Beethoven: Touching Enlightenment and the Work

I’m reading a big Beethoven biography, which is providing great context for his work.  Significantly, Beethoven was born and raised in Bonn, a place where enlightenment thinking took root and blossomed.  Beethoven’s intellectual milieu holds a great interest to me, since his music seems to me to tap into something universal about humanity.  The biographer, Jan Swafford, is going to lengths to describe a passionate humanism in the composer, rooted in the enlightenment thinking that surrounded him in his youth, and especially that of his most important teacher, Neefe.  But Swafford has also signaled that Beethoven’s humanism is theoretical; it’s not to individual humans that Beethoven turned to find the value in our species.

Many of us turn, for inspiration and exemplars of our humanism, to the music produced by the greats.  As I read this biography, I’m maintaining a focus on concurrently listening to Beethoven’s music – I’ve plowed through the ten sonatas for violin and piano and explored his string quartets – those works are all interesting to view through the lens of early, middle, and late periods of the composer’s life.   Currently, I’ve turned my attention to the symphonies.  I’ve had the pleasure of seeing the fourth and the seventh performed in the not-too-distant past by the CSO and the Minnesota Orchestra respectively, but I’ve included them in my recent listening nonetheless.

For this run-through, I’ve turned to the 2012 cycle of all nine symphonies that Daniel Barenboim conducted with his West Eastern Divan Orchestra at the Proms.  While the quality of the recordings is doubtless not the best available on youtube, seeing the same musicians on the same stage engaged with the symphonies in turn is an interesting way to explore the work.  These young players – the orchestra is comprised mostly of young Israeli and Palestinian musicians – engage wholeheartedly with the music, under the watchful eye of Barenboim, one of Beethoven’s notable interpreters.  The Proms atmosphere provides an energy that feeds any performance – when the subject matter is the Beethoven Symphonies it’s electric.

As of last night, I’ve made it through seven of the nine and can hardly wait for the big finale.

Thanks for reading.


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