Ludwig van Beethoven

December 16th 1770, 250 years ago Ludwig van Beethoven was born. Ludwig van Beethoven was baptised on the 17th December 1770 according to a church record. It is assumed that he was therefore born on the 16th December 1770, as was the custom and a matter of law, babies at the time were baptised within 24 hours of birth, so December 16th is his most likely birth date.
          Beethoven had two younger brothers who survived into adulthood: Caspar, born in 1774, and Johann, born in 1776. Beethoven’s mother, Maria Magdalena van Beethoven, was a slender, genteel, and deeply moralistic woman.
          His father, Johann van Beethoven, was a mediocre court singer better known for his alcoholism than any musical ability. However, Beethoven’s grandfather, godfather and namesake, Kapellmeister Ludwig van Beethoven, was Bonn’s most prosperous and eminent musician, a source of endless pride for young Beethoven.
          Neighbours provided accounts of the small boy weeping while he played the clavier, standing atop a footstool to reach the keys, his father beating him for each hesitation or mistake.
          On a near daily basis, Beethoven was flogged, locked in the cellar and deprived of sleep for extra hours of practice. He studied the violin and clavier with his father as well as taking additional lessons from organists around town. Whether in spite of or because of his father’s draconian methods, Beethoven was a prodigiously talented musician from his earliest days.
          When I was about ten or eleven, I first encountered the music of Beethoven on Radio Eireann, I called it the ‘sunshine music’, this Allegretto introduced a programme called ‘Down the Country’ introduced by Fred Desmond. It was many years later I found out who the composer and name of the piece was. My father would remind me ‘sunshine music’ he would say, on Sunday at 5p.m. my job was to tune in the radio to Radio Eireann and keep the sound sharp for the duration of the programme.
          Twenty years later, on a week-end in December, Bridget was moving to a new flat and I was helping. When the move was complete I set up the record player and Bridget hander me an LP to put on. She was making a coffee sponge as the LP played away. Then lo and behold the fifth movement, Allegretto, the sunshine music, Beethoven’s Symphony No.6, ‘Pastoral’.
          The whole symphony is like the story of a day in the country-side, your imagination can run riot. Reading the notes about the symphony is exactly what it is, a day in the country-side set to music, with a thunderstorm with painstaking realism, building from just a few drops of rain to a great climax with thunder, lightning, high winds, and sheets of rain. The storm eventually passes, with an occasional peal of thunder still heard in the distance. My favourite part is the cadenza for woodwind instruments that imitates bird calls. Beethoven helpfully identified the bird species in the score:

Nightingale (flute), Quail (oboe), and Cuckoo (two clarinets).

I often wonder what way Beethoven would have recorded the Pastoral to-day, would he have gone to the country side with his tape recorder and married real bird song around his music. Together with the thunder but as anyone that has tried to record thunder, will know, what you record is entirely different to what you have heard.
          The Beatles tried it on ‘Sgt.Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ track eleven. ‘Good Morning’ At the beginning the cock crowing, then towards the end in quick succession the cock crow, the chirp of a robin, cat, dog, horse, a lamb, lion, the hunt at end of the piece uses the stereo to great effect, the hunt approaching from one stereo speaker rising to both and fading into the distance on the other. Mostly studio sounds. Gives the illusion of the horses galloping past, with all of the ancillary sounds layered over. Followed by a chicken clucking layered over with instrument sounds, introducing the next track.
          In the notes of ‘Sgt.Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ the writer says ‘we did a lot of experimenting’ that its easier to use pre-existing recordings or instruments rather than to go out and try to record them a fresh. The modern recording studio makes for a cleaner more ‘normal’ sounding sound.

Compiled from information on the Internet.

Dublin Unitarian Church