Should Beethoven Have Quit His Day Job? A Few Thoughts on the Complexity of Satisfaction

Ludwig Beethoven Life Mask by Klein c1812

Part of the problem with figuring out whether your life is satisfying is what exactly you expect from life. If you expect close to constant happiness, you haven’t been paying attention to what is going on around you — to what the nature of life is. No one is that happy — life doesn’t permit it with all its routine ups and downs. And, if you compare yourself to people in the media — beautiful or handsome, smiling, rich, famous, and seemingly in control — you will be hard pressed to think that you are doing as well as you should be. Moreover, if you believe that struggle and work frustration are somehow indicative of a life that isn’t satisfying, you just might be misunderstanding what “satisfaction” is.

Take Beethoven, the famous German composer who lived from 1770 to 1827. What is it like to be a genius? Well, for Beethoven it involved lots of struggle and enormous amounts of dedication and hard work. You can learn a bit about this by watching a recently issued DVD set that includes Leonard Bernstein’s Omnibus television programs. One in particular focuses on Beethoven’s process of composing his Symphony #5, the one that begins with the most famous four notes in music history: three Gs and an E-Flat; three eighth-notes and a half-note.

According to Bernstein, Beethoven tried out 14 different versions of the opening of the second movement over a period of eight years. The DVD features Bernstein talking about and conducting the Symphony of the Air in several different passages that were rejected for the first movement, which Beethoven sketched out over a period of three years. Indeed, the composer altered some passages in that movement as many as 20 times. The agony and struggle involved in the composing process can be seen even on the orchestral score of this piece, with numerous write-overs, scratch-outs, and cross-outs.

One might then ask, did Beethoven obtain satisfaction from the process of composing with all its frustration, reworking, effort, reconsideration, revision, contemplation, and strain? The answer apparently is “yes,” he was deeply engaged and committed to the creative process and proud of the results he achieved, however dear the cost. Put another way, “no pain, no gain.”

Happiness isn’t a day at the beach, at least not on a regular basis. Rather, it usually requires that you work for and achieve something — something that isn’t simply given to you. It is not great wealth or a big house in the right neighborhood; it is not power for power’s sake or lofty status simply because you’d like others to look up to you. Rather, it demands that we take on a task that is challenging and engaging — perhaps even creative — master the challenges, and produce a result of value. Having attained that level of accomplishment (not necessarily a material thing or something to which you can assign a dollar value), you can look back with satisfaction on what you have achieved (be it the healthy young life of your child or a great symphony). It is not about work alone, but work is a part of it.

Beethoven wasn’t what we would call a happy man. He was lonely, in part due to his growing deafness, and often frustrated and frustrating in his relationships (and satisfying relationships are normally needed for happiness). But he knew he was a great composer and lived for and through his enormous gifts and an unflagging dedication to producing the greatest music that was in him to create, no matter the length of time and the strain required.

Indeed, it is the strain and struggle within Beethoven’s music itself, and his ultimate triumph over the difficult technical and emotional act of composing, that draws us to him. Beethoven’s “process” is felt in Beethoven’s “product.” The trajectory from travail to triumph mimics the task of composing in such works as the 5th and 9th Symphonies or the Leonore Overture #3. And, in his mastery of the challenge of composing (not to mention the overcoming of his deafness to make great music), he also gives us a model for living.

Should Beethoven have quit his day job and found something easier?

I think you know a rhetorical question when you read one.

(The image above is a life mask of Beethoven done by Franz Klein in 1812 when Beethoven was 41).

By the way, the Chicago Symphony plays all of Beethoven’s Symphonies conducted by Bernard Haitink in June of 2010.

What’s a Beethovenmobile? When a “van” Isn’t a Station Wagon

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Language is a funny thing. Translations can be particularly amusing.

Since I am a collector of classical recordings, I received an e-mail from a Japanese website offering a large set of discs conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler. Furtwängler conducted lots of Beethoven, so I wasn’t surprised to find numerous performances of his music in the table of contents. But, I didn’t immediately understand why Beethoven’s name was listed as “Ludwig Station Wagon Beethoven.”

After a few seconds, the answer came to me. The Japanese translator must have taken the actual name “Ludwig van Beethoven” as it is written in Japanese and, using one of the translating devices available on the web, attempted to convert it into English. Thus, the “van” (as in a type of motor vehicle) became “station wagon.”

Is it any wonder that we humans have misunderstandings? One thing is for sure: I’ll never be able to look at a mini-van in quite the same way again.

The painting above by Joseph Karl Stieler (1781-1858) is of Beethoven ca. 1820. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

What “Fidelio” Tells Us About Life

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I’m not much of an opera lover. The stories are mostly preposterous, and I prefer instrumental music to vocal music most of the time. But, every so often opera puts words to music in a way that is immensely touching and wise. For me, the best example of this comes in the vocal quartet “Mir ist so wunderbar,” from Beethoven’s only opera “Fidelio.

Beethoven sets the drama up quickly. Florestan, housed in a dungeon, is the political prisoner of an evil and corrupt Governor named Pizarro. Florestan’s wife, Leonore, doesn’t know whether Florestan is living or dead. But, ever faithful, she disguises herself as a man using the name “Fidelio” (so much for the preposterous part) and gets a job at the prison. Her boss, the jailer Rocco, has a beautiful adult daughter named Marzelline, who is being pursued by a prison guard called Jacquino. But as soon as Marzelline gets a look at her dad’s new assistant, she pushes Jaquino away and has eyes only for Fidelio. Fidelio can’t exactly reject his boss’s daughter, and he lets her and her father assume that a marriage will be near at hand.

At this point, Fidelio (“faithful one”), Marzelline, Rocco, and Jaquino sing a vocal quartet that is touching because of its gorgeous music, but even more, because it describes the poignancy of the human dilemma in which these four decent people find themselves.

As the musical lines of the four voices weave in and out, Fidelio expresses her worries over her husband, the possibility that she will not find him,  and the anguish she feels at Marzelline’s affection for her;  Jaquino articulates his heartbreak at having been jilted by Marzelline for Fidelio; Marzelline sings as a young woman in love; and her father, Rocco, looks forward to the happiness of these two good young people — his daughter and Fidelio — and their domestic life together.

The music touches us because of what we know that they do not. Marzelline will have her heart broken, as she must very soon, when she discovers that her future husband is a woman. Rocco, too, will have his future hopes for this daughter dashed. Fidelio faces danger if Florestan lives and she attempts to rescue him, and her own unhappiness if she has arrived too late to save him. And there is no certainty that Jaquino will ever win over Marzelline, even as a “rebound romance,” once Fidelio’s identity and true gender as Leonore are revealed.

But there is more, and it is what Beethoven’s opera tells us about life by way of this music. It is that even decent and good people such as these four will sometimes be at cross purposes that frustrate them and hurt them. The disappointment will not happen because any one of them wanted to harm any other one of them. It will occur simply because that is the nature of human existence. And Beethoven made art of this fact of life. We feel for the characters, however absurd the opera’s premise, because we’ve been there too, been in difficult relationships where pain was inevitable despite our best efforts to avoid it for ourselves and avoid inflicting it on others.

The disappointments that are bound up with living, the tragedy that touches virtually every life before its end (and, often, because of its end), is the stuff of opera, life, and of psychotherapy, too. Fidelio moves us because it is a story of self sacrificing love and courage. And the irony of great art that comments on human suffering, such is this vocal quartet, is that just as Beethoven moves us to tears, he touches our heart in a way that enlivens us, and makes life worth living in the moment that we share the beauty and wisdom of his vision.

The above image is a poster for an April 12, 1904 performance of Fidelio, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.