How do we integrate our knowledge of the darkest sides of artists' behaviour with our appreciation of their work? Ever since I came across people who refused to listen to music written by anyone they judged 'corrupt' (most music) it's something I've wondered about. But does knowing that Beethoven sought to deprive his dead brother's widow of her young son - a son who clearly longed for his mother's care - does this knowledge change the way I listen to his music?
My son lent me the book because he is a big fan of Beethoven's music. Yesterday, I turned the pages for him as he played Beethoven's 32 Variations in C Minor. Not one of Beethoven's best-known works, it's well worth a listen. The emotional palette is comprehensive, and the fluctuations between vastly contrasting moods occur often, and quickly.
One of my favourite essays on literary criticism is Roland Barthes' Death of the Author in which he contests that once written, a work is separate from its maker. According to Barthes, therefore, it is no matter (for his music, at any rate) that Beethoven's treatment of Karl and his mother Johanna was so relentlessly cruel. According to Barthes, the 32 Variations exist separately from Beethoven, the man who raged his way through life.
Turning pages for a pianist involves concentration and good timing - it also gives the privilege of being up close to the music and musician. As I focussed on getting it right, I was able to watch the relationship between the score and my son's fingers flying over, caressing and articulating the keys. I felt his mood change within and because of the music - one moment light, soft: rising in exquisite harmonic progressions; the next furious, wanton: pounding keys in frantic thirds or octaves.
I watched the score closely, enjoying this moment of proximity to my son's drive, passion, talent, sensitivity, intelligence, and commitment to life. He played so in his music, utterly absorbed and separate, entirely as himself.
Murray Perahia plays Beethoven's 32 Variations in C Minor