Happy Birthday (we think), Beethoven!

Sergei Stasov

Poor Beethoven. He was so deprived as a child, he didn’t even know what his real birthday was. A baptismal record for Dec. 17, 1770 suggests he was born the previous day. The custom then was to baptize a child within 24 hours of its birth, since infant mortality was so high.

It wasn’t just a real birthday that Beethoven lacked. His father was a terrible alcoholic and his fragile mother died while he was still a teen. Beethoven had to take over as the head of his family because his useless father was so violently addicted to alcohol.

Beethoven’s musical gifts appeared early. His father tried to exploit his talent in the way Leopold Mozart had capitalized on young Wolfgang, whose miraculous performances were still fresh in European minds. But Beethoven was no Mozart, and unprotected, he had to cope with the physical and emotional abuses and humiliation that his father directed at him. Beethoven responded to this cruelty by creating a protective wall of obnoxiousness around himself. Sarcasm and arrogance were his defenses as an adult.

Beethoven was clearly scarred by his childhood, and was never able to form meaningful intimate relationships, especially with women. In spite of depression, suicidal tendencies, and high levels of irascibility, he emerged from his family chaos a lionized superstar, the most worshipped keyboard artist of his day. The same Viennese aristocrats who ignored the dying, impoverished Mozart were now willing to endure Beethoven’s insults and scorn, hoping that their fawning attentions to this current genius would repair the collective guilt they suffered from having neglected Mozart.

As if to add insult to injury, Beethoven lost his hearing, the faculty most essential to a musician. Already alienated as a consequence of his hellish childhood, Beethoven’s deafness further isolated him. While he was eventually unable to perform in public, his composing continued to evolve.

A prolific composer, Beethoven wrote only one opera, Fidelio. Opera was often a political statement by a composer. Fidelio was an encomium to freedom, and may also be the first, or only, feminist opera ever written. The hero is a woman, Leonore. She disguises herself as a man in order to work in a prison, where her husband, Florestan, has been illegally locked up by the evil governor. Held in secret without a trial and chained in the dungeon slowly starving to death, Florestan has visions of his beloved wife. In the opera’s climactic scene, Leonore pulls a gun on the evil governor who is about to murder her helpless spouse, revealing herself as a woman, and liberating her husband.

In Leonore, Beethoven created one of opera’s only powerful, morally pure women. Women’s operatic roles typically have a narrow range. Operatic heroines are usually helpless, dying, trapped, seductive, seduced or raped, bewitched, or insane. Fidelio has been criticized for its alleged failure to fit into a traditional operatic form. I suspect the real criticism originates in reactionary response to Leonore’s personal power and her role reversal with her defenseless, imprisoned husband. The concept of an empowered, independent woman was foreign to the 19th century.

It’s been said that Fidelio is Beethoven’s wish fulfillment opera. Imprisoned by his own emotional agony, compounded by deafness, Beethoven longed for love. The famous Immortal Beloved letter implies that he did have someone who cared for him, but unknown circumstances prevented them from uniting. Beethoven died a bachelor at the age of 56. His liver was observed to be badly damaged, hinting at the possibility of inherited addictive tendencies.

Brilliant complete production, 1968 opera film of Fidelio, Hamburg Opera, with Lucia Popp, Anja Silja, Richard Cassilly, Hans Sotin, Theo Adam, Conductor Leopold Ludwig:

Another complete performance from 1964, Deutsche Oper Berlin, conducted by Artur Rother, starring Christa Ludwig and James King:

Complete Fidelio from the Met, conducted by James Levine. Inferior performance to 1968 Hamburg, but it has subtitles:

Complete audio recording in Russian, with Bolshoi greats Galina Vishnevskaya and Georgi Nelepp. This recording is historically and culturally significant. It was the first production of Beethoven’s opera of political dissidence and freedom in the USSR:

Fidelio Finale (if you like the vocal section of the 9th Symphony – Ode to Joy – you’ll probably like this):

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