28 January 2020

Writing ‘Beethoven Variations’

Posted by Ruth Padel

EVENT: on Wednesday 12 February, poets Anthony Anaxagorou, Raymond Antrobus and Ruth Padel will convene at the shop for an evening of readings and conversation about Beethoven, poetry and music. Book tickets here. Below, Padel writes of the genesis and evolution of her new collection ‘Beethoven Variations’, inspired by her work with the Endellion String Quartet.

This book rose out of working with the Endellion String Quartet, to whom it is dedicated. The first concert we did together was Haydn’s quartet on the Seven Last Words. I had already written, for another quartet, poems to go between these movements. I loved working with the Endellion Quartet! Their inspirational playing, honed over 35 years of playing this music together, was a marvel of concentration. Then the wonderful Aspect Foundation – which specialises in concerts that supplement pieces of chamber music with words, a talk beforehand, an interval reading – commissioned me to write poems that would be read between the Endellions playing an early Beethoven quartet, Opus 18 No 6, and a late quartet: Opus 131.

I decided to do a sequence of seven poems, for the seven extraordinary movements of Opus 131. The sequence would cover the 25 years between Beethoven’s despair at beginning to lose his hearing (just before he was thirty, when he was writing those early quartets) to the state he was in when he wrote Opus 131.

It was very exciting to write and then perform it with the quartet. I was brought up playing string quartets myself, on the viola, Beethoven’s instrument. My parents met at music camp and played music together, and my dad was a cellist and came from a Germanic tradition of family chamber music; I knew Beethoven’s chamber music fairly well and my take on him was, and is, first of all from a string player’s perspective. But as poems, what I had written was only a beginning. I put it away and went on working with the Endellions. We did a Schubert concert in a similar way, focussing on the quartets Schubert wrote when he realised he had syphilis and would probably die of it, young. I thought maybe I could write a sequence about Beethoven and Schubert together. I’d call it The Divine Spark, since that is what Beethoven reportedly said Schubert had, when he was bedridden and close to death, and someone showed him a piece by Schubert.

So the story goes. But there are so many stories, who knows if they are true?

Schubert was 27 years younger and revered Beethoven, but was too shy to go up to him at the tavern. So another story goes. Then he was a torchbearer at Beethoven’s funeral – and died himself, the following year.

I didn’t have time to start the book until November 2018, when I went to Beethoven’s birthplace in Bonn, and then to Vienna, where he lived from twenty-one to his death, and where I realised that there was much too much material just on Beethoven to add Schubert, who anyway deserved something to himself. I also found out that 2020 was Beethoven’s 250th anniversary so I had better hurry up. There were voluminous, controversial, contradictory biographies. There were musicological studies, manuscript and sketchbook studies, transcripts of the Conservation Books, psychological studies, medical studies. There was Beethoven the pianist, Beethoven the lover (so many books on the ‘Immortal Beloved’), Beethoven and Napoleon, Beethoven and alcohol, Beethoven and his general overwhelmingness. Gradually his life, or my poems on his life, with a bit of myself threaded into them, seemed to shape itself into four parts. Which suited the quartet form.

The poems I wrote for Darwin were mostly ‘found’ poems, made from Darwin’s words. This process was almost the opposite. These were poems out of me, in response to Beethoven, his music, his personality and his life.

Because everyone can respond to him, in their own way: to his story, of passionate creativity, of artistry surmounting all that suffering, but also to the sound. You don’t have to know anything about classical music to feel it. He wrote on the front of one piece, ‘From the heart – may it go to the heart’ and there’s a lovely poem, ‘The Play Way’, in Seamus Heaney’s first collection, which shows his music doing just that. The poet is told to play a record of Beethoven to a class of boys who are supposed to ‘express themselves freely’ in writing while they listen:

                                    One said. ‘Can we jive?’
When I produced the record, but now
The big sound has silenced them...
Working its private spell…
They have forgotten me
For once.

I wanted to bring out that Beethoven impact on us all. His legacy, his enduring surprisingness. His emotionality, his knack of snatching light from the dark, hope out of heartbreak. I kept seeing him, like Rembrandt, as the arch creator. Someone who made a real mess of his life but had a sweetness and jokiness to him too – and was absolutely dedicated to bringing out what he knew was inside him.

Moments of this became poems. Then I found myself writing prose notes to them. These took on a life of their own and became a mini-bio, a Coda with its own rhythm and flow.

But always, in the background, and sometimes rising to the surface, I felt the bigger picture, a break-up of Europe that I seemed to be living through, or on the verge of, as I followed his tracks. And the break-up of the Europe into which he was born, dominated first by the Holy Roman Empire, then by the French Revolution and Napoleon, with the wars that followed. And both underpinned by that other European convulsion, the dark and now often hidden twentieth-century history from Freud to Hitler, curling up like underground smoke through the paving stones of Vienna.

I thought I was done when I wrote a poem about his autopsy – which Beethoven requested; he wanted the cause of his deafness to be discovered. But Steven Isserlis said I wasn’t, and inspired me to finish on a note of optimism. Because, he said, however dark and tragic the music, Beethoven always ends in hope, in confidence, in joy.

Beethoven Variations’ is published by Chatto, price £12. Ruth Padel will be at the Bookshop with Anthony Anaxagorou and Raymond Antrobus on Wednesday 12 February. Book tickets here.