‘Beethoven, A Life’ assesses the composer’s enduring legacy

Ludwig van Beethoven

Belgian musicologist and conductor Jan Caeyers took a break from his duties in 2004 to write a “short article” or “manifest” on Ludwig van Beethoven — the composer whose music he had spent so much time studying and performing. “Writing a big biography on Beethoven was never a long-cherished dream or a mission for me,” he said. ’

Just such a tome, however, is what he wound up producing. What began as an essay morphed over several years into a full-fledged look at Beethoven’s life and music — a book that was finally published in 2009 in Dutch. The English translation, Beethoven, A Life, was released 11 years later, logging in at 680 pages.

As music director Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra continue their 2021-22 exploration of Beethoven’s symphonies with Jan. 13 and 15 performances of the No. 5 and 8 and the Coriolan Overture, Caeyers discusses his biography and his longtime relationship with Beethoven’s music:

Why another Beethoven biography?

Because I’m a conductor, I have a specific approach, which is different from a normal Beethoven scholar. When making this music, when you are thinking about how to find an interpretation of this music, there is a different entry to the music and to the circumstances in which Beethoven developed his musical ideas. When I was working for Claudio Abbado [as an assistant], I did many new pieces, and you see the very complicated, psychological process of a composer.

There are a lot of parallels between, say,  and Beethoven. I did, for example, the first rehearsal of [György] Kurtág’s Stele, Op. 33, which was premiered by the Berlin Philharmonic [in 1994]. You could say that the whole process for Kurtág was very equivalent to what happened to Beethoven, and this helped to me to understand the process and mechanism of Beethoven’s composing. It’s totally different when you are a scholar and only studying the sketches.

How else does your biography differ from previous ones?

The idea that Beethoven was a normal human being struggling day by day to find his way in life. In my opinion, there is no romantic dimension of Beethoven’s life. You have this myth of the great Beethoven, elected by God to write exceptional music and lead an exceptional life. No, he had a very ordinary life, struggling with problems.

For example, Beethoven never or almost never wrote a piece out the blue. There was always a very practical reason why he wrote a piece. There was a command or there was an invitation or he had an opportunity to earn money or there was a publisher asking something. Normally, we think, he got up in the morning and had a wonderful musical idea and for many weeks he wrote. No, there was always a pragmatic dimension to the things he did.

What was the biggest surprise for you during the research and writing of this biography?

I was very grateful for the fact that the field of Beethoven’s activities was very broad. He composed music in almost every form, every discipline you could imagine in his time. And nearly always at a high level. What is very interesting when you are writing a biography of Beethoven is that you can write a kind of history of the music of his time. Compare him with, say, [Johann Sebastian] Bach. Imagine that you should write a book about Bach, and then you have to speak about 200 cantatas or the 30 Mozart operas [in the case of a Mozart book]. A book on Beethoven’s music can evolve effortlessly into a general textbook on musical genre.

What was the most difficult part of the project? The writing? The research? The traveling?

The most important problem was to find a structure for the story. You have two dimensions. You have the normal, historical way. But then to find a method to speak about some details, for example, the development of the construction of pianos. How can you integrate that aspect in the book? Because there is a direct link between Beethoven’s development as a composer and the development of piano building in his time.

To make a comparison with [Lewis] Lockwood, who is one of the most important scholars of Beethoven, his method was very clear. There are four periods in Beethoven’s life. Every period is one part of the book. Every period starts with general outline of the time. Then you tell the vital details and then you speak about the music, starting with the most important music. All four parts of the book are constructed in the same way. I refused to do that.

I wanted a very flexible way of thinking about the structure of my book, although it is a chronological book. So you have this horizontal dimension, the chronology and sometimes you have these vertical moments, where now I’m speaking about the development of the piano, where I’m speaking about opera in Beethoven’s time. This dichotomy was most the important exercise and challenge in writing this biography.

What is the most underestimated aspect of Beethoven’s music?

Without any doubt, his vocal music. The fact is Beethoven was an instrumental composer, who wrote very, very important symphonies, piano concertos and so on, and who transformed the music of the whole 19th century. From the beginning to the end of the century, Beethoven symphonies are the most important things in music, together with opera. Before, symphonies were second class. Beethoven was the founder of the Romantic symphony.

But in my opinion, he was [also] a brilliant composer in the vocal field. I really like the Mass in C Major, a wonderful, modern piece — underestimated. I like the two first versions of his Leonore opera. I like his songs. There are many songs 20 years before Schubert that sound like Schubert. Beethoven was able to write wonderful, good-sounding and good-singing Italian-like melodies. In the end, his most important work, in my opinion, is not the Ninth Symphony but the Missa solemnis. There, you have a kind of synthesis of all his music and intellectual capacities.

Why is Beethoven’s music still so powerful and appealing to audiences?

Because generally speaking, you have two parameters that exclude each other. One side is an intellectual dimension of music — rationality — and on the other hand is the emotional dimension. You’ll see in a piece, one is more important than the other. You can nearly say they exclude each other. The more a piece is emotional, the less it’s intellectual. That’s a general rule. A beautiful example are the Verdi operas, which are very emotional.

On the other hand, you have composers who are more intellectual. With Beethoven, you have extreme emotional dimensions and at the same time, in the same piece, you have an incredible structure and intellectual charge for the listener. The Appassionata [Sonata] is an extremely emotional piece, but you can trust that there will be a logical ending. We have the feeling that Beethoven will always bring us back home. I think this combination is unique in the history of music.

Jan Caeyers was appointed a full-time professor of musicology at the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium, in 1985, becoming part-time in 2001 and retiring last year. In 1993-1997, he served as assistant to famed conductor Claudio Abbado at the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra. He has led major orchestras across Europe and conducted such choral ensembles as the Arnold Schoenberg Chor in Vienna and Nederlands Kamerkoor. In 2010, he founded Le Concert Olympique, a 45-member European orchestra devoted to the music of Beethoven and continues to serve as its artistic director and conductor.