It is unthinkable that anyone could have escaped noticing that this year celebrates the 250th anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven’s birth. Born in December 1770, Beethoven was a Sagittarius and exhibited some of that star sign’s worst faults, being a blunt, opinionated know-all with a selfish craving to have things his own way at whatever cost. However, and fortunately for us, these single-minded traits drove him to become probably the greatest composer who ever lived.
Taught from the age of five by his father Johann, Beethoven gave his first recital aged seven although his father said he was six so that he could be better compared to the young Mozart. Christian Neefe, the Court Organist in Bonn, taught him both piano and composition from the age of nine and his talent quickly became apparent, attracting encouragement from important circles. He travelled to Vienna aged sixteen, apparently to study with Mozart, but had to return to Bonn within five months to look after his ailing mother. Over the next five years he played viola in the court orchestra, was exposed to a great deal of the music being written at that time and met a number of people who would have a great influence on his life both musically, such as Josef Haydn, and financially, such as Count Ferdinand von Waldstein.
Ludwig returned to Vienna in 1792 where, within a year he had established himself as a piano virtuoso. Strongly influenced initially by both Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven quickly developed his own styles and structures, breaking a lot of the established conventions of the time. It is usual to divide his development into three periods: ‘early’ prior to 1802, ‘middle’ from 1802 to 1812, and ‘late’ from 1812 onwards. His progressive deafness apparently had its origins from a fit he suffered induced by rage at being interrupted whilst composing. He could still hear speech and music relatively well by 1812, but was nearly totally deaf two years later. It is still astonishing to accept that his prodigious output and invention was achieved against such an uncompromising background – a tribute to his singularity of purpose and self-belief.
Beethoven is regarded as the crucial figure in the transition from Classical to Romantic music and Saffron Hall has three forthcoming concerts which illustrate this perfectly. First, on Friday 6 March, violinist Midori and the Festival Strings Lucerne will play two short Romances from Beethoven’s early period, his Violin Concerto and Symphony No.4, both from his middle period. Midori, winner of many awards, is a major international star who, like Beethoven, was a child prodigy. The two Romances strongly show the influence of Haydn and are both noted for their lyrical beauty. Beethoven’s only violin concerto was not a great success when first played, but has now become much-loved as an essential part of the violin repertoire. The genial Symphony No.4 suffers somewhat by being sandwiched between the weightier Nos.3 and 5. It is said that if any of Beethoven’s contemporaries had written this symphony, it would be considered that composer’s masterwork. It is certainly worth a special trip to hear.
The redoubtable John Lill CBE returns to the hall on 24 May to play four of Beethoven’s most famous Piano Sonatas. No.8, the “Pathetique”, written when the maestro was twenty-seven, contains the deceptively simple and extremely well-known andante cantabile second movement that has been used in pop music by the likes of Kiss and Billy Joel. No.13, played without pauses between the movements in the manner of a fantasy, is notable for departing from the then standard form for piano sonatas. No.15, the so called “Pastoral” Sonata, also from 1801, is renowned for its intricate technicality as well as its beauty and No.23, the “Appassionata” from 1805 demonstrates the composer’s growing maturity as well as being a virtuoso test for any pianist. As John Lill had memorised all thirty-two of Beethoven’s piano sonatas by the time he was fourteen, listening to his interpretations will be a rare treat. John will also be remembered for stopping the applause during his first visit to tell the audience that Saffron Hall was one of the finest halls of its size that he had ever played in.
Finally on 21 August, Aurora Orchestra arrive to play Beethoven’s Symphony No 7 from memory. This will be preceded by an explanatory talk on the structure of the work punctuated with illustrations from the various sections of the orchestra. Dating from the beginning of his late period, the symphony was an immediate success, an instant encore being demanded for the allegretto second movement. Beethoven himself declared it to be one of his very best works and although Sir Thomas Beecham likened the Scherzo to “a lot of yaks jumping about”, Richard Wagner thought it to be “the apotheosis of the dance”. Aurora Orchestra is not only brilliant but also very entertaining and this performance will be no exception.
Three contrasting concerts to celebrate the birth of a legend which will illustrate his progression from student to genius.