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12 January 2022

The British Library takes us inside the mind of Beethoven

The artefacts in this major exhibition are poignant aids to understanding the composer’s struggles.

By Simon Heffer

Ludwig van Beethoven, who could make a strong claim to be the greatest composer in history, was yet another victim of the pandemic in 2020. It was probably the 250th anniversary of his birth (he himself was unsure whether he was born in 1770 or 1771), and across the world concerts and tributes scheduled to commemorate his quarter-millennium had to be cancelled or postponed.

One such event was the exhibition that the British Library had planned both to honour him and highlight his connections with London and England. Rather than lose the chance altogether, the exhibition – “Beethoven: Idealist. Innovator. Icon.” – opened on 3 December last year and runs until 24 April. From the manuscript pages of his early sonatas, written when he was 11 or 12 years old, through to material associated with his magnificent Ninth Symphony (the Choral) – a commission by the London Philharmonic Society – the British Library is displaying around 50 items connected with him.

The intention is not just to show some of his connections with this country, but to lead us a little into Beethoven’s mind as he composed, and also to make us more alert to his personality and his struggles with deafness. He was almost entirely without hearing by the age of 44, and had very little social life, but his later years of solitude were also profoundly creative. Beethoven had wanted to be a pianist, but his hearing loss made that impossible; he had been brilliant at extemporising and that was how he composed, so from his early 30s his growing disability made it harder for him to write music.

One of the most interesting aspects of London’s involvement with his work was the commissioning of the Choral Symphony in 1817, which he wrote from 1822 to 1824. Symphonies were not the area that flourished with the onset of his deafness: he wrote eight of his nine symphonies by 1814 and the majority of works in his last decade were chamber pieces, songs and canons.

[see also: The many Beethoven myths]

We learn something about Beethoven’s character from the story of the Ninth Symphony. The Philharmonic Society thought it had bought exclusive rights to the work for 18 months, but the first performance was in Vienna in 1824, almost a year before the London one, with Beethoven conducting music he could not hear and the orchestra largely ignoring him. He was still waving his arms around after the players had finished: one of the soloists turned him round so he could at least see the audience’s ecstatic ovation.

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It had its first London performance in March 1825, and the British Library has the score used in that concert with the marks of the conductor, Sir George Smart, together with the handbill promoting it. It had a first half of Mozart, Haydn and Cherubini before the “New Grand Characteristic Sinfonia” of Beethoven, and lasted about three and a half hours. There are also a number of ivory counters inscribed with the names of many of the Philharmonic Society’s subscribers, which they used to gain admission to the concert.

English collectors in the 19th century were keen to acquire Beethoven material, and the exhibition includes some notable bequests, such as the sketchbook for the Pastoral Symphony. There are also the composer’s kitchen accounts (his genius thrived on beef, liver, bone marrow and red wine), and some of his notebooks record his lessons with Haydn. There are also sketches for some of his smaller-scale works, engravings of Bonn (his birthplace) and Vienna (scene of so many triumphs).

But in rather an inspired move the exhibition also has a section on legacy. Beethoven has permeated Strictly Come Dancing. The EU appropriated his setting of Schiller’s “An die Freude” – the “Ode to Joy”, set in the last movement of the Choral Symphony – as its supranational anthem. And he has had the fate motif of the opening bars of his Fifth Symphony used for more Nazi war films than one can remember, evoking, as that music immediately seems to, a stern, harsh Teutonism. Ironically, those four notes were also borrowed by Britain and France in the Second World War, as they are identical in rhythm to the four beats in Morse code signifying V for Victory, and were used in coded radio broadcasts to SOE and resistance operatives.

However, nothing else on display quite rivals, to my mind, Beethoven’s tuning fork, which came through various hands to Gustav Holst and then to Ralph Vaughan Williams. A few years before her death in 2007, Mrs Vaughan Williams gave it to the British Library, apparently fearing someone might steal it. It is safe now. And given that Beethoven died in 1827, the bicentenary is barely five years away, and with luck can be celebrated without hindrance from the present pestilence.

Beethoven: Idealist. Innovator. Icon
British Library,
London NW1, until 24 April

Simon Heffer is a historian and columnist for the Telegraph

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This article appears in the 12 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The age of economic rage