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Triumph Over Tragedy
by Jack Wellman
2008-02-14 08:51:54
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The classic that is Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, including the opening movement (the Allegro)…duh, duh, duh, duhhhhh…is perhaps the most universally recognized song in world - a universal and timeless classic from, arguably, the world’s greatest composer. What was extraordinary about the composer was that despite his numerous physical, mental and emotional handicap’s, his genius only grew all the more.

Ludwig Von Beethoven (1770-1827) has certainly been one of the most influential composers of the world. His overriding desire to study with Mozart in Vienna ended with the composer and teacher’s death. Arriving too late, he instead studied under Joseph Haydn. In a matter of months, Beethoven became a piano virtuoso. To Beethoven, it must have felt like it came overnight.

The greater his physical impediments grew, the greater his genius became. Perhaps the most magnificent work’s were done when he was nearly and then later, completely deaf. His eyesight was also rapidly deteriorating. Eventually, his friends had to use a slate to write comments, so that they could communicate with him. This gave him the unfair reputation as being an old, grumpy, hard-of-hearing old man, who didn’t like the company of others. As the old saying says, “still waters run deep”, and deep as any black abyss, was Beethoven’s loneliness and isolation. Contrary to popular beliefs, he was a very caring, passionate and considerate man. His Ode to Joy offers an example of his belief in God and that he exemplified joy and peace in his music.

What people who hear ringing in their ears describe is that it can sometimes drive a person nearly crazy. Beethoven’s diagnosis was that he suffered with this continuous ringing in his ears (tinnitus) and that he had great difficulty in dealing with it, once he even contemplated suicide. His hearing loss lead to eventual deafness, and this is where he really became creative. When composing, he would put his head on top of the piano while striking keys to sense the harmony of the arrangements and build entire symphony’s from it.

Now deaf, Beethoven thought of another way to compose. Since he could not hear, he used a large wooden rod, like a baseball bat except with the same thickness throughout. He pressed this upon his forehead and then resting the other end on the piano, he would identify each note, by it‘s resonance. Then these resonances combined would form a harmony, which would then have various musical instrumental portions built throughout, and so on.

Imagine a blind artist, a deaf singer, a mute speaker. Yes, it can be and has been done, but in Beethoven’s last work’s, it bespeaks perhaps his greatest, musical arrangements created under the most duress of conditions in his life. Human genius is apparently not restrained by physical or mental incapacities. It begs the question: Does a handicap empower some to be great?…or just to greatness? Is greatness related to suffering? Do most people who have no handicaps produce less than their best work? Is there a relationship to each? Is greatness lost with an easy life?

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, next to Handle’s Messiah, is the most widely recognized song in the world. In the Fifth Symphony, you can almost hear the tragedy and triumph. In Moonlight Sonata, you are with him, with a full moon, undergoing a painful isolation - when he tried to temporarily care for his nephew, he so smothered him in love and attention that the young lad ran away. This event and his own personal loneliness, isolation (hearing loss), having never been married and longing for it, can all be not only heard, but felt. Born of adversity were his many brilliances.

Are the zeniths of human genius forged from shipwrecked lives? It would seem so with Beethoven considered by millions as the greatest composer to have ever lived.

Beethoven's is a story of overcoming tragedy and disabilities, and then reaching the human pinnacle of musical achievements. A complex and brilliant man, no composer before or since has exerted greater musical influence in the world. Being subject to physical, mental and emotional impairments or agony does not necessarily prohibit greatness, conversely it may even create giftedness. When something is lost, more is gained. It is like the proverbial “addition by subtraction“.

How marvellous the human spirit and gifts born of adversity. Ludwig Von Beethoven gift to the world and perhaps to himself, was that there is more than this life. Perhaps his belief in God gave him added meaning and strength to go on, sensing a greater purpose. Regardless, Beethoven is a classic example of the enduring human spirit, showing that triumph over tragedy is not only possible, but it can give birth to genius.

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Emanuel Paparella2008-02-15 09:28:42
Today Beethoven and Michelangelo would be given prozac by our psychiatrists to alleviate their pain and better become adjusted to a consumer society of conformists, or they might be sent to an insane asylum by some power-mad authoritarian controlling politician for their liberal ideas. Nietzsche was wrong on many issues but he said a mouthful when he asserted that “whatever does not kill us makes us stronger.” Kenneth Clark in his famous series on Civilization names Beethoven and Byron as the two great artists who never surrendered or compromised the heroic spirit of Romanticism of which they were the prototype. It was Beethoven who first intuited that Napoleon, whom he admired at first, was no liberator of Europe but a little dictator with delusions of military glory building the greater France. Déjà vu?

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