Beethoven’s life was full of drama and this was closely reflected in his music. Emma Clegg talks to Beethoven expert and Classic FM presenter John Suchet ahead of six performances of Beethoven’s string quartets in Bath, which chart his descent into deafness
“If you go to a Beethoven concert, you should grip the arms of your seat. Your knuckles should be white. Beethoven is not a settling composer – he is a stimulating, invigorating, challenging composer.”
John Suchet, former newscaster and reporter for ITN who covered major world events such as the Iran revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, now has a different specialism – classical music in general and Ludwig van Beethoven in particular. Indeed Suchet, who has been presenting Classic FM’s flagship morning programme since 2010, has already written six books about Beethoven.
This year Suchet is doing a 52-part series on Beethoven’s life and music on Classic FM called The Man Revealed, the biggest series ever on a single composer, which is running every weekend throughout 2020 to celebrate 250 years since the composer’s birth. As part of the celebrations, Suchet will also be appearing in Bath where The Bath Festival is staging a series of six concerts of the composer’s entire cycle of 16 string quartets. Three of the concerts and an illuminating talk on Beethoven by Suchet will take place in March, with three more concerts in May during The Bath Festival.
Suchet’s fascination with Beethoven started between 30 and 40 years ago. He was himself trained in music to a high level – playing the piano, the violin in the school orchestra and the trombone in a jazz band at school – but his fascination with the music of Beethoven is less about high-brow musicology and more about the music in human terms and how it reflects the life of the man who wrote it. “When I first got into Beethoven’s music all the books on him were very academic, very musicological. But I can tell you why he wrote a piece, how extraordinary it was that he wrote it, what he was doing at the time.
“Beethoven’s music is massive and extraordinary if you know absolutely nothing about his life. But with Beethoven, perhaps more than with any other composer, if you name a piece and I tell you what was happening when he wrote it, I promise you, you listen to it differently.”
This is what makes Suchet’s Classic FM midweek daytime show, with its audience of 2.9 million listeners, so successful – he has an ability to capture the magic of composers and pieces of music that aren’t always an easy sell to the uninitiated, and to open up musical appreciation. His style of presentation has appropriately been described as a “silken line of chat, laced with informed simplicity and friendly engagement” (The Scotsman).
Beethoven used to say when he met criticism, “This music is not for you – it is for future generations”
“Beethoven poured his life into his music. His life is also his musical biography and in particular the string quartets and the piano sonatas, which are much more intimate kinds of music. The quartets are in three blocks – early, middle and late – and in those quartets you can chart Beethoven’s descent into deafness, you can chart his ill health, you can chart his struggle with his nephew (he took his sister-in-law to court, arguing to get custody of his nephew, finally winning and then discovering what it was like to be a single parent when he was losing his hearing).
“If people know anything about Beethoven, it is that he is the one that went deaf. And honestly his progression into deafness – which was a slow, gradual decline lasting around 20 years – is there. You can hear the pain of it in his music.”
How much, therefore, did Beethoven’s deafness define the music he wrote? In fact he didn’t start losing his hearing until his mid-twenties, by which time he was in Vienna, he had met Mozart and played to him, and he was already a renowned musician and composer. “Before he started losing his hearing he was seen as a natural successor to Mozart,” says Suchet. “Already we’re talking total genius, and already he’s breaking the rules – there are things that he does in all his musical forms that no one had done before. So whatever happened he would have gone on to be a great composer.
“But as that deafness takes hold in middle age, Beethoven retreats into himself, so the late quartets which we are going to hear in Bath are his profound musical statement. We would not have had those in the form that they are without his deafness.”
Three of the giants of classical music, Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn, were contemporaries. Beethoven (then 17) and Mozart (then in his early thirties) met, Mozart recognised his talent and said he’d take him on as a pupil – although in fact this didn’t happen because Beethoven had to return home to Bonn to his mother who was terminally ill with consumption. Then four years later, when Beethoven returned to Vienna to work with Haydn, Mozart was dead. “So Beethoven never actually got to study with Mozart,” says Suchet. “Which I think was a good thing – he was a decade and a half younger so he would have been in awe of Mozart who might have tamed that wild spirit slightly.”
These three composers were very different in their temperament and musical styles: Haydn traditional, unassuming and pleasing; Mozart expressive, playful and eccentric; Beethoven challenging, difficult and uncompromising. And compared to his two great contemporaries, Beethoven’s output was relatively small. Beethoven wrote nine symphonies, Mozart 41 and Haydn 104. The same goes for the string quartets, keyboard concertos and operas. For Haydn and Mozart composition came naturally.
“If you look at Mozart and Haydn’s manuscript papers,” explains Suchet, “the original autographed manuscripts of their work, they are relatively clean. Mozart never crossed anything out – he got it right first time. If you look at Beethoven’s manuscript, it’s an absolute struggle with scratchings out and he tears the paper he gets so angry. So although he was a god-given genius, he struggled when he composed.”
“One thing you could not say about Beethoven was that he was modest,” laughs Suchet. “He knew how good he was, and that was despite the fact that he encountered a lot of opposition in Vienna. A lot of people told him “you can’t do it that way, that’s never going to work, that’s ridiculous.” Audiences used to go along to his concerts to see what was going to happen next, because you could never tell. And so many of his pieces were met with a confused reaction.
The Eroica Symphony, for example, famously begins with two striking tonic chords and this had never been done before. “Both Mozart and Haydn begin their works quite politely, often with a little preamble. Beethoven just bangs straight in, so it gets your attention right away. Interestingly the opening notes of The Eroica are not a theme, they are a motif. It is just four crisp notes and that stunned them as it stuns us.
“The Eroica was premiered in 1803, so it was the turn of the century, a new century, and hailed a new way of doing things. In bar seven it goes down to a bottom C,” explains Suchet, “which is the wrong note in the wrong place at the wrong time in the wrong key, and Beethoven’s Viennese audience would have been stunned by this. He used to say when he met criticism, “this music is not for you, it is for future generations.” So he didn’t doubt for a moment what he had, even though it was to a certain extent rejected in his own lifetime.”
Suchet recollects a time when he was a reporter at ITN in the mid- to late seventies, in a period when the first Sony Walkmans were available. “Suddenly for the first time you could carry your music with you. I remember getting a late night ferry to Beirut where the Lebanese civil war was raging and I had Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony in my pocket. And I blasted it into my ears as the ferry steamed me towards the city at war.”
It’s clear that Beethoven was absolutely right; he was writing his powerful music for the ears of future generations. So go and listen to his musical autobiography in the form of his 16 string quartets in March
The Bath Festival’s Beethoven String Quartets cycle will be performed by two of the finest string quartets in the world, the Carducci String Quartet in March and the Heath Quartet in May.
The early quartets were written when Ludwig van Beethoven was in his twenties – they sparkle with youthful exuberance. These lead on to the symphonic Razumovsky quartets of his middle period. His late quartets, written in the final years of his life when he was profoundly deaf, offer an extraordinary mixture of grandeur, intimacy and beauty, with intimations of mortality and the sublime.
The first three Bath Festivals concerts will take place on 27 March, 7.30pm; 28 March, 11am; and 29 March, 11am, all at The Guildhall, Bath. The final three concerts will take place on 22 May, 7.30pm; 23 May, 11am; and 24 May, 11am, all at the Assembly Rooms, Bath. Tickets are £12, £26 and £35. Concessions are half price.
The talk, Beethoven: The Man Revealed with John Suchet, takes place on 28 March at 3pm at The Guildhall, Bath. Tickets £10.
John Suchet’s show on Classic FM is on weekdays, from 9am–1pm.
Tickets are available from: bathfestivals.org.uk, or Bath Box Office, tel: 01225 463362