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Beethoven: A Conversation with Laura Tunbridge

Could you imagine a worse 250th birthday?

A quarter of a millennium after his birth in 1770, most of the musical world embarked on a huge celebration of the life and work of Ludwig van Beethoven in 2020. Suddenly, this giant, year-long birthday party was curtailed by the pandemic, making any musical tribute to the great hero of classical music possible only behind closed doors and on the rectangular screens of online streaming. Surely, the great Beethoven deserves better!

Our Oxford Beethoven Festival, an ambitious and comprehensive celebration of Beethoven’s music, began with a rousing performance of the composer’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and heroic third symphony. Against the odds, we now politely ask the great composer to accept our belated birthday wishes as we endeavour to salvage last year’s lost celebrations in our 2021/22 season.

While Beethoven admired many of Britain’s achievements from the parliamentary system to the works of William Shakespeare and Sir Walter Scott, he could not be persuaded to cross the English Channel and never made it to the British Isles – even though the famous ninth symphony was commissioned by the London Philharmonic Society!

His soft spot for Britain, however, may date as far back as his family friendship with (and financial support from) George Cressener, the British envoy to Bonn in the late 18th century. Mirroring this relationship, the Oxford Phil today continues its friendship with the German Embassy and HE the German Ambassador this season, including a visit to the Embassy in December.

Our other link to the great composer is the twinning of Oxford and Bonn, the respective birthplaces of the Oxford Philharmonic and Ludwig van Beethoven himself.

Laura Tunbridge, Professor in Music and Fellow of St Catherine’s College at the University of Oxford, has recently published a critically acclaimed biography, Beethoven: A Life in Nine Pieces. We spoke to her about our fascination with Beethoven ahead of our celebrations this season.

OPO: Beethoven was a monument to his succeeding composers, more so than Mozart or Haydn. Why does Beethoven still today appear so monumental to listeners and performers alike?

Laura Tunbridge: Partly because during his own lifetime, people began building up a profile for him as a leading composer in Vienna, who had an international reputation. And that is because of the quality of the music, but also because people began to write biographies and they found out a lot about his personal life after his death which fed into a kind of romantic mythmaking. His work was taken up by performers, in a way that encouraged people to get obsessed with Beethoven. They built programmes around him, such as complete cycles, and they tried to find out every little bit they could about the man and his music.

There is a whole industry that builds up around Beethoven. It is about the stories that you can pin on him, in a way that people then find match what they think music can express beyond the ordinary, to bring people together or indeed to express something very personal and introverted. This gambit of emotions that his music means is impressive and alluring, and draws people in.

OPO: After your book on Beethoven, what remains uncovered and what will perhaps never be known about him?

LT: You can uncover all kinds of things about his everyday life – how much coffee he drank and that he liked a certain kind of bread soup. This is interesting in terms of what happens every day to the composer, is there any connection between that and his work? And then we have built up those stories around the composer, but if we know something that just doesn’t fit in and makes you question things, does that necessarily negatively impact things or can it actually make you feel fonder of somebody?

Inevitably, if you go into the biography of somebody, you find out facts that are not true and things that are. And there are funny things, finding out that Beethoven had quite a cruel sense of humour. I am not quite sure if I like that or not. But it expands your imagination of what a composer does.

“He was not an easy character by any means … but he certainly was much more sociable than he comes across”

Laura Tunbridge

OPO: You write about friendship in the ‘Kreutzer’ violin sonata and love in An die ferne Geliebte. Was Beethoven actually a softer and more sociable character than how we think of him today?

LT: Certainly more sociable. It is really obvious throughout his life that he has circles of people around him. When he is younger and doesn’t have problems with his hearing, he is much more sociable in general, and more concerned about his reputation, going to salons and schmoozing. During the deterioration of his hearing, which takes place over quite a long time, gradually his social circles get smaller.

He was obviously difficult to deal with in lots of ways, and he has some long-suffering friends, but he can sometimes fall out with people. He was not an easy character by any means. Neither did he have a particularly easy life, but he certainly was much more sociable than the image of the composer comes across.

BOOK NOW: ‘Kreutzer’ violin sonata (No. 9) performed by Concertmaster Natalia Lomeiko and Sasha Grynyuk on 27th November, 7:30pm, Holywell Music Room, Oxford

“What is evident from Beethoven’s diaries is that, yes, he was isolated, but he also is never truly by himself”

Laura Tunbridge

BOOK NOW: An die ferne Geliebte performed by Mark Padmore and Mitsuko Uchida on 8 December, 7:30pm, Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford

OPO: Did the deterioration of his hearing have an equal impact on his music as well as his personality and social life?

LT: It is really difficult to say. It might have affected the kinds of music that he took on and how much music he wrote. There has been a lot written about how his loss of hearing might have either restricted what he could do, but also how it might have in some ways liberated his imagination. I find that quite hard to gauge, because there is an element of internal imagination for composers. It is not only the music that they hear which they can produce, it has to be an imaginative aspect. Even having lost hearing, you can still produce in an inventive way.

From the distance of 200 years and without personal experience of the situation it is very hard to gauge the relationship between the creative process and hearing loss. It is fascinating to think how much it helps us to envisage his isolation and build up a sense around it. And what is actually evident from the diaries is that, yes, he was isolated, but he also is never truly by himself.

Mark Padmore and Mitsuko Uchida perform at the Sheldonian Theatre on 8 December as part of the Oxford Beethoven Festival

OPO: On 8 December, Mark Padmore and Mitsuko Uchida will perform a programme including Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte song cycle – possibly the first of its kind ever written – and Schubert’s Schwanengesang as part of the Oxford Beethoven Festival.

Outside of scholarship, Beethoven is not too well-known as a composer of love songs and host of Lieder soirees. Schubert, on the other hand, is strongly associated with the song cycle and his Schubertiaden, as maybe a genre where he was free from the musical overshadowing of Beethoven. Could this possibly be a genre in which Beethoven’s influence on posterity is indeed understated?

LT: In some ways, An die ferne Geliebte is the first musically unified song cycle. If you were writing a history of the song cycle, that is where you would start in terms of musical unity. Although Beethoven wrote a lot more songs than we remember, they had a quite different purpose. Whether Schubert consciously wrote songs because he did not want to be in the shadow of Beethoven is difficult to unpick. They were living in the same era, but they were moving in quite different circles, and Schubert’s song writing had much more to do with sociability and the marketplace, and with him quickly establishing reputation.

You can say that An die ferne Geliebte is a really significant historical piece, but there are some really lovely songs by Beethoven, even quite a lot of love songs, and there is certainly a lot of ‘distant lovers’. This shows a lot about how much he read, and how people at the time were reading poetry by everyone from Goethe to local poets. It shows how you can be a Romantic in your poetry reading and not necessarily in your musical style, which always has a fascinating tension.

OPO: In the coda, you write that ‘There is always a tension between learning about the history of music and experiencing music in the present’. Celebrating Beethoven this season, can experiencing a wealth of his music teach us about his history and his life, too?

LT: The question of how we learn that is interesting: if you sit in the Sheldonian Theatre, you might be thinking how old that building is and whether Beethoven’s music is as old as the building or younger. You might then start thinking about the creaking floorboards and the physical experience of sitting there.

Thinking about what kinds of spaces Beethoven’s music was heard in in its day, some of them were these big halls. Programmes were very different, and we now have a much more concentrated programming practice in focussing on, well, all Beethoven for a start, or all symphonies rather than a mixed genre approach. Part of music’s wonder is that is does cut across time so immediately, and it is really hard to hear history in it, but we can certainly think about the structures we put around it, from the buildings and the performers to how we play it.

There are kinds of stories that might be attached to the pieces. And we make those our own, to make a sense of what happened in the past as well. I think it is difficult to sit down and say: now I am going to think about the 18th century, but aspects of that can certainly change the way you are thinking about the current experience of that moment.

“Yes, I think Bonn can still claim him, but Vienna can have him, too”

Laura Tunbridge

OPO: In A Life in Nine Pieces, the introduction begins in Bonn, and the final chapter closes with Ottmar Hoerl’s art installation ‘Ode to Joy’ in Bonn, 2019. But Beethoven left Bonn in late 1972 and never returned permanently – he wrote basically his entire oeuvre in Vienna. What role did Bonn play in his life, compared to its importance for his legacy today?

LT: Because of the education Beethoven received in Bonn, his early musical training and experience was so important; also because of the literary world there, which was significant. In its values, it was a much more cosmopolitan enlightenment city than perhaps we think of today.

In some ways, his remaining in Vienna was an accident. He couldn’t return and ended up staying. I think he would have returned in the 1790s, whether he then would have moved – he always wanted to go to Paris, because that was the great musical centre of the Western world. So it could have been a very different story, we could be talking about the ‘Louis de Beethoven’ of Paris.

But he does, in some of the letters, refer to Bonn and keeps quite strong connections there in terms of friends – maybe less so family – but certainly an idea of that being his homeland. He did probably still feel like an outsider in Vienna, both because of where he was from but also socially, and the sense that some of his closest relationships remained from those early childhood acquaintances. Yes, I think Bonn can still claim him, but Vienna can have him, too.

OPO: And hopefully Oxford can have him, too. Celebrating anniversaries of such well-known composers as Beethoven with concert series and book launches, will their music and their myth last another 250 years?

LT: Beethoven centenaries have been celebrated ever since they could be. 1927 (the centenary of his death) was a very significant moment for releasing a lot of recordings and concerts. Another service to do to those composers is thinking about them in context with other people and music in time and place.

Maybe there is something bigger to say about classical style and how we interpret it that teaches a lot of different angles. It is a bit like our statues – whether we keep them, we topple them, whether we reconfigure them – I think composers’ centenaries relate a lot to that, with 2027 coming up sooner than we think.

Laura’s book, A Life in Nine Pieces, is available from all major retailers, including Blackwell’s and Waterstones.

Tickets to concerts at the Oxford Beethoven Festival and the rest of the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra’s concert season are available here.

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