(Started to the urgent strains of String Quintet in C, 1st Movement):
The door cracking my consciousness was the mighty Ludwig first espied from a vinyl record bin at Dracut Town Library in Massachusetts. It was a double-vinyl set simply titled The Greatest Hits Album – Beethoven issued from Columbia.
But before I heard the music, there was the man himself, or at least the semblance of a man carved in gossamer white marble right there on the record cover, surrounded by raven’s claw black and the title in bold legend. That stern stony countenance challenging me from one century to the one that follows.That smooth forehead and furrow cleaving the center of the brow and the eyebrows startled and determined, woven in furious theatres of concentration. I’m trying too hard to describe…
‘Behold, listen if ye dare!’ I had to have been thirteen years old.
I was introduced to the 1st Movement of Symphony No. 5 In C Minor, Op. 67, the signature tonic of the masses, the first four bars perhaps the most famous in the history of music; Eugene Ormandy’s Minuet In G; Für Elise; the First Movement of the “Moonlight”; the Turkish March From “Ruins Of Athens”; the final Movement from the 9th (to my untrained ears, I loved the music more than the chorus, feeling it too overwrought back then!); the bucolic opening movement of the Sixth; the stirring emphatic opening movement of the “Emperor” piano concerto; the 1st movement from the “Pathétique”; and the rousing finale from the Eroica. That was it, capsulized and energized for my early teen taste, buttressed on one side by Led Zeppelin, and The Doors on the other among a host of other music spanning 70s disco to the soundtrack to Jaws. In all of it, there lie an answer to my angst and depressive state. It was something I could not put my finger on, rooted deep in the soul of the man responsible for all of this music, most of which I hadn’t been exposed.
At some points during my youth, I would zealously root through cardboard boxes at the Westford Flea Market looking for vinyl albums. I remember a 10″ album of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony that I learned by heart. After that, it was the major symphonies with the exception of the 3rd, for it was too complex and lengthy, though I attached myself to the exciting scherzo already featured in the Greatest Hits album collection. I committed the entire 5th to memory and then the 6th. With the 9th, I was immersed into the instrumental portions of the symphony, and a bit turned off by the choral sections. I was learning it all in baby steps, latching on to the obvious choices due to the more than adequate exposure offered to the record buying public.
The dimensions of my growing obsession with Beethoven continued unabated. There was, in 1970, a Time-Life Bicentennial set of the brunt of Beethoven’s major works. It was an ad that I cut out and kept, wishing against all wishes that I had the means of buying the entire thing. I was all there in the ad, the mythical heroic scowl of the composer, each vinyl set tinted in a different color.
It wasn’t until 2015 that I had finally acquired the full set piece-by-piece.
This does not fully or adequately express my admiration for the composer. My father hated that this was my choice of listening as a teenager. Outraged, he yelled, “That goddamn long-haired music! What good is it? You can’t dance to it!” He had it in his head that it would make me crazy. I guess this is the same experience some kid would experience when he played heavy metal or punk and driving his/her parents to tear it down from some sinister mindset of choosing to be ignorant. This only drove me deeper into my obsession.
I read some Beethoven biography back then, the title of which escapes me though I had the book committed to memory. Beethoven’s problems with his father I could relate to. The drive to escape the prison of his provincial village and desire to drive himself to a higher purpose became my divining rod against a world that I felt determined to keep me bogged down to mediocrity.
Like a kid wanting to be his favorite rock star I wanted to be Beethoven I wanted the hair, the scowl of defiance. I wanted to toil in my introversion, hearing trumpets and violins and kettle drums in the soundscape of my skull and not the droll voices of teachers, the shallow preoccupations of my peers, and the annoying denouncement from my parents. The music and persona of the man loomed large, a combination to this day I cannot shake.
This past week, for the second time, I have assembled a playlist of every known performed composition of Beethoven’s into chronological order so as to feel and hear the development of his art.
Maybe I’ll upload the tracks for your edification if the interest is shown.