Cristofori’s Dream

Musical instruments have been around for thousands of years, and it is not easy to pinpoint the person who first created the earlier versions. Over the centuries, many respected musicians became makers of instruments, including Bartolomeo Cristofori di Francesco (1655-1731), who lived in Italy during the 17th and 18th century. Whilst making violins and other stringed instruments was a valued career, Cristofori dreamt of inventing something new: a piano.

Other than the information on Bartolomeo Cristofori’s birth certificate that states he was born on 4th May 1655 in Padua, which was then part of the Republic of Venice, his early life remains a mystery. One story suggests Cristofori served as an apprentice to Nicola Amati (1596-1684), a stringed-instrument maker from Cremona, but census records do not correspond. In 1680, the census recorded that a thirteen-year-old with the name Christofaro Bartolomei lived with Amati, but by this time, the future piano maker had celebrated his 25th birthday.

The first record of Cristofori as an adult is dated 1688 when Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici (1663-1713) recruited the 33-year-old. The purpose of this recruitment is unknown, but it coincided with the death of the prince’s musical technician. Ferdinando owned plenty of instruments and was a lover and patron of music.

Some historians question why Ferdinando, who lived in Venice where many musical technicians lived, sought out Cristofori who lived outside of the city. Perhaps Cristofori had already started inventing instruments, which would explain why Ferdinando offered him time and money to pursue his interests as part of the bargain. As well as having a fondness for music, Ferdinando expressed a fascination with machinery and owned over forty mechanical clocks.

In an interview with the Italian writer Francesco Scipione Maffei (1675-1755), Cristofori admitted he had not wanted to work for the prince, but on hearing this, Ferdinando responded “that he would make me want to.” Cristofori reluctantly agreed to a salary of 12 scudi per month (€288) and moved into a house in Venice that also came with the position.

Cristofori’s job involved transporting and refurbishing the prince’s instruments. Although this was well within Cristofori’s abilities, he found it challenging to work with the other hundred artisans employed by the prince. Cristofori either worked in or near the Galleria dei Lavori of the Uffizi, revealing during his interview with Maffei: “It was hard for me to have to go into the big room with all that noise.” Eventually, Ferdinando gave Cristofori a private workshop.

Although Cristofori takes credit for the invention of the piano, keyboard instruments were already in existence. The harpsichord, for instance, was invented during the middle ages and a smaller version, known as a spinet, was developed before Cristofori was born. Yet, Cristofori was determined to improve upon these early instruments.

Not long after starting his employment, Cristofori invented a new instrument for Prince Ferdinando. Known as a spinettone (“big spinet”), it was longer than a spinet but thinner than a harpsichord, yet its mechanisms made it different from either instrument.

Spinets and harpsichords are designated as eight-foot pitch (8′) instruments, meaning they played at a standard, ordinary pitch. Cristofori’s spinettone contained 8′ strings, but he also included 4′ strings, which allowed the musician to play one octave above the standard. Attached to an internal mechanism the keyboard could be slid back and forth by the player to switch between the two octaves.

The unique design attested to the ingenuity of its inventor; not only was it unlike anything produced before, but it also required careful thought and precision. Cristofori likely engineered the spinettone to complement his patron’s love of opera. Prince Ferdinando often played the harpsichord with the orchestra at the Medici villa at Pratolino, but due to the instrument’s size, the orchestra pit was very cramped. The spinettone was physically compact, making it the perfect size for playing with the orchestra. Its range of notes also complemented the other instruments.

Another invention by Cristofori, which may predate the spinettone, was the oval spinet, based on the keyboard and string arrangements of a virginal. A virginal is a smaller, usually rectangular, version of a harpsichord with a richer, flute-like tone. Cristofori altered the string lengths to make them stronger and designed an oval body to make the instrument more compact.

Some historians believe the oval spinet was Cristofori’s first attempt at making a keyboard instrument suitable for use within an orchestra, but its lack of range made it impractical. Nonetheless, it was considered a luxury instrument that only the wealthy could afford. Musical instrument scholar Stewart Pollens (b.1949) describes the oval spinet as “a tour de force of mechanical design, fully the product of Cristofori’s inventive character,” yet, it never caught on during Cristofori’s lifetime. Only two of Cristofori’s original oval spinets remain, but there are several by later manufacturers.

An inventory of the prince’s possessions, taken in 1700, lists the oval spinet and spinettone. Also documented are two harpsichords made by Cristofori, one made from ebony; and a clavicytherium. The latter was a form of upright harpsichord designed in the 15th century purposely to save floor space. Less prevalent than the traditional harpsichord, the clavicytherium was harder to play and had “a fairly heavy touch and unresponsive action” (Ripin, 1989). Unlike the harpsichord, which relied on gravity to move the jack or plectrum, the clavicytherium needed a spring to assist the movement.

An ‘Arpicembalo’ by Bartolomeo Cristofori, of new invention that produces soft and loud, with two sets of strings at unison pitch, with soundboard of cypress without rose…” The inventory contains a paragraph about an instrument invented by Cristofori called an Arpicembalo. Meaning “harp-harpsichord”, this was the name of Cristofori’s first piano, which eventually became known as pianoforte, meaning soft and loud.

The Arpicembalo remained publicly unknown until Scipione Maffei mentioned the instrument in an article in 1711. By this time, Cristofori had built two more pianos. Unlike harpsichords, whose strings are plucked by a plectrum, Cristofori devised a mechanism using hammers. It was not as simple as replacing the plectrums with hammers, but they also needed to return to their positions after striking the string, allowing it to vibrate. The hammers also let the player rapidly repeat the same note if desired. The strength in which the player pressed the key determined the volume of the sound.

It is difficult to determine what type of strings Cristofori used in his first pianos since they have been lost or destroyed. Over time, the strings in his later pianos have all be replaced due to breakages, wear and tear. Complaints about the Arpicembalo stated it was too “soft” and “dull” in comparison to the much louder harpsichords, suggesting Cristofori used thin strings. On the other hand, it was louder than a clavichord, which until that time had been the only keyboard instrument capable of dynamic nuance concerning the force in which the keys depressed.

Maffei’s article about Cristofori’s Arpicembalo was translated into German in 1725 by the Dresden court poet Johann Ulrich König. As a result, many instrument makers began to replicate Cristofori’s design. Gottfried Silbermann (1683-1753) went one step further, adding a damper-lifting mechanism, which allowed the strings to vibrate freely. This device, the forerunner of the sustain pedal, helped the player to produce a greater variety of tones.

Although instrument makers were quick to take on the new keyboard instrument, composers and musicians were harder to convince. In the early 1730s, Silberman introduced the Arpicembalo to Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) who was less than impressed with the weak tones, which he claimed prevented the instrument from a full dynamic range. Unhappy at receiving criticism, Silberman made adjustments to the mechanisms until they met Bach’s approval in 1747. Advertising it as an “Instrument: piano et forte”, Bach acted as Silberman’s agent, encouraging musicians to adopt the fortepiano. These early instruments are so named to differentiate them from the modern pianoforte developed at the end of the 18th century.

Despite inventing a new instrument, Cristofori’s fame never spread much further than the Medici court. Prince Ferdinando passed away in 1713 at the age of 50, possibly from syphilis, leaving Cristofori without a patron. Fortunately, the prince’s father Cosimo III (1642-1723) appointed Cristofori the custodian of his son’s collection of instruments, thus allowing Cristofori to remain at court. The inventor continued to build pianos until his death on 27th January 1731, aged 75.

Only three pianos or Arpicembalos built by Cristofori exist today, although damages and refurbishments have altered them over time. A Latin inscription proves the authenticity of the instruments. “Bartholomaevs de Christophoris Patavinus Inventor Faciebat Florentiae” is followed by the date in Roman numerals, which translates as “Bartolomeo Cristofori of Padua, inventor, made this in Florence in [date].” 

The oldest of the three instruments was made in 1720 and currently lives in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The cypress and boxwood piano spans three octaves with strings in length from 4.75 inches to 74.25 inches. A new soundboard added in 1938 inadvertently altered the sound of the notes. Denzil Wraight (b.1951), a professional researcher of Italian keyboard instruments, laments that “its original condition … has been irretrievably lost.” Mary Elizabeth Adams (1842-1918), an American curator of musical instruments, donated the piano to the museum.

Although unplayable due to damage caused by worms, the 1722 instrument is the best preserved of the three pianos. The piano, which belongs to the Museo Nazionale degli Strumenti Musicali in Rome, has a range of four octaves and may have once belonged to the Venetian composer Alessandro Ignazio Marcello (1673-1747). The museum claims Cristofori aimed to “give an instrument the speech of the heart, now with the delicate touch of an angel, now with violent eruptions of passions.”

The third piano was built in 1726 and is in the Musikinstrumenten-Museum of Leipzig University. The instrument is currently not playable, but old recordings exist, which give a general sense of how the notes once sounded. The use of cypress for the soundboard produced a warmer, softer sound than modern pianos.

The piano became more prevalent in the late 18th century after piano-making flourished in Vienna. Although piano-makers based their instruments on Cristofori’s designs, they made a few changes, including the colour of the keyboard: black for natural keys and white for the accidentals. Future piano-makers reverted to the original colours. The earliest surviving version of this type of piano, a fortepiano, was built in France by Louis Bas of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon in 1781.

The modern piano began to evolve between 1790 and 1860, the “Mozart-era”. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91) was one of the first composers to write sonatas and concertos specifically for the instrument. Although he died in 1791, his work lived on, inspiring hundreds of other composers, including Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) and Frédéric Chopin (1810-49). 

Beethoven and his tutor Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) were among the first to own a pianoforte or grand piano. Broadwood and Sons, founded by the Scottish manufacturer John Broadwood (1732-1812), constructed these pianos, which were louder, more substantial and ranged over five octaves. They quickly gained a reputation for their instruments and added a sixth octave to the keyboard in 1810. A seventh octave had been added by 1820, and other piano manufacturers began to follow suit. 

London-born Robert Wornum (1780-1852), built the first upright piano in 1811, but his design did not catch on. Modern upright pianos developed from those made by Pleyel et Cie (Pleyel and Company), founded by the composer Ignace Pleyel (1757-1831), in 1815. By 1834, Pleyel was producing 1000 pianos a year and was the preferred manufacturer of French composers such as Chopin, Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921).

Piano-makers continued to improve the instrument throughout the 19th century. Jean-Henri Pape (1789-1875) added felt to the keys and hammers to improve the sound quality. Jean-Baptiste-Louis Boisselot (1782-1847) designed a sostenuto pedal, which sustained only those notes held down when the pedal is depressed, meaning the following notes would not be affected. Not all piano manufacturers adopted this pedal, but the American company Steinway & Sons made it a key feature of their instruments. Steinway pianos tend to have three pedals, the other two being the sustain pedal, which sustains all the notes, and the soft pedal, which produces a duller sound.

Today, there are several types of pianos as a result of the various improvements made over the last two centuries. The grand piano is the closest in appearance to Cristofori’s design in which the strings horizontally extend away from the keyboard. Yet, within this category, there are three types of piano: baby grand, parlour grand and concert grand, each getting progressively bigger.

There are also categories of upright pianos. Console pianos are the shortest, whereas a studio piano is usually between 107 and 114 cm. Although these are both upright pianos, the term usually describes those that are taller than studio versions. Upright pianos tend to be cheaper than grand pianos, and their sound quality is not quite so impressive. It is unusual to see an upright piano in a concert hall, but they are commonplace in churches, schools and homes.

Less common are the specialised pianos developed during the 19th and 20th centuries. These include the toy piano for children, the player piano, which plays itself by reading perforated rolls of paper, and the pedal piano, which resembles an organ. With technological advances, the electric piano arrived in the 1920s, which used metal strings, although it did not sound much like an acoustic piano. The electronic piano of the 1970s was better suited to replicated the timbre of an upright piano and became popular with jazz musicians.

Digital pianos, which appeared on the scene in the 1980s, do not use strings or hammers. Instead, they are fitted with pre-recorded sounds and never need to be tuned. More recent versions have weighted keys and pedals to make them both feel and sound like an acoustic piano. In the 21st century, hybrid versions, which contain both acoustic and digital aspects, have appeared on the market.

It is doubtful Cristofori foresaw the potential of his Arpicembalo, yet it has become the great-great-grandfather of the most versatile instrument in the world. The pianoforte was an essential instrument in the classical era of Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn, as well as the romantic era of Chopin and Debussy. It was a favourite instrument of ragtime composers, which was succeeded by jazz, blues, honky-tonk, folk and rock. 

Unlike orchestral instruments, the piano is polyphonic, meaning it can play more than one melody at the same time. As a result, it is the preferred instrument of composers, even if the final piece of music is for several musicians. The composer can, for example, play melodies and bass lines on the piano to ensure they complement each other.

After Cristofori died, his reputation went into decline; for some time, Gottfried Silbermann was believed to be the inventor of the piano. Careful studies of Cristofori’s instruments in the 20th century proved they predated Silbermann’s pianos. Since then, the credit for inventing the piano is solely with Cristofori, about whom the early-instrument scholar Grant O’Brien has written: “The workmanship and inventiveness displayed by the instruments of Cristofori are of the highest order and his genius has probably never been surpassed by any other keyboard maker of the historical period … I place Cristofori shoulder to shoulder with Antonio Stradivarius [sic].” (Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) was a maker of string instruments.)

Bartolomeo Cristofori di Francesco is arguably the inventor of the best musical instrument ever made. It is only right we remember his name and celebrate his achievements. To quote Grant O’Brien again, “We must treat Cristofori’s instruments with the same respect and admiration that we would treat an instrument by Stradivarius. [sic]”

Beethoven at 250

On 17th December 2020, it will be 250 years since the famous composer Ludwig van Beethoven was baptised as a baby in the Catholic Parish of St. Remigius. In those days, it was custom to baptise babies within 24 hours of birth, so let us celebrate the 250th birthday of the composer and reflect upon the genius of his work, which has survived and remains popular in the 21st century.

Beethoven, named after his grandfather, Ludwig van Beethoven (1712-73), a professional singer and music director, was destined to become a musician. His father, Johann (1740-92) was also a singer and musician who performed in the chapel of the Archbishop of Cologne. His mother, Maria Magdalena Keverich (1746-87) was the daughter of the head chef at the court of the Elector of Trier.

Born on 17th December 1770 in Bonn, Germany, Beethoven was the second of seven children of which only three survived infancy. His younger brother Kaspar (1774-1815) experimented with musical composition but never became famous. Beethoven’s youngest brother, Nikolaus Johann (1776-1848), took a different career path and opened a pharmacy in Linz, Austria.

Beethoven’s father taught the boys to play the piano, and possibly the violin, from the age of five. As he got older, Beethoven received lessons from local musicians on various instruments: organ, piano, violin and viola. Although Beethoven showed considerable musical talents, his tutoring sessions were long and hard, and his teachers strict, often reducing the young boy to tears. Tuition took place at any time of day and night and, on occasion, Ludwig was dragged from his bed in the middle of the night for an impromptu piano lesson.

It was not only the tutors that were harsh on Beethoven. His ambitious father was aware of the young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91) and his sister Nannerl (1751-1829), who were impressing the population of Salzburg, Austria, with their musical talent and youth. When Beethoven made his first public performance at the age of seven, his father claimed he was only six to make his son appear to be as talented as the Mozarts.

At the beginning of the 1780s, Beethoven began studying with the German opera composer and conductor, Christian Gottlob Neefe (1748-98). Principally teaching him to play the piano, Neefe was Beethoven’s most influential tutor during his youth. Beethoven became Neefe’s assistant as an unpaid organist in 1782 but two years later had risen to a paid position at the court chapel.

As well as piano technique, Neefe taught Beethoven about composition. At the age of 11 and 12, Beethoven composed his first keyboard works. The three piano sonatas are known as the Kurfürstensonaten (Elector Sonatas), dedicated to Maximilian Friedrich von Königsegg-Rothenfels (1708-84), the Archbishop-Elector of Cologne and the Bishop of Münster. For such a young composer, Beethoven’s compositions were remarkably mature and gave an early glimpse of his Classical piano talent.

Beethoven … a boy of 11 years and most promising talent. He plays the piano very skilfully and with power, reads at sight very well … the chief piece he plays is Das wohltemperierte Klavier of Sebastian Bach, which Herr Neefe puts into his hands …

Magazin der Musik (1783)

The success of these sonatas gained Beethoven financial support from several people, but between 1785-90 Beethoven disappeared from the limelight. As far as historians are aware, Beethoven did not produce any compositions during this time, most likely as a result of ongoing problems within his family. Beethoven’s mother passed away in 1787 just after he had returned from Vienna where he had heard Mozart play. Being the eldest surviving child, a lot of the family responsibility fell to seventeen-year-old Beethoven.

Complicating things further, Beethoven’s father lost his job due to alcoholism. Although Johann van Beethoven was offered a pension, the money was ordered by the court to be paid directly to Ludwig so that he could look after his younger brothers. This money was not enough to keep the family afloat, so Beethoven had to earn a salary. He achieved this by taking on pupils and playing the viola in the court orchestra. The orchestra played music by several composers, including Mozart, which must have felt like an insult to Beethoven who was brought up to consider Mozart his rival.

Making up for lost time, Beethoven composed several works between 1790 and 1792. Although not published at the time, they show his progression from his first works ten years before. Neefe encouraged Beethoven to take on commissions and introduced him to Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), the Austrian composer, who briefly stayed in Bonn for Christmas in 1790. Beethoven much admired the older composer and Haydn was also impressed with Beethoven’s talents. When Haydn returned to Bonn in 1792, Beethoven was earning money by playing the viola in the court orchestra. Haydn, on the other hand, wished to tutor Beethoven personally and invited him to Vienna. One of Beethoven’s financial supporters, Count Ferdinand von Waldstein (1762-1823) encouraged the proposal, stating: “You are going to Vienna in fulfilment of your long-frustrated wishes … With the help of assiduous labour you shall receive Mozart’s spirit from Haydn’s hands.”

Beethoven arrived in Vienna in November 1792 and devoted himself to study and performance under Haydn’s guidance. He also received tuition from the Austrian violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh (1776-1830) and learnt about composition from the classical composer Antonio Salieri (1750-1825).

Using his connection with Haydn to his advantage, Beethoven developed a reputation as a performer and gained the financial support of several Viennese noblemen, including Prince Joseph Franz von Lobkowitz (1772-1816). By 1793, Vienna knew Beethoven as a piano virtuoso, but he was also an up-and-coming composer.

Beethoven’s first public performance in Vienna took place during March 1795, in which he performed a piano concerto he had written. Dedicating it to one of his patrons, Prince Karl Lichnowsky (1761-1814), Beethoven formerly published the music as a set of trios for piano, violin and cello under the name Opus 1. The profits for this publication was enough to cover Beethoven’s living expenses for a year.

Over the next couple of years, Beethoven published and wrote many concertos and sonatas. By 1799, 28-year-old Beethoven published his thirteenth musical work (Op. 13). Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13, or Sonata Pathétique as it is more commonly known, is one of Beethoven’s most celebrated works, “surpass[ing] any of his previous compositions, in strength of character, depth of emotion, level of originality, and ingenuity of motivic and tonal manipulation.” (Barry Cooper, Beethoven, 2008)

By 1800, Beethoven was the most talented young composer after Haydn and Mozart. The same year, he published his first symphony, which he dedicated to his patron Gottfried van Swieten (1733-1803). The premiere took place at the Burgtheater in Vienna alongside performances of works by Haydn and Mozart. The premiere was hailed “the most interesting concert in a long time” by the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung (General music newspaper). The next year, Beethoven premiered his first ballet The Creatures of Prometheus at the same location.

Following these successes, Beethoven published his second symphony in 1803. The first performance of Symphony No. 2 in D major (Op. 36) took place at the Theater an der Wien in a concert that also featured Beethoven’s third piano concerto (Op. 37) and his only oratorio Christus am Ölberge (Christ on the Mount of Olives, Op.85). The latter, which Beethoven claimed to have written in only two weeks, portrayed the emotional torment Jesus experienced in the Garden of Gethsemane before his crucifixion. Six years later, the oratorio premiered in the United States where it became Beethoven’s first success in America. 

As well as composing, Beethoven worked as a teacher. Ferdinand Ries (1784-1838) and Carl Czerny (1791-1857) are among the more successful of Beethoven’s pupils, but he taught a wide range of students over time, including women. In 1799, Beethoven became the piano tutor of the daughters of Hungarian Countess Anna Brunsvik. During this time, he fell in love with one of the daughters, Josephine (1779-1821), although nothing ever came of the relationship. Nonetheless, letters survive that indicate there may have been a secret romance.

Other letters, however, indicate Beethoven had feelings for another of his students, Countess Julie Guicciardi (1784-1856). Considering himself to be in a lower social class, Beethoven never pursued a relationship, but in 1802 he dedicated his Sonata Op. 27 No. 2 to Julie. After his death, this sonata became better known by the name Moonlight Sonata.

In the early 1800s, Beethoven began to experience hearing loss. At first, he attributed this to a fit he suffered in 1798, after which he struggled with severe tinnitus. From descriptions in letters to his friends and brothers, Beethoven likely had osteosclerosis (abnormal bone growth in the inner ear) and a degenerative auditory nerve.

Beethoven moved to Heiligenstadt on the outskirts of Vienna to come to terms with his diagnosis. Surviving letters suggest Beethoven had mixed feelings about his condition. Mostly, he seemed upbeat, but one letter suggests he once considered suicide. Although Beethoven never became entirely deaf, it became increasingly difficult to play at concerts. As a result, he began to withdraw socially.

Nonetheless, Beethoven did not let his condition prevent him from composing. In a letter to a friend, he stated he would “seize Fate by the throat; it shall certainly not crush me completely.” Beethoven made no secret of his hearing loss, and he could still hear music and voices until around 1812.

Most likely because of his diagnosis, Beethoven’s music style dramatically changed. On his return to Vienna, he told his pupils, “I am not satisfied with the work I have done so far. From now on I intend to take a new way.” This attitude resulted in his Third Symphony in E flat Op. 55, or the Eroica, in 1804. Beethoven initially wrote the symphony with Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) in mind because he admired the ideal of the heroic revolutionary leader. When Napoleon declared himself emperor, Beethoven became disillusioned with the man and renamed the symphony from Intitolata Bonaparte (Titled Bonaparte) to Sinfonia Eroica – composta per festeggiare il sovvenire di un grande Uomo (Heroic Symphony – Composed to celebrate the memory of a great man).

Critics noticed the change in Beethoven’s style. They commented on the dramatic nature of the music, particularly his best-known Symphony No.5 in C Major (Op. 67), which the German author E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822) claimed “sets in motion terror, fear, horror, pain, and awakens the infinite yearning that is the essence of romanticism.”

Up until Beethoven began to experience hearing loss, his income came from composing, teaching and performing. As the latter area became more difficult, Beethoven relied heavily on the publications of his music. Some of Beethoven’s patrons offered him yearly stipends in addition to commissions, and he took on his most prestigious pupil, Archduke Rudolf of Austria (1788-1831), the youngest son of Emperor Leopold II (1747-92). The Archduke and Beethoven soon became firm friends, and Beethoven dedicated a number of his works to Rudolf, including the Archduke Piano Trio (Op. 97).

In 1807, Beethoven’s work began to be published in England, giving him a larger following. Although he was becoming a popular name across the continent, it was not enough to keep him financially stable. Beethoven had suffered financially. He had fallen out of favour at the Theater an der Wien due to new management. Also, the French occupation of Vienna between 1803 and 1806 hindered his compositions.

In 1808, a benefit concert was held for Beethoven to boost his funds. Although it was under rehearsed and inferior to Beethoven’s previous concerts, it introduced some of Beethoven’s new compositions. As well as a performance of his Symphony No.5, the concert premiered Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral” (Op. 68) and the Choral Fantasy “Fantasia” (Op. 80).

The Napoleonic wars limited the number of commissions Beethoven received, but they began to pick up again in 1809 beginning with the incidental music for Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s (1749-1832) play Egmont. Pleased with the result, Beethoven set three of Goethe’s poems to music.

Beethoven fell ill in 1811, suffering headaches and high fevers. Nevertheless, he continued to compose music but moved to the spa town of Teplitz (now in the Czech Republic) on the advice of his doctor. While there, Beethoven had the opportunity to meet Goethe, who wrote  “His talent amazed me; unfortunately he is an utterly untamed personality, who is not altogether wrong in holding the world to be detestable, but surely does not make it any more enjoyable … by his attitude.” Whether Beethoven’s illness or deafness affected his personality is unknown, but Goethe certainly found him despicable. Likewise, Beethoven disliked Goethe’s personality but, putting their differences aside, composed the music for Goethe’s Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt (Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, Op.112).

There is an air of mystery surrounding Beethoven’s personal life, which is heightened by an unsent letter he wrote while staying in Teplitz. Addressed to “Unsterbliche Geliebte” (Immortal Beloved), the letter is scrawled over ten pages and expresses his passionate love for the unknown addressee. Not discovered until after his death, most historians believe the intended recipient was Beethoven’s former pupil Josephine Brunsvik, however, there are many other candidates.

The letter suggests the feelings were mutual, and the debate continues as to the identity of the lady. Beethoven had sent love letters to Josephine in the past, particularly after she became a widow in 1804. She soon married again, but the relationship was strained and worsened over time. Suspicions that she had an affair with Beethoven were raised after the birth of her daughter Minona in 1813 who was born nine months after Josephine had separated from her husband.

Other suggestions for the intended recipient of the letter include former pupil Julie Guicciardi and Josephine’s sister, Therese Brunsvik (1775-1861). Several musicians and singers that worked with Beethoven are also up for debate, for example, Therese Malfatti (1792-1851), an Austrian singer for whom he may have written the piano bagatelle Für Elise – the manuscript was found with her belongings after death.

Beethoven’s love life continues to be a mystery, but no love letters or hints of a relationship seem to occur after 1812. Around this time, Beethoven struggled with his mental and emotional health. His compositions were less frequent, and his physical appearance suffered. Some suggest his failings in love triggered this period, but he was also dealing with a few family issues. His brother Johann was in a relationship with a disreputable woman, which Beethoven tried unsuccessfully to end.

In 1815, his other brother Kaspar passed away from tuberculosis. Both Kaspar’s wife Johanna (1786-1869) and Beethoven became the joint guardians of Kaspar’s son Karl (1806-56), which sparked several legal proceedings. Beethoven wished to place Karl in a private school and, although he eventually won sole custody of his nephew, the legal struggles continued until 1820.

Due to the ongoing problems with his nephew Karl, Beethoven’s output was minimal. He also suffered healthwise with what he called “inflammatory fever”. Between 1815 and 1819, Beethoven’s only works of note were his Hammerklavier Sonata (Op.106) and a musical composition set to poems by Alois Jeitteles (1794-1858).

Evidence suggests Beethoven began working on his ninth symphony in 1818, which coincides with an improvement in health. Unfortunately, his hearing was rapidly deteriorating, making it difficult for him to interact with other people. Several notebooks survive that reveal Beethoven conversed with people through writing rather than speaking. Entire conversations about music, business and personal matters were written out by the participants.

Beethoven rallied in 1819 and was invited by Anton Diabelli (1781-1858) to write a piano variation of his waltz. Other composers invited to do the same included Franz Schubert (1791-1828) and the 8-year-old Franz Liszt (1811-86). The idea was to produce one variation, but Beethoven was determined to outdo the others and composed 20 versions by mid-1819. In total, Beethoven composed 33 variations, known collectively as the 33 Variations on a waltz by Anton Diabelli (Op. 120) or the Diabelli Variations.

As well as the variations, Beethoven was motivated by the promotion of Archduke Rudolf to Cardinal-Archbishop, which he wished to honour with a mass. The result was the Missa solemnis in D major (Op. 123), performed for the first time in Saint Petersburg in 1824. Later that year another performance took place in Vienna along with Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (Op. 125).

Symphony No. 9 in D Major is a choral symphony that continues to be one of the most performed symphonies in the world. The final (4th) movement was based on Friedrich Schiller’s (1759-1805) poem Ode to Joy and lasts about 24 minutes. The premiere was a great success and was conducted by Beethoven even though by that time he could not hear the music.

Beethoven himself conducted, that is, he stood in front of a conductor’s stand and threw himself back and forth like a madman. At one moment he stretched to his full height, at the next he crouched down to the floor, he flailed about with his hands and feet as though he wanted to play all the instruments and sing all the chorus parts.

Joseph Böhm (1795-1876), violinist

Another conductor stood by with a baton to conduct the orchestra and choir properly. As a result, when the music finished, Beethoven was a few bars behind and continued to conduct. The contralto Caroline Unger (1803-77) approached Beethoven and turned him around to face the applauding audience. Although Beethoven could not hear the applause, he could see the standing ovation and the raised hats throughout the audience.

Meanwhile, Beethoven’s health continued to deteriorate, adding rheumatism and jaundice to his list of ailments. Despite this, he continued to compose and publish music. He also reconciled with his brother Johann who became a frequent visitor.

Beethoven continued to receive commissions despite his failing health, including a series of string quartets for Prince Nikolai Galitzin (1794-1866). Beethoven’s favourite was his fourteenth and final string quartet of the series (Op. 131), about which the composers Schubert and Robert Schumann (1810-56) enthused. Schumann said String Quartet No. 14 had a “grandeur … which no words can express,” while Schubert exclaimed, “After this, what is left for us to write?”

Despite being successful in the music world, Beethoven continued to struggle with his family relations. His nephew Karl attempted suicide by shooting himself in the head. Fortunately, he survived and was sent with his uncle to the Austrian village Gneixendorf to recuperate. Whilst there, Beethoven wrote his final major work String Quartet No. 16 in F major (Op. 135), which he dedicated to his patron Johann Wolfmayer.

On his return journey from Gneixendorf in December 1826, Beethoven was taken ill. Doctors noted Beethoven had signs of jaundice, breathing difficulties and severe fluid retention in his limbs. News of his condition spread quickly; he received a large number of visitors, including previous pupils and other composers. Those who could not attend his bedside, for instance, the London Philharmonic Society, sent gifts of money and wine.

On 26th March 1827, Beethoven passed away at the age of 56, leaving his nephew Karl as his sole heir. Anselm Hüttenbrenner (1794-1868), an Austrian composer and friend of Beethoven who was present at his death, reported there was a clap of thunder at 5 pm and “Beethoven opened his eyes, lifted his right hand and looked up for several seconds with his fist clenched … not another breath, not a heartbeat more.” Many people visited Beethoven on his death-bed to pay their respects. An autopsy revealed severe liver damage, likely due to heavy alcohol consumption.

Beethoven’s funeral took place in Vienna on 29th March 1827 and was attended by over 10,000, thus proving how successful he was in life. Franz Schubert was among the torchbearers and, after a requiem mass at the Dreifaltigkeitskirche (Church of the Holy Trinity), they buried Beethoven in the Währing cemetery. His body has since been reinterred in the Vienna Central Cemetery adjacent to Schubert’s grave.

Ludwig van Beethoven continues to rank among the most played classical composers and is one of the most admired musicians in the history of Western music. During his 45 year career, Beethoven wrote over 772 works, including nine symphonies, nine concertos, 16 string quartets, 32 sonatas, and one opera: Fidelio. He lived his life believing “music is a higher revelation than philosophy” and “music should strike fire from the heart of man, and bring tears from the eyes of woman”. For Beethoven, music was life; he will live on through his compositions forever more.

Plaudite, amici, comedia finita est. (Applaud, my friends, the comedy is over.)

Beethoven on his deathbed

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics

opera_crop2

© Victoria and Albert Museum

After the success of Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains, the Victoria and Albert Museum has moved on to a completely different genre of music. Using the newly opened Sainsbury Gallery, the V&A are taking visitors on a journey through four centuries of European history, demonstrating the evolution of opera music and performances leading up to its contemporary interpretations of the 20th and 21st-centuries. Opera: Passion, Power and Politics focuses on seven particular premieres in seven different European cities whilst it not only celebrates the exceptional style of music but explores its effects on society, politics and the changes in the developing world.

In a darkened display room with dramatic lighting, the exhibition weaves through corridors of temporary walls decorated with relevant images, original artworks and a wealth of information. With striking typography, information is presented in an exciting manner, revealing the history of opera and the countries involved.

Opera first came on the scene in Italy during the 17th century, particularly in the cultural city of Venice. Unfortunately, as a result of a plague which killed off 30% of its population, Venice was struggling to maintain its maritime trade and political status. Despite this, it still remained a popular destination for tourists and pleasure seekers, also attracting artists and revolutionaries. Its international status brought a wealth of different cultures to the realm, offering entertainment such as carnivals and gambling.

Initially, opera was a production of spectacular costumes, dances and music, which were put on to impress visiting public figures and to show off the wealth of the theatre owners. The stories acted out were usually mythological retellings that contained parallels with the present day, thus placing current rulers in a positive light. However, in order to boost the Venetian population, opera was opened up to the public as a means of attracting more tourists and visitors.

The first public opera that was not restricted to courtly audiences was L’incoronazione di Poppea, with music composed by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) and a libretto written by Giovanni Francesco Busenello (1598-1659). Premiering at the Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice in 1642, the opera describes the ambition of Poppaea, the mistress of Roman emperor Nero, to be crowned Empress. This was the first opera to recall a historical event rather than a fictionalised story and focused on morality and virtue. Full of problematic characters, it glorified lust and ambition.

2013GP3366

View of Venice, print, Frederick de Wit, Netherlands. Museum no. E.1539-1900. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

From Italy, opera quickly caught on in London due to its influx of foreign visitors. The Reformation during the reign of Henry VIII brought thousands of refugees to the city along with international influences. Covent Garden, in the west end of London, was an artistic community full of coffee houses where many would come to be entertained or partake in political debates. It was only natural for opera to find a home here amongst the existing artists and performers.

As indicated in large letters on the painted walls of the gallery, “G. F. Handel – young German composer takes city by storm”. At the young age of 26, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) composed the music for the first Italian language opera written for the London stage. Translated from Aaron Hill’s (1685-1750) English version by Italian poet Giacomo Rossi, Rinaldo is a story about love, war and redemption set at the time of the First Crusades (1095-99) demonstrating the conflict between the Saracens and Christians. For the English audience, this would have felt familiar after the not so distant antagonism between Catholics and Protestants.

Impressively, Handel composed the music within a couple of weeks and Rinaldo was opened to the public on 24th February 1711 at the Queen’s Theatre in Haymarket. At this point in the exhibition, the V&A excels itself with a scenographic wooden installation representing part of the 18th-century theatre. A short puppet-like show performs intermittently whilst visitors listen to Il Vostro Maggio – an aria performed by mermaids during Act II of Rinaldo – on headsets provided by the museum.

As with any innovation, opera received its fair share of criticism from the public and became a topic of debate in the neighbouring coffee houses. The artist William Hogarth (1697-1764) illustrated the fears many had about the foreign genre becoming a threat to traditional British Theatre, particularly Shakespeare. These etchings are displayed as part of the exhibition.

The V&A fast forwards seventy-five years to Vienna where another young musician is making his name known. This was, of course, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91). In the late 1700s, Vienna was the heart of European music and opera, which was encouraged by the “musical king” Emperor Joseph II of Habsburg (1749-90).

The philosophical movement, known as the Enlightenment (or the “Age of Reason”), was changing the way Europeans thought, particularly in regard to individual rights. This, along with the Vienesse love of music, made Vienna the perfect location to perform Mozart’s society-questioning opera Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro).

Le Nozze di Figaro is a comic opera in four acts with an Italian libretto. It contains a range of characters from all classes of society and radically gives servants a central role. Previously, domestic workers were absurd figures to be laughed at, whereas this opera tells the story of Figaro and Susanna, two servants who succeed in getting married despite the corrupt efforts of their philandering employer.

“O, my homeland, so beautiful and lost! O memories, so dear and yet so deadly!”

Hebrew Chorus, Nabucco

The exhibition moves on to Milan, which in the 1840s was still under Austrian rule. Throughout the 19th century, the political and social movement Risorgimento or Italian Unification was gradually reunifying Italian states to consolidate the Kingdom of Italy. The famous opera house La Scala was often used as a venue for political discussion about independence and, therefore, was an ideal location for the first performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s (1813-1901) Nabucco.

Based on the biblical books of Jeremiah and Daniel, Nabucco follows the plight of the Jews facing abuse from the Babylonian King Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar II). Despite the historical context, the audience would have been able to relate to the passion about national identity and fight for freedom, thus strengthening their own resolve.

With the rise of Nationalism affecting many European countries, new operatic styles began to develop. Two examples appeared in France in the mid-19th century, “Opéra Comique” and “Grand Opéra”. The former was an amalgamation of spoken word with sung arias and became popular with the public. The latter combined expressive scenery, singing and ballet. Richard Wagner’s (1813-83) Tannhäuser followed the form of Grand Opéra, however, he began to challenge tradition by blending orchestra and voice instead of having several different aria performances.

Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg, to use its full title, was first performed at the Parisian Théâtre le Peletier on 13th March 1861 much to the delight of radical thinkers. It was not only Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk (all-embracing art form) that upset the traditional audience, it was the choice of themes. Sexuality, spirituality and personal struggle were concepts that disagreed with bourgeois tastes. Tannhäuser combines two legends and focuses on the struggle between sacred and sacrilegious love, naturally causing much discomfort amongst spectators.

It is the 20th century that really radicalised the opera genre, as graphically demonstrated in this exhibition. New ideas in psychology and feminism brought new themes for composers to experiment with, much to the audience’s dismay. In Dresden, the Fin de siècle culture was changing the perceptions of women, an attribute that Richard Strauss (1864-1949) took hold of and ran with it his psycho-sexual opera, Salome. The Semperoper opened the revolutionary opera in 1905 with an orchestra of over one hundred instruments. Salome only lasts for one act, but the snippet the V&A shows on a digital screen suggests this is more than enough – particularly for those with a more sensitive stomach.

“Salomania” had affected artists and poets for a number of years before Strauss brought it to the opera house. Salome is the biblical character best known for her desire for the decapitated head of John the Baptist. The “Dance of the Seven Veils” at the end of the story – a term first used by Oscar Wilde – contains erotic dancing and copious amounts of (fake) blood. Strauss’s version of Salome emphasises the passion and hysteria in the women contesting their suppressed status at the beginning of the 1900s.

The final destination on the V&A’s opera tour is Leningrad at the commencement of Stalin’s dictatorship. With avant-garde experiments being all the rage, the young Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75) composed his Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District sharing the writing of the libretto with Alexander Preys (1905-42). Based on a novella by Nikolai Leskov (1831-95), the opera covers themes of rural life, adultery and murder (obviously, since it is derived from the original Shakespearean character).

A common theme between the seven operas explored by the V&A is the discomfort and unrest they caused for some of the spectators. This was no different for Lady Macbeth, however, the person it upset the most was the infamous Stalin who only wanted Socialist Realism depicted in any art form. The heroine did not match Stalin’s ideal Soviet woman, therefore Shostakovich’s opera was condemned to political censorship.

Comparing the first public opera, L’incoronazione di Poppea, with this 20th-century composition goes to show the major metamorphosis the genre has undergone in a period of 400 years. The V&A have presented this exhibition in an outstanding way, combining visual and audio to creates a seamless journey from 1642 to 1934.

Paintings from well-known artists provide glimpses into the way opera goers dressed and behaved in the past centuries, which gradually transform to photographic examples as the exhibition nears its end. Objects from original manuscripts and Mozart’s piano, to modern stage props, are located around the exhibition, adding to the historical aspect and providing more to look at than screens and walls.

Before the exit, although accessible from other areas of the gallery, is a large space full of enormous screens showing clips from a range of operas. With the audio headset, visitors can pick up the music and sit and listen to the various compositions. This video-audio experience uses a selection of 20th and 21st-century operas to quickly take viewers from its origins in Renaissance Europe to the global phenomenon it is today.

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics is an extraordinary feat on behalf of the V&A. The amount of time, effort and research that has gone into its construction is evident in the amazing outcome. Educational from both a historical and political perspective, this exhibition will excite opera fans and interest those that are new to the genre – although not suitable for younger visitors.

After attending this exhibition, opera will no longer merely be a form of entertainment. Who knew how political and socially challenging a seemingly harmless production could be? Opera: Passion, Power and Politics certainly challenges opinions and reveals that it is not only about music and singing.

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics is on now until Sunday, 25 February 2018. Tickets are £19.00 and advance booking is recommended.