Saturday, October 18, 2014


                       "Anyone who tells a lie has not a pure heart and cannot make good soup."                              ~ Ludwig van Beethoven

He was born in the city of Bonn, in the Electorate of Cologne, in what would later become part of Germany, on December 15, 1770, or perhaps, December 16 of that year. His happy father had the boy's birth registered at the town hall as was customary at the times, on 16 December early, so scholars differ on the dates of his birth. As mine is the December 15, I choose to think that his was as well. His father, a musician of some renown, known more for his drinking than his singing, was determined that young Ludwig would be another Mozart. Actually, the world really didn't need the one it already had, with the exception of Mozart's “Mass in C minor” and “Don Giovanni”, the last two pieces Wolfgang wrote that are truly worth hearing; the rest is just the same piece written 600 times. But, that's a story for someone who actually cares enough to write anything more about Mozart, so we're safely done with him.

"I shall seize fate by the throat." ~Ludwig van Beethoven

Young Ludwig didn't fulfill his father's wishes of becoming the “next Mozart” nor even the “next Haydn”, which is really okay. Young Ludwig, when not busy fighting off the night terrors that his drunk father visited upon him, if he caught Ludwig trying to play piano after bedtime, took up the viola at a rather young age and played in both of the orchestras in Bonn. Like every viola player everywhere, while he was sawing his way through some boring part, written by you-know-who, he must have been thinking to himself, “Mein Gott! We must have better viola parts around here! These are terrible!” Just kidding. But, the music of the time had already seen the peak of the Classical era and the viola parts had always been awful. Haydn, who danced a merry tune to his patrons managed to write 104 symphonies, while Mozart wrote 41. Other composers wrote just as many and have been lost to history. If they're anything like any piece of music written by Louis Spohr, this is a good thing. Spohr is a bore; bland found a home when Spohr was writing music in the 19th century.

Beethoven's viola. Vienna, Austria

Ludwig was an entirely different matter. Here, for the first time in a long time, well, really in forever, a composer had arrived in Vienna (the happening place for Classical music; very cutting-edge back then) and proceeded to turn the place on it's ear. No longer would the composer bow down to the whims and desires of the nobility. When Ludwig played piano, he was the prince and expected to be treated as such. Salon evenings would turn into competitions, with the young lion raging up and down the keyboard furiously and with a technical prowess that none had seen before. He was also lighting up the musical world with his compositions.

"To play without passion is inexcusable." ~Ludwig van Beethoven

His writing career is traditionally broken out into three periods, although that is a simplification; his first period is considered as occurring during the last years he spent in Bonn and his first years in Vienna. They mark the time when his first piano trios were written and his first two symphonies. This music is still very much in the Classical mold, although there are signs beginning with his 1st symphony that something different is going on in his head. The first movement opens with a forte and immediately drops to a piano, unheard of at the time. This is a reaction to the “stepped” way dynamics were approached previously. It's a small distinction, but a telling one. His 2nd symphony, like his 1st are charming works; almost too airy for Beethoven. This was all about to change in 1803.

"I am a rock-and-roll violist. I kick ass." ~ViolaFury

Firstly, he declared to a colleague that he was unhappy with the way his writing was going; he didn't think that he was achieving the clarity and force of spirit that he was looking for. He didn't want to be thought of as just another salon artist, or have his art be trivialized. It was a higher calling to him and he wanted to bring to it the proper attention and sought to honor his own muse and he was passionate about it.

Secondly, he started the rough draft for his 3rd symphony, and was going to dedicate it to Napoleon; it would be the “Bonaparte” symphony. Then, Napoleon got the bright idea of conquering the world, and Beethoven was furious. He said “So he is no more than a common mortal! Now, too, he will tread under foot all the rights of man, indulge only his ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men; become a tyrant!” Ludwig angrily scratched out the dedication page and renamed the mighty 3rd, the “Eroica” or “Heroic” symphony in E Major. And it is truly a magnificent work! I've known it since I was a kid and I've played it several times.

In the third movement, Beethoven completely shreds what remained of the Classical era and goes on a towering rampage of fury. The movement starts off sounding like a funeral dirge and it is dark indeed. He approaches the development with trepidation and just when you think he is going to hesitate and return to the main theme, he cuts loose with sixteen measures of unmitigated rage. It is almost Mahlerian in it's complexity and breadth. Spent, he then returns to the quiet, and ends with a syncopated, almost jazzy little fillip that ends the movement; it's almost as if he's saying “there, I got my musicrage out and I'm good, now, Nap”. But, not to be flippant and undermine the importance of this symphony and this movement and those particular 16 measures; it changed the musical world. We went from the Classical era to the Romantic era in that small amount of time.

"Music is a higher revelations than all wisdom and philosophy." ~Ludwig van Beethoven

It was also the end of Beethoven's early period and as he moved into his middle period, he would see some of his most productive and audacious work written and performed. He wrote his string quartets, along with the famous opus 18, which I love to play. Beethoven's central key is C minor, which puts him in the relative key of EMajor. Being a viola player, this is a natural state for us, as it encompasses our lowest register. I don't know if he thought along those lines, as he once told a violinist “What do I care about your damned fiddle, when the Spirit seizes me!?” So, there's no real indication that he favored violas, although playing anything written during and after Beethoven's lifetime is infinitely better for violas.

"Don't practice only your art, but force your way into it's secrets, for it and knowledge can raise men to the divine." ~Ludwig van Beethoven

But spirit and muse were all with him; when we think of the terrifying 5th symphony, it really beggars belief to think that a composer would so audaciously build an entire symphony around four notes: Da-Da-Da-Dum. These notes are repeated throughout the entire work, not just the first movement. There are a few things about this symphony that once again, set it apart from so many other works, then and now. The constant interweaving of the thematic material between all sections has to flow like electricity and the entire work is in constant flux. The other thing that I find remarkable and I've played too many symphonies to count, is that the only other symphony that I've ever played that has a bridge (meaning no pause or break) between the third and fourth movements is Sibelius' 2nd Symphony and that is just as brilliant and astounding as it is with Beethoven.

"The goosebumps start at 4:10." ~ViolaFury

Beethoven was not an easy person to like or get to know. Like many artists and composers, he lived inside his head, but he had an additional reason for doing so; he began to go deaf at the age of 23, and by age 30, was profoundly deaf. He thought nothing of standing up in a pub and yelling “So and So is a Donkey's Ass!” and he was irascible and often seemed unkind. But, through his music; through the splendor of his “Missa Solemnis” and his 9th Symphony, with the most-cherished theme of all time, the spectacular “Ode to Joy” you know that Beethoven understood the human condition and that he tried his best to express that greatness and the humanity and heart that lie within us. There's a very good reason he is my muse and always has been, since, like age 4. He's always been a part of my life and he expresses the greatness I would love to be able to say I've tried to achieve as a human being.

For those of you who may not know, I am under treatment for essential tremor, and have been for the last year. It is inherited and my mother had it. It prevented me from playing viola for several years and I was symptomatic as long as twenty years prior, with worsening symptoms over the last five years; diagnosing was difficult and arduous, but my neat-o, keen-o neurologist figured it out. The Parkinson's Disease Foundation is paying for my treatment. 

However, being a Wallace, and more prone to kick ass, take names and make retribution four-fold when at the top of my game, I am not one to let this sort of thing stop me. Seeing as I can't really take take vengeance out on a condition, or a disease, I chose the next best thing: I undertook an audition for the Tampa Bay Symphony and am playing viola again, beginning this season. SQUEE! Our first concert includes Beethoven's 5th Symphony, which is an amazing work. We will be playing Elgar and Shostakovich later on and I am so very excited and proud to be a part of this excellent group. 

To put this into a better historical context, I am playing on my wonderful Italian viola that was built only ten years after Beethoven's death, in 1827! I'll be writing on the other concerts that we will be performing as time comes closer and I'll put up links as they will be broadcast, as well. I'm also taking 2 programming classes through the good ol' University of Michigan, and this is a lot of fun as well and am looking forward to #NaNoWriMo, where we will continue "Music of the Spheres, Again." No, really, that's the title of the sequel. If they can get away with that in "Sharknado" I figure I can pull it off here. Happy #ROWing!


Amateur Khoikhoi said...

What an amazingly entertaining read on your muse. Congratulations on playing for the Tampa Bay Symphony! Good luck with the rest of the season!

alberta ross said...

am back for my Tampa Bay fix - brilliant as always - as I have said before I don't know much about classical music (apart from opera) but I feel -reading your pieces- as if I have known it for ever:) ode to joy is wonderful have always enjoyed it even when i fumbled it out on the piano so many decades ago (never been good at playing music:( isn't it great to see how small children enjoy the beauty and drama of the classics:)

Viola Fury said...

@Amateur Khoikhoi,

Thank you so much for the kind words! My muse has been entertaining me for over 50 years, so I thought it was time to share the enjoyment! Beethoven demands much, but then, so does anything that is worthwhile, but it doesn't mean we cannot have fun while in pursuit of that ineffable spirit! Thank you so much for visiting! ~Mary

Viola Fury said...


I am so thrilled you are back! Thanks so very much for your praise! One of the things about having a passion like this, is (hopefully) I can pass on, at least, a glimpse into how it feels and how it works on our spirits! I love your comment about opera. I swore after college, that I would NEVER play opera, yet somehow wound up spending 12 seasons with the New York Gilbert and SUllivan Players and with Opera Tampa, which was terrific fun and also, made me a much BETTER musician!

It is fun to watch children enjoy live music for the first time, which is one reason why I included that clip, but the spirit in which Beethoven wrote and ultimately succeeded with his towering 9th symphony and culminates in that "Ode to Joy" is one that crosses all barriers, even human. It will lull tigers to sleep, and for that one, brief shining moment, you feel that yes, all is right with the world! Thank you so much for reading, and I'm beside myself that you are back! Mary <3