Written from the Heart—to the Heart: Beethoven's to Ours

Feb 10, 2017

Ah, "the sad heart of love." As we approach this year's St. Valentine's Day, I've been wondering, how much great music is inspired by love? Of course, music can be inspired by many things, but love is certainly one of the most interesting and humanly engaging musical themes.

For this post—the first of a pair of blog posts on love and music—I pondered great composers whose personal romantic feelings or longings may have made their way into the music they wrote, even if those feelings were not fully reciprocated in their personal lives. And Beethoven immediately came to mind.

We still wonder, who was Beethoven's "immortal beloved"? It's well-known that Beethoven not only ushered in the Romantic Era of music with his greatest compositions, but was also a romantic at heart who longed for love in his personal life. He fell in love more than once, but as far as we know, that longing was never fulfilled—except in the immortal music he wrote.

In some of Beethoven's later music, is it a stretch to say he may have transmuted that longing for personal fulfillment from love and turned it outward to the whole world?

In spite of his infamous crankiness, the final part of the Choral Symphony with the "Ode to Joy" is music that celebrates the hope for the brotherhood of all mankind. It seems to combine personal, political and spiritual ideals. Beethoven certainly had what we would call progressive political ideas, but his music never feels ideologically motivated—it comes from the heart.

While the historical accuracy of this scene from 2006 film "Copying Beethoven" may be questionable, it conveys similar ideas:

Even when we look at Beethoven's most obviously politically inspired masterpiece, his only opera, Fidelio, we see, at the heart of it, the love between a man and his wife.

Yes, the opera certainly does condemn political oppression and expresses the longing for freedom, as in the famous "Prisoners' Chorus":

In the finale of the opera, though, the focus turns from political to the personal. The "hero" is Leonore, who risks her life by disguising herself as a man, Fidelio, in a daring (and successful) attempt to rescue Florestan, her husband.

Florestan was imprisoned in a dungeon and was to be executed for "political" crimes by a corrupt official. But watch how at the very end of the opera, the celebration of political freedom and justice is transformed into a beautiful tribute to the genuine love between a husband and wife devoted to each other with great fidelity.

To me, it feels like Beethoven combined the personal, the political and even the spiritual aspects of life in a wonderful way. I won't say this was all a result of Beethoven's frustration in personal love, made more difficult by his sense of isolation caused by his increasing deafness. He was certainly a complex human being who was also a musical genius.

Nevertheless, love seems to be at the heart of it all.

Beethoven's inscription in a copy of the great Missa Solemnis "Solemn Mass" sent to his friend and patron the Archduke Rudolf of Austria reads, "Written from the heart, may it go to the heart."

Indeed, those words seem to apply to so much of the great composer's music, which still has the power to move us so deeply centuries later.

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