A recent visit from a favorite Taiwanese family of former students reminded me that I learned much more from my students than I ever was able to teach them. Some students studied music — seriously. They had to learn about the lives of famous composers as well as how to play their chosen instruments. While they prepared for their exams, I learned too.
What did I learn? Beautiful music can be produced by people you’d never want as a lover or even a friend. For instance, consider the despicable Wagner,
who’d have taken large amounts of money from you and then dropped you like a hotcake, lived as a guest in your home and then thanked you by sleeping with your wife or turning against you without hesitation. I would have preferred to hate his music, but I can’t. The work has little to do with the person who creates it.
Then, how about the great Beethoven, another truly damaged and unpleasant man. If you
met him on the street, you’d have thought him to be a homeless bum and mad as a hatter. You’d not want to be his landlady, maid and certainly not his lover. The brilliant composer was a miserable, physically ugly, rather ill and difficult man. He was rude, prone to physical assaults and would smash anything in sight, including people or pianos.
Beethoven lost his mother, whom he loved, when he was 16. He was terribly abused by his alcoholic father — and developed into a vile-tempered, pathological, manic-depressed adult. Then, the deafness which plagued him from his early 30s and lead to total deafness by age 47 must have been devastating for him. (I wonder if his drunken father’s beatings around the head may have caused this.)
Did he have any lovers? We don’t know of any, although he did manage to contract gonorrhea, but most probably at a house of prostitution, a solution he professed to hate. He did propose to the young, beautiful, talented soprano, Magdalena Willmann, who turned him down because, as she said, he was ‘so ugly and half-crazy’. He never found Mrs. Right, always choosing women way above his station, much too young, and much too beautiful — and longed for love all his life. Beethoven could only see women as Madonnas or whores.
The poor guy had pockmarked skin, no manners, spat in company, was terribly clumsy and badly coordinated. (Vestibular Disorder? Related to the beatings around the head?) All his belongings were damaged because they got knocked over or broken. He was such a terrible tenant, he had to move from one place to another almost every year. Beethoven was just a disaster — in spite of his musical genius, he was unable to dance or even conduct in time to his own magnificent music.
Nonetheless, there were those who understood and admired Beethoven. Rossini, known as a nice guy, was one of them. He was able to see the most appealing qualities in Beethoven and understood the great sadness the brilliant composer lived with.
Would we have such magnificent, beautiful music by Beethoven if he had actually found happiness during his lifetime? I wonder…..