About this Recording
NA421512 - SIEPMANN, J. : Life and Works of Beethoven (The) (Unabridged)

Jeremy Siepmann

Jeremy Siepmann

The Life and Works

of Beethoven


The music of the Classical era, still in a relatively early phase at the time of Beethoven’s birth in 1770, was based on preconceived notions of order, proportion and grace. Beauty and symmetry of form were objects of worship in themselves and combined to create a Utopian image, an idealization of universal experience. In the Romantic Age, thanks in no small part to Beethoven’s truly epoch-making influence, this was largely replaced by a cult of individual expression, the crystallization of the experience of the moment, the unfettered confession of powerful emotions and primal urges, the glorification of sensuality, a flirtation with the supernatural, an emphasis on spontaneity and improvisation and the cultivation of extremes—emotional, sensual, spiritual, and structural. Where a near-reverence for symmetry had characterized the Classical era, romanticism delighted in asymmetry. Form was no longer seen as a receptacle, but as a by-product of emotion, to be generated from within. While the great romantic painters covered their canvases with grandiose landscapes, the great romantic composers (starting with Beethoven, in his Pastoral Symphony) attempted similar representations in sound.


A further feature of the romantic imagination was a taste for extravagance. And here, particularly where instrumental music is concerned, Beethoven was a trendsetter. His Eroica, Pastoral and Choral symphonies expanded the scope and size of the symphony to unimagined degrees (among them the inclusion of vocal soloists and chorus in a symphonic work), and his great Hammerklavier Sonata was twice as long (and twice as profound) as any typical classical sonata by Mozart or Haydn.


The ideals and consequences of the French Revolution were a source of alarm to the rulers of the crumbling Holy Roman Empire. As a consequence, Austria, with Vienna as its capital, became a bastion against French imperialism, and an efficient police state in which liberalism—both political and philosophical—was ruthlessly suppressed. But the Viennese, as Beethoven early perceived, were not natural revolutionaries. Rather, they were noted for their political apathy and an almost decadent taste for pleasure. More troublesome to them than their homegrown overlords were the two occupations by the French, in 1805 and 1809. The latter, in particular, brought considerable hardship to the city in the form of monetary crises, serious food shortages and a fleeing population, while Austria as a whole suffered serious political and territorial setbacks. With the final defeat of Napoleon in 1814, however, Austria recouped many of her losses, and during the Peace Congress of 1814-15 became the principal focal point of European diplomatic, commercial and cultural activity. It was during this period, the capital now awash with visiting dignitaries and their entourages, that Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio, was mounted 21 times with consistent success. But while the festivities associated with the Congress marked a return to gaiety, they could also be seen as a wake for an age whose time was over. Increasingly, throughout Europe, bankers and businessmen replaced the nobility and landed aristocracy as the principal arbiters of taste and culture. To an altogether new extent, music passed out of the palaces and into the marketplace. Composers were decreasingly dependent on aristocratic patronage, and now relied for their livelihood on the sales of their work, or, more commonly, on their income as teachers of the well to do. Performers, ever more reliant on the fickle patronage of a fee-paying public, emerged as a specialized breed of their own. Yet in the realm of the public concert, Vienna lagged well behind London. Although orchestral concerts had been mounted there since the 1770s, it wasn’t until 1831, four years after Beethoven’s death, that it acquired its own purpose-built concert hall.


Throughout Beethoven’s life, concerts took place either in the palaces of the declining nobility, or in theaters (often privately owned and managed), or in ballrooms and other halls, none of them originally designed for music.

Inevitably, changes in social structure were accompanied by changes in taste. Especially after the hardships of the Napoleonic era, the public mood was for lightweight, escapist entertainment, most spectacularly exemplified by the new wave of lightweight Italian opera. This period marked the lowest ebb in Beethoven’s fortunes as a composer, and the height of his anger and disgust at the society around him.


Beethoven’s relationship to the politics of his time was as individual, and sometimes as contradictory, as he was himself, and were based on a deep-rooted sense of natural justice, a powerful if not very precisely defined belief in a moral elite, and a curiously naive association of virtue with hard work and the overcoming of difficulties. “What is difficult is also beautiful, good and great,” he once wrote. In his own life he seems frequently to have created difficulties for their own sake—or at any rate as a prerequisite of moral nobility. In 1816, he wrote in his journal, “The chief characteristic of a distinguished man is endurance in adverse and harsh circumstances.” Nobility was a matter of moral virtue, not heredity, but it did constitute an elite and only those who had achieved it were fit to rule. That rulers were both necessary and desirable Beethoven never doubted, and he could never rid himself entirely of his admiration for Napoleon. While he championed the rights of humanity and saw it as a duty to give succor to the needy and the disadvantaged, he was by no means an apologist for the tenets of the French Revolution (the dominant political fact of European life in his youth). He publicly deplored the repressive actions of the Habsburg rulers in whose domain he had chosen to live, and admired the British for their form of parliamentary democracy, yet he was never wholly a democrat. He believed in a hierarchical, paternalist society and generally scorned the proletarian masses, declaring flatly “the common citizen should be excluded from higher men.”


Yet another striking feature of Romanticism was the cult of the hero, especially as represented in the writings and art of the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations. Given the character of his music (particularly that of his middle period) and the many entries and quotations in his journal concerning heroes and the heroic, there can be little doubt that he envisaged himself as a hero in the great Classical mold. Closely allied to the cult of the hero was the cult of the genius, which arose in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in reaction against the concept of musician as artisan rather than artist, servant rather than master. The fact that ‘genius’ in Beethoven’s case was both singular and eccentric (like the fact that he had about him a suggestion of the occult, even the deranged) only added to his appeal, and served to fire not only his own imagination but that of the era which he came posthumously to personify. His unique development as a composer was a reflection of the time in which he lived and a formative influence on the spirit of the age, which came after him.


History was ripe for his emergence.


Notes by Jeremy Siepmann



About the Readers


BOB PECK was a highly versatile actor in the British tradition. He played many major classical roles at the Royal Shakespeare Company, including Macbeth, Lear and Iago as well as taking leading parts in new plays, including Pinter’s The Birthday Party. At the same time, he was active in films and was seen extensively on television winning the 1985 BAFTA award for Best Actor and the BAMF Comedy Award in 1998. He died in 1999. This recording of Beethoven’s Life and Works was one of his last performances.


NEVILLE JASON trained at RADA where he was awarded the Diction Prize by Sir John Gielgud. He has worked with the English Stage Co., the Old Vic Company and the Royal Shakespeare Company, as well as in films and musicals. Jason has appeared in popular television serials such as Maigret, Emergency Ward 10 and Dr. Who, as well as playing classical roles such as Orestes and Horatio. Formally a member of the BBC Radio Drama Co., he can be frequently heard on radio.


DAVID TIMSON trained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, as both actor and singer. A familiar and versatile audio and radio voice, Timson has also performed in modern and classic plays across Great Britain and abroad, including Wild Honey for Alan Ayckbourn, Hamlet, The Man of Mode, and The Seagull. He has been seen on TV in Nelson’s Column and Swallows and Amazons, and in the film The Russia House.


ELAINE CLAXTON has worked extensively in UK theater, including London’s Royal National Theatre. She has twice been a member of the BBC Radio Company, during which time she participated in over 200 broadcasts.


KAREN ARCHER has worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company in Nicholas Nickleby and as Mrs. Erlynne in Lady Windermere’s Fan, as well as across the UK in plays such as Ghosts, She Stoops to Conquer and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Her television appearances include The Chief, Ruth Rendell Mysteries, Casualty and Chancer and she has been seen in the films The Secret Garden and Forever Young.

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