Beethoven 250: a rare interview with the master


As the Beethoven 250 year draws to a close, we here at MusiCB3 agreed that one final posting was in order. We had hoped to be able to assemble at least one physical exhibition and a number of other events, but circumstances have dictated otherwise. However, all is not lost – we are thrilled that our contributor SW was recently granted a rare interview with Beethoven to explore with him his desert island discs. Through the magic of the celestial Zoom connection to the Other Place we find him at his usual table in the Other Place Café, a glass of his favourite red wine beside him, quill pen in hand, a huge pile of MS paper on the table (he never mastered music notation software) and a precariously positioned bottle of ink beside him. In the background at another table we could see Mozart and Haydn in earnest discussion with Bartok and Schoenberg. Oh to have been able to eavesdrop on that! 

SW, of course, typed all her questions and thoughts.

SW: Good morning Herr Beethoven, thank you so much for agreeing to talk to us.

LvB: H’mph. [Slurp]

SW: I’m sure you’ll have been aware that we’ve been celebrating your 250th birthday here. It’s been such a pleasure to have an excuse to revisit your work in depth.

LvB: H’mph (in a pleased-but-embarrassed kind of way). [Slurp]

SW: This is probably a silly question, but do you have a work that you are especially proud of?

LvB: Ha! Perhaps my 7th Symphony, or then again maybe my Op. 59 Quartets (tee hee, I made them really hard for the first fiddle especially – if Schuppanzigh can play ‘em, so can those coming along after him), but ach, then there are my beloved late piano sonatas too, Op. 109 especially, and I mustn’t forget my Op. 131 quartet (I’m setting Op. 130 aside, it’s too much brain-ache to think about even for me – I sometimes wonder why I composed it, given that nobody really seems to understand it) and…[slurp]

SW: Yes, thank you Herr Beethoven, you clearly have a special fondness for quite a proportion of your work – and rightly so! Let’s have your first choice of music now if we may.

LvB: Ach ja, natürlich…my dear friend Haydn’s “Sunrise” Quartet. [Double slurp]

Coincidentally, I could see that Haydn himself had strolled across to look over Beethoven’s shoulder to see what was going on – “good choice Ludwig” I heard him say quietly, smiling in a fatherly way and patting him on the shoulder, whilst using a pristine hanky to mop up the increasing pool of spilt wine encroaching perilously on the MS paper.

SW: It’s an inspired piece isn’t it – the opening especially is a stroke of genius and the Amadeus play it so sensitively. Have you composed any more quartets yourself?

LvB: Ja, ja – I’m working on a set of six Opp. 1003 – 8. Haydn thinks I’ve probably reached my 99th period of composition and he says he can hear definite influences of Bartók. But then, I’ve seen the MS of Bartók’s 52nd Quartet which sounds suspiciously like me, so maybe the opposite is true, too…[slurp…wine runs out so more is ordered]

Editorial note: “Maybe the opposite is true too” was a favourite saying of Beethoven’s, often quoted by Brahms.

SW: That’s interesting Herr Beethoven, as many musicians down here feel that Bartók’s quartets pick up where your late quartets left off. Shall we have your next choice?

LvB: [Slurp]. I’d like it to be Bartók. You can’t play his 52nd, but what about his fifth?

SW: Bartók’s 5thit is.

LvB. Sehr, sehr gut. Der Doric Quartet understand it perfectly. [Slurp]. Glad you’re not asking me all sorts of fatuous questions about how I compose. Far too much of that nonsense. The d****d stuff just happens. No control over it. When will people understand that? You have an idea, you work it out, sometimes it takes longer than others, you write it all down. End of and bah humbug to all those people who pore over my scores picking them to bits and getting high on ‘talking technical’ and ‘motif spotting’ like train spotters. Do me a favour – just listen! [Slurp]

SW: Er, indeed Herr Beethoven, clearly a topic close to your heart. Tell me, are you able to go for long walks in the Other Place? I know that’s something you enjoyed Down Here.

LvB: Walking? Absolutely walking. 10Km a day at least. Nothing like a long walk in the Elysian Fields Down There or Up Here – get lots of inspiration that way. You’ll know about my sketchbooks – never without ‘em, so I make sure no good idea goes to waste whenever it occurs to me – the opening of my Fifth Symphony was a stroke of genius although I say it myself, even though it took a while to work out what best followed on. And the birdsong! You should hear it, SW – I’m writing a tenth ‘Pastoral’ Symphony.   

SW: Birdsong? Ah yes, rather like Messiaen.

LvB. Messy Ian? Oh yes, not quite my glass of wine I’m afraid. We’ve agreed to differ.

SW: Fair enough! But are there composers whose work you especially admire (apart from Haydn and Mozart of course)?

LvB: How long have you got? Purcell (get the wig, eh?), Bach (JS of course), Brahms, Sibelius, RVW, Ives (clever chap that Ives, combining all sorts of sound worlds, must try it), may we have his 4th July next please? Marvellous din. [Double slurp]

SW: Goodness, I’d not expected that – but certainly we may. This is the New York Philharmonic and Bernstein.

During the Ives, Haydn had crept up behind Beethoven, waving to attract my attention and pointing at his watch (very flashy number too), making it clear that time was running out and then stepping back to reveal a huge crowd of composers behind him all clutching instruments of one kind of another. Something of a surprise was in the offing I sensed. So I smiled and nodded…

SW: It’s a splendid piece the Ives isn’t it and thank you for including it in your list of favourites. Sadly, Herr Beethoven, the time has slipped by so fast that it’s now time to ask you for your final choice.

LvB: My final choice? Muss es sein??

SW: I’m afraid so Herr Beethoven.

LvB: In that case, it’s got to be my Op. 135. I’m sure you can spot the clever connection there… [chuckle, slurp]

SW: Ah yes indeed – the finale: „Muss es sein? Es muss sein.“ This is the Alban Berg Quartet. And for me, the slow movement is unbearably moving – Beethoven at his most sublime.

SW: Thank you, Herr Beethoven, for giving MusiCB3 some of your valuable time to talk to us and I hope you enjoy the remainder of your 250th year.

LvB: Danke, gnädige Frau. [Slurp, slurp]

As Beethoven trundles off to find yet another bottle of his favourite red, we can see that the Other Place cafe is filled with members of the Composers Philharmonic Orchestra, Haydn at the helm, baton raised for what will surely be the most extraordinary rendition of Happy Birthday ever heard – 250 variations by 250 different composers. This could be a long listen…

And as an afterthought? By complete coincidence, all the works mentioned by Beethoven in this interview are favourites of mine too. Strange that he didn’t mention Fidelio, the Prisoners’ Chorus never fails to move me: “What joy” indeed.

On behalf of all the MusiCB3 team (and Beethoven), good wishes for the festive season and a healthy 2021. As MJ said last week, it’s been a strange year but we’ve made it and will come through to the sunnier uplands in due time.  


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1 Response to Beethoven 250: a rare interview with the master


    SW in waggish mood today, nicht wahr?

    I’m wary of British writing on LvB that dwells excessively on his ‘bottle-of-wine with every meal’ (Denis Arnold) aspect, as I can only see the most unfuddled intellect at work to the very end (the replacement finale of Op 130 – what an amazing movement!). But I smile benignly at this scherzoid morsel (Hans Keller), albeit in festive mode …

    Christopher Wintle


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