When Beethoven Traded Despair for Triumph

Apr 30, 2017

It was the fall of 1802 when Ludwig van Beethoven confessed his nearly fatal despair about his growing deafness, in what’s now known as his "Heiligenstadt Testament." His music then took a daring new turn. WRTI’s Susan Lewis talks with conductor Michael Tilson Thomas about Beethoven's Symphony No. 3, "Eroica."

Radio script:

[Music: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, "Eroica" ]

Susan Lewis: Having spent months in the village of Heiligenstadt outside Vienna, Beethoven wrote of being on “the verge of despair,” unable to hear a flute in the distance or a shepherd singing—with only his art saving him from thoughts of suicide. Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas.

Michael Tilson Thomas: He realized he could communicate with his music in a way that transcended speech. And he also decided to be, as a composer, as bold as he had been for some time as an improviser in the years before that.

[Music: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, "Eroica" ]

Michael Tilson Thomas

SL: The very next year, he wrote his 3rd Symphony—"Eroica."  Instead of following the conventional form of theme, development, and recapitulation, Beethoven brought back the theme changed. It was an unusual musical commentary, says Tilson Thomas, on the realities of life.

MTT: You experience certain things, then you live through a period of travail, searching, development in your life. Then, even if those same ideas come back, they are not the same; they cannot be the same. You can never be the same.

The experiences you have do change you. That was psychologically a very revolutionary step for  a composer to take, in imaging that a piece of music could represent life in that way.

SL: Despite his deafness, Beethoven wrote six more symphonies, and a multitude of other works. The Heiligenstadt Testament was discovered only after he died.

On Sunday, May 7th at 1 pm on WRTI, Michael Tilson Thomas leads the Philadelphia Orchestra in a program featuring Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony.