Of Tragedy and Triumph (in that order)

How to encapsulate Beethoven in 500 words? We can draw some inspiration from his fifteenth string quartet in A Minor. Although this is a work of symphonic breadth, it is succinct enough to give lie to the excessive focus on Beethoven’s gloom and melancholy at the expense of his music’s wider narrative of good prevailing over evil. Certainly the opening movement of the fifteenth quartet is one of Beethoven’s darkest opening movements, pervaded throughout by a deep – if expertly suppressed – sense of tragedy. Beyond this though the story is very different; the second movement comprises a gentle minuet and what must be one of the most wonderfully lyrical trios Beethoven ever committed to manuscript. The background to the epic third movement is the composer’s recovery from serious illness, the music rendering in exquisite detail this juxtaposition of suffering and convalescence; while it is certainly tainted by past loss it speaks primarily of hope. The fourth movement comprises a short, boisterous march and a connecting passage to a final movement which, although beginning with the same tragic tonality as the first, throbs with impatient purpose and a sense that resolution lies within reach; and, in what seems like no time at all, resolution arrives with a triumphant apotheosis in the major key. Far from being a tale of doom therefore the quartet – like the composer – is a multi-dimensional microcosm of the human condition.

How then to explain the view of Beethoven as a joyless purveyor of misery which has gained such wide currency? The composer’s tendency to front-load his minor-key movements does not help. While later composers – no doubt under Beethoven’s influence – have often ended minor-key works with major-key climaxes, most Baroque composers would be content with a Picardy third, while Mozart’s most famous works in minor keys (such as the fortieth symphony) usually end in the start key (Haydn meanwhile sometimes wrote last movements of major-key works in the minor key, as with some of the Opus 76 quartets). Beethoven then can be seen as a pioneer of the idea of working towards the light, but in a culture in which opening movements tend to be the most well-known many listeners may not stay around long enough to see it. However the traditional view also fits very well with the composer’s deafness. There can be no doubt that Beethoven was tortured by his failing hearing, especially as the failure was gradual and incomplete. This intermittency captures perfectly the idea of Beethoven as a man in constant battle; raging against the dying of the music and forever harbouring the hope that his deafness could one day be conquered, long after reason suggested otherwise.

It is this sense of struggle, and everlasting belief in the power of human spirit, which defines both Beethoven and his fifteenth quartet. Certainly his music plumbs the cruellest depths; however it also soars to the most blissful heights, and to miss this is to cut oneself off from the true meaning of a complex and magnificent composer.