Beethoven is more intimate than ever in new poems

Ruth Padel
The poet Ruth Padel at her home in London, March 17, 2021. (Photo: NYTimes)
Although much is known about Beethoven, whole swaths of his life remain elusive. His deafness, for one thing. He started experiencing hearing loss before he was 30. But how extensive was the initial problem? How quickly did it worsen? It’s not clear.اضافة اعلان

His most revealing words on the subject come in a letter he wrote (but never sent) to his brothers in 1802, while seeking isolation and resting his ears in Heiligenstadt, on the outskirts of Vienna. In the Heiligenstadt Testament, as it became known, his fear comes through poignantly. But what did it feel like to go deaf? What sensations did he experience? What did music sound like to him?

British poet Ruth Padel tries to fathom this mystery, and other long-mythologized strands of the composer’s life story, in “Beethoven Variations: Poems on a Life,” recently published in the United States. Padel’s imagery and imagination took me deeper into Beethoven than many biographies I’ve read.

In one of the first poems, “On Not Needing Other People,” Padel describes the 13-year-old Beethoven visiting the Breunings, a rich, cultured family that befriended him. Most books on the composer present this episode as an opportunity for the young Beethoven to enjoy some familial companionship — one of the sons became a lifelong friend — and develop career skills by teaching piano to some of the children.

But Padel dwells on how different, how apart, Beethoven must have felt, even while savoring the family’s attention. The mother told her children to let their young visitor alone when he slipped into, as Padel puts it, “the solitude she calls raptus” and displayed his “surly way of shouldering people off,” his “fits of reverie, lost / in a re-tuning of the spheres.” As Padel perceives it, Beethoven early on drifted into states that prefigured how deafness would increasingly isolate him:

This boy has no idea that before he’s thirty
some inflamed wet muddle of labyrinth and cochlea,
thin as a cicada wing, will clog his ears
with a whistling buzz, then glue them into silence.

In “Moonlight Sonata,” Padel, in an imaginative leap, describes that famous piano work as music of loss — not just of love, but of hearing: “Bass clef / High treble only once / and in despair.” For Beethoven, she continues, this is the new “shocked calm of Is it true.” Is this “what it sounds like, going deaf?”

The book originated through Padel’s work over the past decade with the Endellion String Quartet, to whom it is dedicated. Padel first worked with the Endellion on performances of pieces by Haydn and Schubert, in which she wrote poems and read them between the movements. Asked to collaborate on a Beethoven program that included the Op. 131 Quartet, she wrote seven poems to be interspersed between that visionary work’s seven movements. As the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, in 2020, approached, she went further and wrote what is, in effect, a poetic biography.

Naturally, some of the poems will speak more immediately to those with knowledge of the events and characters of Beethoven’s life. So Padel helpfully includes “Life-Notes: A Coda,” about 30 pages of short biographical bits linked to the four sections of poems (49 in all). Even these entries have poetic elegance. Explaining that Beethoven’s alcoholic, abusive father put his young son to work playing viola, she explains why the instrument appealed to her, and may have suited Beethoven: “It does not have the brilliance of the violin or power of the cello, but when playing it you hear everything going on around you, all the relationships and harmonies, from inside. It is a writer’s instrument, inward and between.”

Visiting the house where Beethoven was born, in Bonn, Germany, Padel imagines “your mother / carrying the shopping,” “your father staggering home drunk / up these stairs” to “wake you in the middle of the night.” In “Meeting Mozart,” she describes the 16-year-old Beethoven after a three-week winter journey to Vienna, “burning” to be taught by the master.

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