© 2022 WOSU Public Media
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Classical 101

"Copying Beethoven"

Had Beethoven’s body fared as well in history as have his image and his art, that body would have been 241 years old today. On this auspicious occasion, and prompted by recollections of the 2006 film Copying Beethoven, I took a few moments to contemplate what it might have been like to know and work with Beethoven. In case you haven't seen Copying Beethoven, the video clip above contains the scene in which the composer (played by the incomparable Ed Harris), at that point completely deaf, conducts the premiere of his Ninth Symphony with the aid of Anna Holtz, a fictitious music student whom Beethoven engages as his music copyist. This scene, and in fact the idea behind this film, intrigues me. Always intriguing is the thought of crossing paths with someone like Beethoven. Such phenomenal talent, such an intellect, such a personality – at least according to the “Beethoven Mythâ€? that sprung up even before the composer was cold in the grave – how amazing it must have been to find oneself in his presence. But more intriguing than the thought of experiencing Beethoven in the flesh is that of working with him on his musical creations. And even more intriguing still is the idea that his musical assistant might have been – gasp – a woman. What might it have been like for a woman to know and work with Beethoven? The composer never married, though his amorous inclinations with his “Immortal Belovedâ€? are so famous as to be iconic. We know that the women who served as his cooks came and went, for at least a certain period of time, as though through a revolving door – and little wonder: Beethoven's letters tell us how badly he treated these poor women. And whether the vitriol he directed toward his sister-in-law was justified or simply the bitter fruit of misogyny we may never know. But, just for kicks, let’s imagine for a moment what it might have been like for a young woman with musical inclinations, first, to finagle professional training in this discipline in an age when the families who could afford it ensured for their daughters musical instruction mainly as a means of refining them for work in the domestic sphere, and second, to land an opportunity to assist none other than Beethoven. Would she simply have to rise, again and again, above his pathologies, or could she eventually earn Beethoven's confidence based on her abilities? Here, Beethoven's deafness might be viewed not as a tragedy, but as the very aspect of his being that gave him any chance of experiencing the world, shall we say, normally. Beethoven was legendarily at turns affable and completely incapable of living in society. With his close friends he joked and punned, but he was dirty and messy, awkward with and even rude to unknowns and had such difficulty paying his rent that he kept getting evicted. His musical talent was such that, as his deafness progressed, he might have lived quite happily in his own little musical world unencumbered by the likes of normal human beings. But growing deaf was precisely what kept Beethoven in touch with humanity: he needed people more and more as his condition worsened. To be sure, Beethoven's hearing condition sorely vexed him, but it also burnished the rough edges off his genius, leaving the flesh and blood of a human being with great needs and vulnerability, ironically, right where his profound talent lay. Thus humbled, Beethoven may well have been forced to accept help however it presented itself. And if there were ever a sense in his mind that, in light of his impending deafness, he had to save face with the men who made up the lion's share of the musicians who performed his music, Beethoven might have seen a gifted woman musician as something of a safe harbor. I like to think that, acknowledging his need for people, Beethoven might have been a wonderful collaborator for people of either sex and that, having such a gift for his art, he would have appreciated talent in women as well as in men. And I like to think that, just as Friedrich Schiller's "Ode to Joy" extolls the uniting of beggars and princes in the bonds of common humanity, Beethoven might have seen women and men as, in a manner of speaking, variations on a human theme.