Ripe for the madhouse

Monday, February 26, 2007
In matters musical (as in so many other matters) I am ignorant. I know nothing beyond whether or not I enjoy a particular piece of music. As tunes cannot be carried in buckets I am forever condemned to be unable to carry one. Musical keys cannot open doors and are, therefore, meaningless and incomprehensible to me. I have paid out quite a great deal of money for musical instruments of various sorts. Not a one of them can ever be mine.

Yesterday afternoon I attended a performance of Symphony No.7, Op.92, by Ludwig van Beethoven. It was time well spent and I cannot imagine enjoying a piece of music more thoroughly. It was just flat out fun.

I find Beethoven (perhaps, more accurately, the times he lived in) fascinating. When he was a lad of 5 or 6 growing up in Bonn his drunken father was abusing him to practice his music which, apparently, he did not want to do because he did not like music. His father harbored a fantasy of his son repeating the story of Mozart's youth and bringing large sums of money into the home. It was not to be. His father would take his own life before the arrival of fame and fortune for the Beethoven name.

Around that the time that his father was beating him to make him practice his piano Adam Smith was publishing an Investigation Into the Nature And Causes Of The Wealth of Nations and a gang of colonial malcontents was publishing the Declaration of Independence. The world was well on its way to changing and Ludwig was going to make a contribution to that change.

He once said of himself,
"For years I have avoided almost all society, because I cannot tell people I am deaf. I have to appear as a misanthrope; I, who am so little of one."

For a figure of such public reknown that must have been a horrible torment. I am no Beethoven historian and it has been many years since I read anything of any depth about the man but I have this lingering notion that he was considered to be a miserable, mean man. Was he? Or was he something else entirely?

By the time he wrote the Seventh he was quite deaf and knew it was irreversable. The symphony was first performed, with Beethoven himself conducting, as a benefit for Austrian and Bavarian soldiers wounded at the Battle of Hanau. His composition, Wellington's Victory was also premiered at the benefit concert. Napolean could run but, ultimately, he could not hide.

Upon hearing the Seventh Beethoven's contemporary composer, Carl Maria von Weber said,

"the extravagances of this genius have reached the ne plus ultra, and Beethoven is quite ripe for the madhouse."
A review published in a newspaper of the day said:
"Mr. Van Beethoven goes his own path, and a dreary, eccentric, and tiresome path it is: learning, learning, and nothing but learning, but not a bit of nature or melody. And, after all, it is but a crude and undigested learning, without method or arrangement, a seeking after curious modulations, a hatred of ordinary progressions, a heaping up of difficulties, until all the pleasure and patience are lost."
Ripe for the madhouse he may have been. Pleasure and patience lost? I beg to differ, but what do I know.


you are me said...

B’s 7th, second is ethereal, as pure as you can get: (a Columbia University Orchestra recording).

Believe this movement was used at the end of the brutal, difficult to stomach film “Irreversible” by Gaspar Noe (family friend, nice guy). You can’t help but cry. Warning on the movie, though.

chuck said...

Ah, I remember creosoting the siding of a house to the sounds of that symphony. Warm day, tall ladder, teenage hormones, and my hands burned like heck the next day. Memorable on all counts.

Knucklehead said...

The teenage hormones and burning hands bit... there's a story there somewhere. Do share.

Barry Dauphin said...

So what does it mean that the music of Ludwig Von played such a big part of the movie A Clockwork Orange?

vnjagvet said...

Bruno Walter did a bangup version of the Seventh, as did Otto Klemperer (Col. Klink's dad).

Those old guys could really feel it.

My music professor in college said it had a lot of Scottish influence, especially in the finale.

I wonder if he was right, as I did not do any independent research.

Maybe with the internet now, I should check up on him.

chuck said...


I could claim to be the horny handed son of labor, but it would be a lie. Simply, the leather gloves I was wearing became soaked with creosote with the expected result.

Wellington's Victory... my favorite...

The bear went over the mountain,the bear went over the mountain,
The bear went over the mountain, to see what he could see...

I wonder which came first, the words or the tune?

loner said...

SALIERI: I even conducted the salvos of cannon in Beethoven's dreadful Battle Symphony. The experience left me almost as deaf as he was.

The CITIZENS bow and kiss their hands to him.]

I remained in Vienna—City of Musicians—reverenced by all. And slowly I understood the nature of God’s punishment! ….What had I begged for in that church as a boy? Was it not
fame? Fame for excellence? …Well now I had fame! I was to become—quite simply—the most famous musician in Europe!

All the CITIZENS fall on their knees before him, clapping their hands silently, and relentlessly extending their arms upward and upward almost obliterating him.]

I was to be bricked up in fame! Embalmed in fame! Buried in fame—but for work I knew to be
absolutely worthless!. This was my sentence: I must endure thirty years of being called “Distinguished” by people incapable of distinguishing!

—Peter Shaffer, Amadeus

On Wednesday, December 8, 1813, in Vienna, Ludwig von Beethoven conducting, the program announced the following works: "An entirely new Symphony" by Beethoven (the Seventh in A major); two marches played by Maelzel's 'Mechanical Trumpeter', with full orchestral accompaniment—the one by Dussek, the other by Pleyel; and "Wellington's Victory". The concert was repeated on Sunday, December 12th.

Anton Felix Schindler called it one of the most important times in the master's life when, with the exception of a few professional musicians, all the voices that up to this moment had been at odds finally united in unanimous acclaim and it took a work like the Battle Symphony to unify the conflicting opinions and thus stop the mouths of the opponents of every type.

From Beethoven’s thank you note press release:

I consider it my duty to thank all the esteemed participants in the concerts of 8th and 12th December, given for the benefit of the imperial Austrian and royal Bavarian soldiers wounded in the battle of Hanau, for the zeal that they showed in so worthy a cause.

It was a rare assembly of outstanding artists, in which each one, inspired by the sole thought of contributing by his art something for the benefit of the Fatherland, worked together without thought of rank and in subordinate positions to bring about an oustanding performance.

Not only did Hr. Schuppanzigh as leader of the first violins carry the orchestra with him by his fiery and expressive playing, but Hr. Chief-Kapellmeister Salieri did not disdain to give the beat to the drums and the cannonades.

Back when my music was on vinyl I had a performance of Wellington’s Victory at Vitoria, Op. 91 (Battle Symphony) as the B-side to a performance of a still-famous piece of music, also featuring artillery, by another composer inspired by other 1812 events. Shaffer’s Salieri has it right. The Battle Symphony is dreadful. Distinguishing? The Seventh is much better.

I lifted most of the words concerning the December 1813 concerts from this site.

Chuck! My man! Bye again!

Knucklehead said...


The link seems screwy but thank your for the lifting!

What times those were! Are the times we live in so interesting as those? Napolean on the run. Empires moving relentlessly toward their end.

The European masses may have applauded the vitality and his rejection of "ordinary progressions" but they never really took such things to heart. And the world would soon be bitterly sorry for that.

To this day they are far more spiritually in tune with von Weber.

loner said...


Not sure when the link got eaten. Here's the site:

It's a Beethoven site.

You might find the movie Immortal Beloved, released in 1994, interesting. My main memory of it is telling the friend I saw it with afterwards that I was tired of movies where the problems of the protagonist ended up being the result of child abuse. Millions have survived an unhappy, loveless and/or abusive childhood. One or a score-or-so of such ended up becoming one of the greatest composers of music the world has known.

Zsa Zsa Gabor summed it all up beautifully in John Huston's 1952 movie about a painter born a little less than one hundred years after Beethoven to which words similiar to those used above regarding him are sometimes applied (No, not that one!), Moulin Rouge:

Myriamme, you are incorrigible. The first time you're out with a man and you tell him your father died of alcoholism. Anyway, whose father didn't?

Human nature, in my opinion, hasn't changed much during recorded history. The times are always a challenge to those living in them. It's left to later generations to argue about whether they were extraordinary or not. I agree with your assessment regarding the times through which Beethoven lived.

I'll probably give Immortal Beloved another viewing now that I think about it. Maybe I was reacting to the times more than to the movie.


Syl said...

A post on Beethoven! Genius is genius and though the times he lived in dictated the vessel and form, I've always felt the music itself stands alone and no other understanding is necessary.

I was a Beethoven nut and even formed a Beethoven club in highschool. Weekly lectures on music and trips to concerts. Not much at all about history, period, personal life, it was the music itself.

I got people interested via many things about the music--pointing out funny passages in this or that that when understood made people laugh.

Oh, and I had a Beethoven sweatshirt which was my fave thing to wear. Even got written up in the local rag about the club and all.

I'll stop now, I can really get carried away re Beethoven.