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Music and Transfiguration

The Distant Guiding Sun

Being a composer is difficult, and being a perfectionist makes it even worse. It is difficult to compose without, at some point, realizing that there are many great names that have come before you—that your work, whether you like it or not, is going to be judged against that standard. Depending on your particular niche in the classical music world, those names might be more fear-inducing than inspiring. Even Johannes Brahms commented that it was difficult to compose when one hears the footsteps of that giant Beethoven behind him. The result of this, at least for me, is to endlessly pour over a composition, to make sure it is as perfect as I can make it in even the smallest details. The editing process is almost as long as the actual composing process and, just like proofreading a paper, you’re bound to miss a mistake or two.

There is a little anecdote about a meeting between Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Schubert. It is related by Anton Schindler, so the authenticity of the story is perhaps a bit unreliable. Nevertheless, the story serves the purpose. The young Schubert dedicated his Variations on a French Song to Beethoven and wished to give it to the great master personally. Schubert being the shy and insecure person that he was, quite possibly came close to a nervous breakdown over meeting Beethoven. Schubert, nearly beside himself, stood and watched Beethoven sit silently and look over his composition. Finally, Beethoven spoke and pointed to a minor error in the harmony. Schubert was overcome with embarrassment and ran out of the room.

I like to think about this little story from time to time to remind myself that it’s okay to make a mistake so long as one continues to learn. Perfection is a worthy goal and makes for a lifelong endeavor. Like Beethoven, himself, said, ”The true artist is not proud, he unfortunately sees that art has no limits; he feels darkly how far he is from the goal; and though he may be admired by others, he is sad not to have reached that point to which his better genius only appears as a distant guiding sun.”

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That fellow Beethoven, he was quite cruel, wasn't he?  I just wonder what kind of error in the
harmony did Beethoven detect: if it has not been "fixed" (and I hope it wasn't)
we probably listen to it now and marvel at Schubert's originality.

Submitted by coda15 on Mon, 04/12/2010 - 21:49. Report abuse

The story is probably not true. Did the two ever meet? Beethoven was not a petty pedant like this story paints him. I have heard another story: Late in life Beethoven studied the score of Schuberts great symphony in C major and generously praised him as a genius.

Submitted by mustermeister on Tue, 05/24/2011 - 10:08. Report abuse

I do not believe that either of these stories are true. Beethoven on his deathbed was offered some of Schubert's songs to examine, became very intrigued with them, and expressed an interest in examining some of Schubert's instrumental works, which of course never took place. But from what I understand about Beethoven, there was never a derogatory word uttered about any of his contemporaries, and despite his irascible nature, he knew how to be quite reasoned and tactful when the occasion warrented.

This was quite unlike Mozart who in fact could be quite petty about contemporaries. We admire his music, but knowing the man a bit better
gives us a very different picture. I ahve heard it said that perhaps
he really did deserve that "kick in the arse" that was administered by
the representative of Prince Esterhazy. The idea of Beethoven receiving
such is altogether inconceivable; he knwe how to ingratiate himself with the nobility upon whom he depended for patronage and could be quite acute with his publishers - in short, he knew how to "play the game," so to speak.

He was of much firmer moral and emotional fibre than Mozart, and one distinct difference here can be seen in their respective choices of scenarios and librettos when it came to their theatre music - opera(s) and incidental music.

Submitted by alger3041 on Thu, 08/09/2012 - 23:52. Report abuse