In 1800, Daniel Steibelt, a celebrated European virtuoso, came to Vienna to duel Beethoven in an ‘improvisation contest’. With great pomp, in the first round, he won. Beethoven was not much interested in trying to impress aristocrats. For the second round, Steibelt was puffed up enough to use Beethoven’s own music in his challenge. This was a. . . mistake. Incensed, Beethoven snatched up Steibelt’s own music sheet, marched to the piano, turned the music upside down, went on to mock Steibelt’s ostentatious style, and then transform Steibelt’s music into a dazzling composition. Steibelt stormed out, refused ever to oppose Beethoven again, and eventually exiled himself to St. Petersburg, . . . for the rest of his life!
Such was the great Beethoven. He came to realize that he had achieved absolute musical mastery. He knew that he could do . . all that can possibly be done . . with music. Only a master genius can know what that is like, to have no peers, and no hope of being fully realized, in your own lifetime.
In 1802, in his ‘Heiligenstadt‘ Will and Testament, found only after his death, Beethoven resolved his loneliness and melancholy, and dedicated himself to music.
“Little was lacking to make me put an end to my life. Only art held me back, it seemed to me impossible to leave the world before I had brought forth all that I felt destined to bring forth”
And so ‘bring forth’ great music he did, for the rest of his life, taking long walks, writing down the music as it would came to him, in ever present notebooks, absent minded, stubborn, and eccentric.
His music is his autobiography. Hear the pain, in the Moonlight Sonata. The love of his life told him no. Feel the anguish in Pathetique. He realizes he is going deaf. The notes in these pieces are as much like words as any sounds can be, . . .the language of a human soul.
“The true artist has no pride. He sees unfortunately that art has no limits. He has a vague awareness of how far he is from reaching his goal; and while others may perhaps admire him, he laments that he has not yet reached the point to which his genius only lights the way for him like a distant sun.”
On May 7, 1824, perhaps the greatest day in the history of music, at the Karntnertor Theatre, in Vienna, he performed his last symphony, unaware, in his deafness, that he had raptured the audience and brought down the house. In its beginning, this symphony is thunderous, and startling, then it is combative and retreating, then accepting and aching, and then, like his life, transcendent in catharsis and joy, culminating in a . . . song, a song with an sweet, resonating melody that anyone and everyone can keep in their heads, and sing, . . .forever. On that night, in that theatre, Beethoven gave the everyday world, crafted with the greatest possible musical genius of any human composer, a magnificent and yet wonderfully simple, everyday, popular song. And we have been writing and singing popular songs since.