability to source peated malt. This proved to be a very happy accident, as it led McEwan to source his malt from Bairds of Inverness, which still was doing their maltings outdoors in a giant peat fire. Open air malting has been largely replaced in Scotland due to the extreme variability of the results. Often, this resulted in the peat levels being extraordinarily high and Bairds compensated for this by “cutting” their peated barley with unpeated malt to arrive at the exact peat levels specified by the customer. McEwan, naturally, asked if anyone had tried making whisky from the uncut stuff and was promptly laughed out of the shop. Scotch is typically made with malted barley that tops out at around 40ppm (parts per million) and anything close to the uncut stuff would be just about undrinkable. In most hands, that is. As it turns out, McEwan arrived back at Bruichladdich with malted barley of 131ppm. A combination of Bruichladdich’s unique stills and McEwan’s aristry produced this, the most intense and interesting whisky made today: The Octomore. Released annually in variations of 3 or 4, this is not cheap stuff. But such is the price of great art.

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