As Gramophone magazine noted, critic Ernest Newman wrote to composer Edward Elgar in 1919 that: “The music … is so heart-piercing because we know it runs all the time along the quickest nerves of our life, our struggles and aspirations and sufferings and exaltations.”
Beethoven is not always monumental or sublime: he can be simple – think Für Elise, beloved of student pianists, now forever blighted by telephone hold-music – delicate, charming, raucous, witty (think of the rondo Rage Over the Lost Penny), or even trite (Wellington’s Victory).
For at least a century, from the 1840s, as religion in Europe began its long decline, Beethoven was seen as indisputably the greatest composer because of his moral earnestness and genius, lifting the listener from the quotidian to the sublime. It was art as religion, and Beethoven himself wrote that “music is the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life”.
Melbourne has a cornucopia of Beethoven this year, including three performances of Symphony No.9. The highlight is surely two concerts at the Melbourne Recital Centre in March of the five piano concertos on period instruments as Beethoven would have heard them, by Freiburg Baroque and the celebrated fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout.
February includes the Australian Chamber Orchestra playing the first three symphonies, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s opening gala with the Ninth, Musica Viva’s season opener with piano virtuoso Garrick Ohlsson, and the annual 3MBS marathon with six all-Beethoven concerts in one day by outstanding Australian musicians.
And starting it all on Wednesday is Melbourne Opera’s production of Beethoven’s inimitable and only opera, Fidelio, under the brilliant British conductor Anthony Negus, with a fine cast including Kirstin Sharpin, Brad Daley and Warwick Fyfe.
Beethoven was highly political – he dedicated his ground-breaking Symphony No.3 to Napoleon, only to scratch out the inscription on the score when Napoleon betrayed the French Revolution by declaring himself emperor. And Fidelio is among the most political, moral and religious of all operas.
To Anthony Negus, this is evident in the famous prisoners’ chorus, when the political prisoners emerge into the light and a young tenor tells them to “trust in God, and we will be free, we shall find peace”. (Actor Simon Callow says the emergence of the prisoners in his first Fidelio is the greatest moment he has ever had in the theatre, showing Beethoven’s “cosmic compassion”.)
“And”, Negus says, “of course the political aspect screams at you in Fidelio, the injustice of Florestan’s imprisonment, the idealistic rescue by Leonora, and the final scene of rejoicing which goes beyond opera – it is a universal kind of rejoicing such as we get in the Ninth Symphony.”
So just what makes this composer so special? Negus says: “Beethoven is one of the great life-givers. His music gives one enormous hope and energy. There are endless facets to Beethoven, his moral strength, the external thrills and the wonderful internal, deeply felt personal things that partly come from his deafness. The later string quartets are the key to Beethoven’s soul. He’s an uplifting composer in the very best sense.”